Learning to Compete, Lead, and Give Back with Coach Fran O’Brien

Recently, I attended the visitation in Reading, Massachusetts for Francis O’Brien, my college baseball coach at MIT.[1]In his eulogy, Kevin, the oldest of Coach O’Brien’s five children, said, “As Jackie Robinson said, ‘A life is not important except in the impact it has on others.’ My father took this message to heart.”

When Coach O’Brien arrived at MIT in 1969, he inherited a no scholarship team expecting to lose. During my senior year in 1993, Coach led us to a record-setting, championship season that inspired stories and a book, Beaverball. In honor of Coach O’Brien, this post includes excerpts and examples of his leadership, humor, toughness, and how he and his family impacted me and many others.

Meeting Coach

I first met Coach O’Brien during a trip to visit colleges in Massachusetts after my junior year in high school. When I entered his office, Coach O’Brien sprang up from behind his desk and greeted me with an energetic two-handed handshake. Coach looked the part of the long-time baseball coach with silvery hair and tan skin. However, his most distinctive features were his smiling green-grey eyes and sharp nose. His face beamed charisma and you could just as easily picture him managing a Major League Baseball team as you could coaching college players.

Communicate Expectations and Listen

Coach established his expectations with the team from the start. “Go take care of your school commitments first. And if you need to talk about school, or anything else, my door is always open.” 

One time, in the spring of my sophomore year, I visited Coach to talk about school. Coach listened and his eyes smiled, and then he said, “Remember, Brooks, this is one of the toughest schools in the country. You worked hard to get here. Now keep doing what you’re doing, guy, and go get that degree!”

During my years on the team, there had always been a steady stream of players strolling down the second floor hall of the MIT Athletic Department in Rockwell Gym headed for Coach’s office. Often Coach would be listening to a player frustrated by school or trying to work through a decision associated with a job, grad school, or a relationship. Players cycled in and out, and Coach always put down his pencil and held his calls. In the end, his most valuable gift to us may have been his sympathetic ear.

Toughen Up and Expect to Win

Coach told me once that the biggest adjustment for him at MIT was the attitudes of the players. When he arrived in 1969, he inherited a baseball team that batted .196 in 1968. He would get angry and yell, and players would say, “Relax Coach, we’re supposed to lose.” Coach did not like that one bit, so he focused on clearly communicating his expectations and creating a winning attitude. You arrived at practice and games ready to play and expecting to win.  

For years, Coach cultivated competitiveness in MIT baseball players. In 2000, he shared a story with me about how he knew his teams were getting tougher. One weekday afternoon in the 1970s, the baseball team was practicing while a bunch of local guys were playing an informal soccer game in deep left field. Coach approached the group and asked, “Hey, could you guys clear the field and come back after our practice?” 

One of the soccer players looked directly at Coach and pulled a knife out. While startled, Coach, held his ground. Suddenly, the guy turned and started running away. Coach, impressed with himself, thought, “Hey, I’ve still got it!”

Then Coach turned around and saw the entire baseball team sprinting toward him, bats in hand, ready to back him up. He didn’t realize they were there, but he was proud of the way they had responded. 

Stay Positive and Optimistic

Coach O’Brien founded The Friends of MIT Baseball to help finance team travel and field maintenance. He organized alumni baseball games and kept former players updated with annual newsletters. Like Coach, the newsletters were enthusiastic and optimistic, regardless the level of talent in the program.

For example, the 1984 newsletter opened with “We are so close to having an outstanding opportunity for raising a little hell with New England college baseball…If enthusiasm and dedication are necessary ingredients, then this team should fly early.” That team ended up winning seven games and losing 11.

In 1990, following a 1989 team that had gone 17-12 and earned a bid to the NCAA tournament, the newsletter said, “As we all know, getting to the top is a difficult process for any team…but staying on top in 1990 is the real challenge for this year’s team.” That year, my freshman season, saw nine wins and 16 losses. When former players get together, we relive our struggles to remain competitive and, through the fog of memory, call them “good times.”

Learning to Hit with Kevin O’Brien

Our team loved it when Kevin O’Brien, Coach’s son, came to our practices. He was a taller, leaner version of Coach, with the same smiling eyes and a sharper version of the O’Brien nose. And Kevin knew hitting. He had a detailed understanding of the batting stroke and worked with what we had to help us get better. He didn’t say, “Too bad you have a crappy swing.” Rather, he’d say, “Okay, you’ve got good balance there. Now let’s focus on those hands.”  

Kevin always left us mentally ready to step into the box to take good hacks. He boosted your confidence at the plate. And for hitters, belief in yourself was everything.

Like Coach, Kevin had played college ball at Tufts where he was a two-time team captain. In 1978, Kevin led the nation in hitting, batting .484. After Tufts, Kevin played minor league ball with the New York Yankees. Later, he worked as a scout and instructor with the Toronto Blue Jays. To this day, he runs hitting camps around Massachusetts, and the name says it all: The Sweet Swing Hitting Academy.

Together

At the end of each practice, Coach gathered the players around him. He looked around the circle and often shared a message like, “What night is tonight? Friday night. Go out, relax, have a good time. But be focused. We start tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. Not 9:35. Not 9:45. 9:30.” He had a captive audience and got his point across. Then, we would put our hands in the middle of the circle and say in unison, “Together!” 

Legacy

This idea of expecting to win and pushing a team past where it might be comfortable was powerful. It changed the conversation from drowning in an opponent’s supposed superiority to focusing on our strengths relative to their weaknesses. Coach taught us to think, “What could we do to put ourselves in a position to be successful?” With strong pitching and error-free defense, games remained close. And when games remained close, anything was possible, no matter how good the opponent or how big the challenge. I believe that to this day.

I remembered this lesson after starting Forisk Consulting, my forestry research business. At first, my team often asked, “How can we bid on projects against larger, more established firms?” But for me the question was, and is, different. I constantly ask, “How do we demonstrate to potential clients our ability to add value?” To do this, we write articles, publish research, and teach courses. Each of these activities builds credibility, strengthens skills, and, ultimately, grows the business. Gradually, after two years of struggling to meet payroll, the phone started ringing.  

Through practices and games at MIT, Coach emphasized key lessons: work hard on the things we can control, be mentally ready to perform every day, expect to succeed, and have fun. Coach always told us, “You have to give something back to the game.” Many of us went on to coach little league teams and volunteer in our communities and support the MIT baseball program as alumni. Coach not only graduated improved baseball players, but he also graduated player-coaches who valued integrity, professionalism, and fair play. Coach O’Brien developed leaders.


[1] His obituary is available here: https://www.legacy.com/us/obituaries/bostonglobe/name/francis-o-brien-obituary?id=36769001

1 Comment

  1. A wonderful essay by someone whose own experiences validate what athletics at the college level —and at any level, for that matter are all about. Athletics are are about building people and building teams of people that come to understand not only their individual strengths but how those strengths contribute to the success of the team. Jackie Robinson was right! Fortunate are those who come in contact with the Coach O’Briens of the world!

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