Bill OBrien or Brian Kelly. Brian Kelly or Bill OBrien.
One leafy New England campus struggles with selecting its college football coach of the year.
To St. Johns (Mass.) Prep athletic director/football coach Jim OLeary, OBrien and Kelly arent big-time coaches vying for multiple corporate-sponsored Division I coaching awards.
OLeary remembers OBrien, who guided an 8-4 Penn State team handling major NCAA sanctions, as a bullish center/defensive tackle who helped coach St. Johns freshmen team before enrolling at Brown University.
OLeary remembers Kelly, whose 12-0 Notre Dame team meets Alabama in next months BCS championship game, as an undersized linebacker/guard willing to perform any role.
OBrien graduated from St. Johns in 1989. OLeary was his head coach.
Kelly graduated 10 years earlier. OBrien was his position coach.
To us, they are the same people they were as kids, whether they were the 50th man on the team or a starter, OLeary said. They had great friends here. They were great teammates. They were both hard-nosed Irish kids who were very competitive and both very, very bright.
The coaches are products of a driven environment.
St. Johns, an all-male schools 15 miles northeast of Boston, draws students from more than 50 New England cities and towns. OBriens hometown of Andover, Mass., and Kellys hometown of Chelsea, Mass., are separated by 25 miles.
St. Johns had 800 boy when Kelly graduated, according to OLeary. The number swelled to 1,000 by OBriens senior year. Current enrollment exceeds 1,100.
The football programs is large and successful. OLeary and his staff coach 220 players. St. Johns won a state title this year.
Classes are difficult. OLeary calls Ivy League schools his programs bread and butter, meaning recruiters from places such as Brown, Harvard and Yale frequently visit his office.
Students from various backgrounds roam the halls despite annual tuition rates approaching $20,000.
A lot of people make a lot of sacrifices to send their kids here, OLeary said.
The majority of the schools students are Irish-Catholic. Organizing students by last name can be difficult.
There are a lot of OLearys, OBriens and Kellys hanging around here, OLeary said.
OLeary and Central Florida coach George OLeary were fraternity brothers at the University of New Hampshire. George OLeary gave OBrien his first opportunity to work at a major college, offering him a graduate assistant spot at Georgia Tech in 1995. Penn State hired OBrien as Paternos permanent successor last January.
Jim OLeary imagines OBrien receives attention throughout Pennsylvania. OBrien, who maintains a low away-from-football profile, dazzled classmates when he became the New England Patriots offensive coordinator. Bostons main media outlets devote the majority of their time and space to professional sports.
It was probably a bigger deal around here when he was the offensive coordinator of the Patriots because we are a Patriots town, OLeary said. I would imagine hes like the rock star in Pennsylvania when he goes to places. When you are the offensive coordinator and Tom Brady is the quarterback when you walk around Massachusetts, its the same way.
Kellys situation is somewhat different. New Englands demographics make the Fighting Irish the regions most popular college program.
Everybody knows Brian because its a national job and so high profile, OLeary said.
Both coaches remain connected to St. Johns. When St. Johns played in the 2010 state final in Gillette Stadium, the New England Patriots home, OBrien welcomed the team to the complex. OBrien also made unannounced appearances at playoff basketball games.
Kelly returned home for a St. Johns alumni event last spring. Before the formal ceremony, Kelly attended a reception with former classmates and teammates.
He was just Brian Kelly again, OLeary said. He wasnt Brian Kelly, the head coach at Notre Dame. And Billy is the same way. Hes unassuming. He has a sincere interest in how our kids are doing and how our teams are doing.
The duo scrapped their way to the top of the profession. OBrien coached fellow teenagers after graduating high school and waded through low-paying assistant coaching jobs after earning an Ivy League degree. Kelly played linebacker for Assumption (Mass.) Colleges club team. He then accepted a low-level assistant coaching job, helping Assumption transition from the club to Division III level.
No matter how many games or coaching awards they win, they are the same driven teenagers who once walked a respected schools fields and halls and received instructions from the same man.
They are Prep guys, OLeary said.
Guy Cipriano covers Penn State football for the Centre Daily Times. He can be reached at 231-4643 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cdtguy.