For new Alabama offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Bill O’Brien, his roots in college football run deep.
The former Texans head coach is embracing his new surroundings in Tuscaloosa working under legendary coach Nick Saban.
For O’Brien, 51, fired after an 0-4 start last season with the Texans after winning four AFC South division titles and going 52-48 in the regular season and 2-4 in the playoffs, returning to the college ranks is something he’s thoroughly enjoying.
“I love college football,” O’Brien said during a Zoom press conference in his first interview since being hired in January. “I’ve had great relationships with the players and coaches I’ve worked with in the past, and that’s the way it’s been here. I’ve really enjoyed being around these guys, these players, this coaching staff. I feel like it’s a group that works very hard, that works together. The tone is set by coach Saban and the direction that he wants. We follow that lead and everybody buys into what the culture of this program has been for the last 14 years, going on 15 years.
“I’m very grateful for the opportunity that coach Saban has given me. To work and learn from someone like Coach Saban -- I’m going into my 29th year of coaching -- that’s not something that can be replicated. So, I am really excited for the opportunity. I’ve only been here for seven months, and I have already learned a ton.”
Hired by Alabama in January, O’Brien last coached in college at Penn State before being hired by the late Bob McNair to coach the Texans. O’Brien steadied a program reeling from the Jerry Sandusky scandal, going 15-9 overall with the Nittany Lions.
Although Alabama has been a place where former head coaches have relaunched their careers as Steve Sarkisian did before being hired to coach the Texas Longhorns, O’Brien emphasized that he didn’t view the situation that way.
"I'll be honest with you, I don't think about that,” O’Brien said. “I think about what's best for my family. My wife, Colleen, and I sat down and it was a decision we felt was best for our family for me to be able to be a college football coach at Alabama. I've enjoyed my time here. I'm very focused on what we’re doing. I’m like any rookie player or rookie coach trying to do my best to make sure this team is going to be as good as it’s going to be.”
O’Brien is the eighth offensive coordinator Saban has hired since 2007.
“I think Bill’s done a really good job,” Saban said. “First off, he’s a good teacher. And I think when you’re a good coach, you’re a good coach all the time. Whether we’re in camp with seventh- and eighth-grade kids playing quarterback or defensive back or whatever it is, you’re trying to coach those guys to be better just like you would our own players. I see that in everything that he’s done since he’s been here. I think the players have responded well to the coaches on offense, so I think there’s nothing but positives.”
Alabama scored 48.5 points per game last season and averaged 546.1 yards per game, but Alabama has to replace Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith, the Philadelphia Eagles’ first-round wide receiver.
“At the end of the day, it’s the Alabama offense, and when they went from more of a pro style to more of a spread style when coach (Lane) Kiffin was here and then obviously coach (Mike) Locksley and coach (Brian) Daboll and obviously last year with coach Sarkisian, it’s evolved over time with all these great offensive minds that have been here.
“Every year’s different. I think in the end, it comes down to who your players are, what can they do best, who your quarterback is, what can he do best and what’s best for the team. No year is like any other year, so this year will be very different than any other year, and that’s just the way it is in football. That’s the way it’s always been in my career. And these guys are working hard every single day to try to improve.”
O’Brien loves that he gets to work every day with his best friend, Doug Marrone, his former colleague at Georgia Tech who is now the Crimson Tide offensive line coach after previously coaching the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“It's been awesome,” O’Brien said. “He and I go way back. We're best friends. He’s somebody who's always been a great resource for me. I think that's a pretty cool thing. We talk about what a special place this is and how much we enjoy working with the players. This is a very unique time in our careers. We’re very grateful for the opportunity coach Saban has given us.”
O’Brien has worked for New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick as an offensive coordinator and now he’s working for Saban. Any comparisons? O’Brien declined to go there.
“I've been asked this question quite a bit,” he said. “I’m not going to get into comparisons. They’re very different people. They’re great football coaches. They have different styles. They’re great football minds. I take a lot of pride in being able to say I’ve worked for both guys: coach Saban and coach Belichick.”
Aaron Wilson has covered the NFL for 20 years and has previously written for The Houston Chronicle and The Baltimore Sun. He’s on Twitter: @AaronWilson_NFL and Instagram: @aaronwilson7128