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Ohio State’s Jim O’Brien

December 19, 2002 Columns No Comments

Ohio State’s Jim O’Brien – One of the good guys.

by Michael Ermitage

He’s a soft-spoken guy. Not like Big Ten-brethren Gene Keady or Tom Izzo. His composed sideline personality is as even and pleasing as his dark suits. And his white-as-notebook paper smile instantly conveys an easiness that makes you think of ’50s television dads. But in this world of sound bytes and highlight packages, nobody knows of Ohio State head coach Jim O’Brien.

O’Brien has matter-of-factly directed Ohio State to two Big Ten championships and one Final Four in his five years in Columbus. He’s done this without marquee talent, or without much talent at all. He has two former players in the NBA – Michael Redd and Ken Johnson. In the grand barometer of coaching, O’Brien scores highly, getting the most out of little.

Few have noticed O’Brien’s quiet success. Perhaps coaching basketball in football-crazed Ohio has diminished the luster. Or maybe it is the lack of star power on the club the keeps O’Brien a relative character actor in college basketball’s big-budget film. Maybe it’s the lack of gel in his hair, or the lack of designer labels on his suits. Whatever the case may be, O’Brien’s ability to succeed without much fanfare at Ohio State, is just one small detail.

Beyond win/loss records (O’Brien is 102-57 at OSU going into this season), the Buckeye coach is a good guy. A poster boy for what college athletics are all about. He brings in marginal to good players, makes them better, makes them champions, helps them get their education, and teaches them that life is more than hardwood and nets, more than Sportscenter and video games. O’Brien does this by example.

The slender, graying O’Brien was a better than average player when he played for Bob Cousy and Chuck Daly at Boston College in the late ’60s and early ’70s. He was team captain, and still holds the Eagle record for assists in a single game and was named to two Boston College all-decade teams. He never let his on-the-court success interrupt his off-the-court concentration, earning the University’s scholar-athlete award as a senior. That dedication to the classroom has not waned; instead O’Brien has forced that academia-first mindset on his players. As a result, all 30 players that have completed their eligibility under O’Brien have left Ohio State with their degrees.

In addition to instilling academics as a priority with his players, O’Brien has also focused on the community. Since arriving in Columbus, he has made himself a part of 13 charitable organizations. He is an active contributor to the American Red Cross, the Children’s Hospital, the Ronald McDonald House, March of Dimes, Easter Seals, Huntington’s Disease, Buckeye Ranch, James Cancer Hospital, Koger for Kids, and the Parkinson’s, Diabetes and Make a Wish foundations.

For his work around the community, O’Brien was recently awarded the OSU Distinguished Service Award. The award was presented by a fraternity on the Ohio State campus and after giving a speech to accept the award, one Buckeye student summed it up best, “Coach O’Brien exemplifies everything an Ohio State coach or staff member associated within the university should embody,” said Blair Zackon. “Everything he mentioned can be pointed toward good life lessons. Having him speak to us in such an intimate setting was inspirational to a lot of us.”

The Buckeyes entered the 2002-2003 season as a Big Ten afterthought. And the team’s early-season performances have not proven the critics wrong . . . yet. However, it is not wise to ever dismiss a Jim O’Brien-coached basketball team. And it is even more foolish to ever dismiss Jim O’Brien.


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