Jim O’Brien, former D1 coach, to head basketball team

by Evan Sporer / Beacon Staff • September 8, 2011

When Emerson hired Jim O’Brien to become the new men’s basketball coach on March 17, it hired a coach that had already spent time in the gym with Emerson basketball players.

With the start of the 2011 season, O’Brien will make the move from the bleachers to the bench.

O’Brien, who spent years as the head coach of Division 1 teams Boston College and Ohio State, has not coached since 2004, when he was fired from Ohio State and given a ban from NCAA coaching over alleged recruiting violations.

O’Brien’s coaching status was reinstated in 2008, and while he wasn’t on the sideline, he said he was attending Divison 3 games to watch his former colleagues coach. One of those colleagues included Tom Devitt, current men’s basketball head coach at Wentworth Institute of Technology, and a former assistant of O’Brien’s at Boston College.

During that time O’Brien got a chance to see Emerson play.

But O’Brien said he wasn’t just going to settle for any job to get back into coaching.

“At this stage in my life I was interested in Division 3,”  O’Brien said. “Maybe 100 years ago when I started doing this, I would be looking for the next step up the ladder. But this is it for me.”

O’Brien said he received calls from a few Division 3 coaches who knew he was interested in retuning to the sideline.

“Flattered. Really excited,” said Athletic Director Kristin Parnell of the news that O’Brien was interested in coming to Emerson. “Immediately we saw the impact he could make on the entire athletic program.”

When the job opened up, however, which O’Brien estimated was mid January, Emerson was only looking for an interim coach, a position he was unable to fill.

“I had just got married in September and was committed to going to Florida for a few months,” O’Brien said. “Then the conversation evolved into, ‘what are you going to do with the full-time job?’”

O’Brien, a Back Bay resident, cited Emerson’s proximity, as well as its commitment to academics, that made the school a great fit for him.

“The focus here is on what’s supposed to be the right reasons,” O’Brien said. “Kids are getting into the school on their own merits.”

Division 3 athletic programs, like Emerson’s, are not permitted to give out athletic scholarships. While O’Brien was coaching at Boston College and Ohio State, some of his players were accepted to their schools because of their athletic talents.

While he wasn’t coaching, O’Brien was fighting a legal battle with Ohio State, which he said left a, “bitter taste in [his mouth].”

But O’Brien did not stay away from basketball completely. The Brooklyn native spent some of his time working with the Boston Scholar Athlete program, traveling to inner city Boston high schools supporting coaches and academic achievement through athletics.

Helping out players in the Scholar Athlete program, O’Brien was still on the hardwood, doing what he said he loves.

“I was officially retired,” he said. “About three years ago I was offered a job with the Celtics. I turned it down. The idea that I can actually walk to work was a huge bonus.”

O’Brien brings to Emerson a wealth of coaching experience. In 1999, he led Ohio State to the NCAA Final Four, where his Buckeyes lost to the eventual champion University of Connecticut. During that time, he coached former NBA All Star and USA Basketball player Michael Redd.

Now at Emerson, in his first stint coaching Division 3, O’Brien acknowledged a change in culture.

“It’s not going to be about basketball after this,” O’Brien said of his players, who unlike in his previous coaching stints, will not be leading players with professional aspirations.

When the new coach first came to campus in June, he said a number of players had already left, and he has still yet to meet some of them.

“I’m trying to figure out who they are,” he said. “I’m certain they are trying to figure out who the hell I am.”

Sporer can be reached at evan_sporer@emerson.edu. Follow him on Twitter @ev_sporer.