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Bill O’Brien was in his seventh year as an NFL head coach with four AFC South titles and four playoff appearances. Before that, he followed legend Joe Paterno as Penn State’s head coach in 2012.
He was an assistant coach from 2007-11 under Bill Belichick at New England.
But when the Houston Texas fired him after an 0-4 start in 2020, his phone was not ringing.
Then Nick Saban called. He was not offering a golden parachute, but it was at least a soft landing – offensive coordinator at Alabama, which had just won its sixth national championship since 2009 and had been running state of the art offenses since 2014.
“It was the only phone call I got last year,” O’Brien said Tuesday at a Cotton Bowl press conference after just arriving in the Dallas area following a bout with COVID. “I’m very grateful to coach Saban for this opportunity.”
No. 1 Alabama (12-1) plays No. 4 Cincinnati (13-0) in the College Football Playoff semifinals Friday (3:30 p.m. eastern, ESPN).
O’Brien, 52, has his offense ranked No. 4 in the nation in scoring at 42.5 points a game and No. 6 in total yards and passing yards a game at 495.5 and 347.9, respectively. His quarterback, sophomore Bryce Young, won the Heisman Trophy this month and is No. 4 in passing yards on the season at 4,322 and second in touchdown passes at 43.
“And so, Nick had a job for me, and I couldn’t ask for a better opportunity,” O’Brien said. “It’s just been a rewarding year for me personally.”
O’Brien did take a pay cut, though. He went from making $3 million a year with the Texans to $1.1 million a year for two seasons with Alabama, but the NFL pressure is off. He was 21-11 in 2018 and ’19 before the 0-4 start in 2020 that matched his playoff record.
“That’s part of these careers,” he said. “When you enter into this profession and you start to climb the ladder, that kind of comes with the territory. Like I’ve said before, it’s not really my first rodeo. I’ve been very excited about the opportunity.”
O’Brien has also had to deal with only one loss this season – 41-38 at Texas A&M back on Oct. 9. He was 52-48 as Houston’s coach, including a 4-12 mark in 2017. As Penn State’s head coach, he was 15-9.
The 12 wins this season are two more than he was part of at Houston beginning in 2019.
Another fringe benefit was inheriting Young, a budding sophomore quarterback who had learned the offense in 2020 under quarterback Mac Jones, a first round pick of New England in the 2021 NFL Draft. Young was the No. 1 dual threat quarterback in the country in 2020 out of the Los Angeles area.
“From day one when Bryce walked in the office when I got to Alabama, he had a really good knowledge of the offense,” O’Brien said. “And it was a good relationship right from the start. When you’re dealing with a quarterback of the talent level and intelligence of Bryce, that trust is easy. He’s able to be involved in the game plans.”
And it was like magic.
“It’s just been a great experience for me – one of the best experiences of my career,” O’Brien said.
That’s saying a lot. A native of Dorchester, Massacusetts who played defensive back and linebacker at Brown, O’Brien has been coaching since he was Brown’s tight ends coach in 1993. He was Georgia Tech’s offensive coordinator in 2001 and ’02 and did the same at Duke in 2005 and ’06 before Belichick called in 2007. He was an offensive assistant, wide receivers coach and quarterback coach before coordinating the offense in 2011.
“He has a wealth of experience as both an offensive coordinator and head coach in the NFL and college,” Saban said when he hired O’Brien. “Bill is one of the brightest offensive minds in football and an outstanding teacher. He will strengthen our coaching staff and give our players the best possible chance to be successful.”
But not so experienced that he came to Alabama with an air of knowing all rodeos.
“You’re running Alabama’s offense. You’re not bringing your offense in here,” O’Brien said.
“He could have easily came in and said, ‘Just sit down, be quiet, and this is where you’re going to throw the ball. This is what I’m going to call,'” Young said. “For him to come in and talk to me about how I saw stuff, for us to really have that dialogue, it speaks to him as a coach. I’m eternally grateful for that.”
Young and his teammates were also happy to welcome O’Brien back after he had to stay in isolation, according to COVID protocols.
“That was really rough, not having him in person for an extended period of time,” Young said. “Not having him on the field for practices, that was tough.”
Offensive line coach Doug Marrone also joined the team in the Dallas area Tuesday after having to remain in Tuscaloosa because of a positive COVID test.
“I feel good,” O’Brien said. “We were able to do our job virtually. It’s pretty amazing with techology. I’m ready to go. The big story is the game on Friday.”
O’Brien’s offense will face a defense ranked No. 2 nationally against the pass (168.3 yards a game), No. 4 in fewest points allowed (16 a game) and No. 7 in fewest yards allowed a game (305.8).
“We’ve got a tall order in front of us,” he said. “We’ll need to play four best game of the year offensively in order to have a chance in this game.”