Photo: Caitlin Cunningham

Welcome to Chestnut Hill, Bill O’Brien

He grew up rooting for the Eagles. Now he's Boston College’s new football head coach.

On a brisk Saturday afternoon in mid-November more than forty years ago, thirteen-year-old Bill O’Brien stood in Alumni Stadium, celebrating an eighty-yard touchdown pass thrown by quarterback Doug Flutie on Boston College’s opening play against Holy Cross. As O’Brien cheered, many in the sellout crowd began tossing tangerines onto the field, an exuberant response from students who had learned that week that the Eagles would play Auburn in the Tangerine Bowl.

That, O’Brien recently recounted, was his first memory of BC football. “We were a football family, and my dad loved college football,” recalled O’Brien, who grew up in Andover, Massachusetts. “He loved watching BC.” So even though O’Brien wound up playing for Brown University, the news in February that he’d been named BC’s new head football coach represented a homecoming of sorts. “I always dreamed about being the head coach at Boston College,” he said at the press conference announcing his hiring.

O’Brien wasn’t the only one celebrating the news that he was taking over for Jeff Hafley, who’d led the Eagles to a disappointing 21–26 record over four seasons before departing to become defensive coordinator for the NFL’s Green Bay Packers. “There’s no better fit for Boston College than Bill O’Brien,” Boston College Athletic Director Blake James said. “He was our number one choice every step of the way. I wanted a winner, and we got a winner.”

BC fans were equally thrilled. “First great [football] news coming out of the Heights in years,” one fan commented on an article about the hiring. He was hardly alone. As another commenter put it, “Looks like BC FINALLY got it right. Hiring O’Brien was a no-brainer.”

His resume certainly suggests as much. O’Brien, now fifty-four, started his coaching career at Brown before moving on to positions at Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, the University of Maryland, and Duke. In 2007, he joined Bill Belichick’s staff with the New England Patriots, staying with the team for five seasons. He was then named head coach at Penn State, where he helped to return the legendary football program to competitiveness and was named Big Ten Coach of the Year. In 2014, he was introduced as head coach of the NFL’s Houston Texans, stayed with the team until 2020, and then spent two years as offensive coordinator at the University of Alabama before being hired for the same job with the Patriots in 2023.

O’Brien was set to become the offensive coordinator at Ohio State this season, but he was elated to have the opportunity to instead come to BC—and for reasons beyond coaching. Both O’Brien and his wife have family in the Boston area, but more important, their oldest son, who suffers from a brain malformation, receives world-class medical care in the city. Taking the BC job not only allowed O’Brien to coach the program he grew up rooting for,  it also meant he and his family could abandon their plans to live apart while he coached Ohio State and they remained in Massachusetts.

For all his coaching experience, the landscape has changed significantly since O’Brien was last a college head coach. In 2021, the NCAA approved a policy that allows student athletes to be compensated for commercial use of their name, image, and likeness. The new “NIL” policy has effectively set off bidding wars by schools competing to attract the best players. At the same time, new rules have made it far easier for players to transfer from one program to another. It may be a new world, but O’Brien insisted that he’s ready for it. “I embrace that challenge,” he said. “It’s a part of our game, and NIL is not going anywhere.” On the field, O’Brien intends to construct a tough, hard-nosed squad that stays disciplined and plays as a team.

Since joining BC, O’Brien has been getting to know his new home by exploring the campus, watching the school’s other athletic teams, and attending Mass every Sunday morning at St. Joseph’s, St. Mary’s, or, sometimes, St. Ignatius. He’s also learned plenty about Boston College’s culture through his wife, Colleen, a 1992 BC graduate, who is “pretty well-versed in football ... She’ll want to have a game review when I get home [each week], but that’s the way that it’s always been,” O’Brien said with a smile. “It’ll probably be a little more intense now because this is her school.” In that respect, O’Brien’s new job is a fitting culmination of a love affair with the maroon and gold that began all those decades ago in Alumni Stadium. This, at last, is now his school, too. ◽