Sports, Football, Fall

Ott: Assessing BC Football’s Future Under Bill O’Brien

Four years ago, former Boston College football head coach Jeff Hafley walked out onto the ice during a BC men’s hockey game and asked a sold-out Conte Forum to “get in.” Four seasons, 22 wins, and 26 losses later, Hafley got out. Good riddance. 

Hafley’s unexpected, late-offseason departure left BC scrambling. Traditionally, departing NCAA head coaches are harbingers of player and staff exodus, and the evening of Hafley’s departure, BC fans braced themselves for a bumpy week. 

But the day after the head-coaching shakeup, quarterback Thomas Castellanos took to social media to announce his intention to remain at BC. Nearly the rest of the team followed suit. Only two Eagles have entered the transfer portal since the end of Hafley’s tenure.

Almost exactly four years after Hafley introduced himself to BC fans at Conte Forum, a new face walked out onto the ice Friday night. Bill O’Brien is BC football’s new head coach, and if seven years of NFL head-coaching experience, side-by-side work with some of the biggest names in football, and all of Conte Forum on its feet in applause is any indication, that’s a good thing. 

Coaching Outlook

O’Brien has succeeded as a head coach before. He is one of the most prominent offensive minds of the generation, and he will likely be a better all-around coach than Hafley. 

His most relevant experience came with the Houston Texans, where O’Brien posted a winning record in five of his six full seasons. He made the playoffs in four of those seasons and left with a .520 all-time winning percentage. The Texans did not make the playoffs in the 2020, 2021, and 2022 seasons following his departure. 

Despite his success, O’Brien did not leave Houston on his own terms. Still, his termination was not a result of poor coaching. Instead, it came after he was given general manager powers in 2020. With full control over the organization, O’Brien made a series of retrospectively poor decisions that led to his firing. If O’Brien had never become an NFL general manager, he likely would still be an NFL head coach. 

The most immediately intriguing effect of O’Brien’s coaching will be on Castellanos’ play in 2024. The BC quarterback rushed for 1,113 yards in 2023, good for second in the NCAA among quarterbacks. Though he brought the team to highs like the Fenway Bowl victory over No. 17 SMU, Castellanos’ resume is not perfect. 

Though he makes up for it with his legs, Castellanos has yet to prove whether his arm talent is up to par with the rest of the NCAA. In 2023, he was only the 89th most efficient passer in the NCAA. Similarly, he was 82nd in passing yards per game and tied for fourth most interceptions in college football. Though not ideal under Hafley, these numbers represent the perfect project for O’Brien. 

Hafley’s specialty was defense. O’Brien’s specialty is offense. Specifically, he specializes in quarterbacks. In New England, he worked one-on-one to develop Tom Brady as quarterback coach. In Houston, he oversaw Deshaun Watson’s introduction to the NFL and development into one of its most talented quarterbacks. 

Castellanos will undoubtedly be approaching this offseason with the goal of working on his passing. He is already an elite runner. If O’Brien can turn him into an elite passer, it is not an exaggeration to say that Castellanos’ name will be in Heisman conversations. 

Recruiting Outlook

In the modern era with the rise of NIL and the transfer portal, the mantle of head coach increasingly means recruiter first, play-caller second. O’Brien has been around college football programs enough in recent years to realize this, serving as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Alabama from 2021–23. Still, recruiting at BC is not recruiting at Alabama. The Eagles do not have the resources, money, or reputation O’Brien benefited from while with the Crimson Tide. 

Hafley didn’t prove much while with the Eagles, but, in his early years, he did show that the school is not impossible to draw recruits to. His recruiting classes grew increasingly worse across his years, but the 2021 class was solid, all things considered. Ranked at No. 37 in the nation, Hafley brought in three four-star recruits and multiple three-stars. It was just one year, but it’s proof BC isn’t the least desirable place to play football. 

O’Brien may have limited experience as a recruiter, but he does have name recognition. He has had a successful career as a coach and mentored a slew of the most talented people to ever play the game. O’Brien is a coach people want to play for. This will be his biggest asset in recruiting. The non-exodus in the transfer portal may in fact be a sign BC players are looking forward to playing for O’Brien. Few high school quarterback prospects would pass up the opportunity to play under the man who helped blaze the path for Brady early in his career. If he struggles to win at BC, O’Brien will struggle to recruit. Early on, however, he should have no problem attracting talent. 

Long-Term Outlook

The one major red flag mark surrounding O’Brien’s hiring has nothing to do with how well he will do as head coach. Instead, it is unclear how long he will do it for. Traditionally, young rising coaching stars have used programs like BC as launchpads for their careers. A few winning seasons for a head coach at a mid-tier program proves to the world that you have what it takes. Hafley didn’t quite prove this, but even he left BC for what could be considered a promotion. BC is not a school where ambitious head coaches traditionally hunker down for long, winning careers. Under normal circumstances, O’Brien could be expected to see one-to-two winning seasons at BC, max. If he was 20 years younger than he is and lacked ties to the New England area, there would be no reason to think his tenure would surpass that. Fortunately for the Eagles, there’s reason to believe he might be in it for the long haul.

O’Brien is 54 years old. That isn’t quite retirement territory, but it might be past career-reinvention age. O’Brien is not a young coach looking to prove himself at BC—he has already done that. If he wanted the job solely because he planned to jump to the NFL at the first opportunity, he could have stayed at Ohio State in the prestigious offensive coordinator position.

Coaching in Boston is also a conscious choice for O’Brien. He was born in Boston and grew up in Massachusetts. Further, he has two sons living in the Boston area. One son, Michael, committed to Tufts in 2023 to play baseball. His other son, Jack, is reportedly receiving treatment for a neurological condition in Boston. It is not far-fetched to say that his children are part of why he accepted the offensive coordinator position with the Patriots last year and the job with BC this year. O’Brien wants to be in Boston, his home, with his two kids.

He has already proved that he can win in both college and the NFL, so odds are he can win at BC, too. Of everyone who reportedly interviewed for the BC job, O’Brien was far-and-away the best, most qualified candidate. O’Brien will bring offensive firepower to BC that the school has not seen since Matt Ryan’s time. With some luck, the Eagles will be ranked within the next three years.

February 11, 2024

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