High school football: Why did Dan O’Brien jump from juggernaut St. Thomas Academy to winless Holy Family? Let him explain

Jace Frederick/Pioneer Press/TNS

Holy Family Catholic’s football facilities resemble the current state of the program — flush with potential with imminent plans for improvement, but currently under construction.

The field is brand new. The press box is, too. Collegiate-level track and field amenities are located immediately outside of the field, also adjacent to the school building.

Separating the jumping pits and the football field are mounds of dirt being shifted around daily by heavy machinery. Some projects will get done sooner than others.

For instance, the planned stadium bleachers capable of housing more than 1,000 spectators are not expected to be completed by season’s end. Currently, benches for maybe 150 people are in place to overlook the luxurious turf.

Bigger and better things are coming to the Victoria school’s football program — around the field and, ideally, on it, as well.

That was the vision when Dan O’Brien was hired as Holy Family’s new football coach in January.

O’Brien has multiple stops of college experience, serving as head coach at Concordia-St. Paul, then working as the athletic director at Concordia-St. Paul and Hamline. O’Brien then joined the Gophers’ football program, where he spent nine years in jobs ranging from director of football operations, assistant coach and senior associate AD.

But more prevalent for his current gig were the past five years, which O’Brien spent guiding St. Thomas Academy’s football program to prominence. When O’Brien took over at the Mendota Heights school in 2018, the Cadets were fresh off consecutive average seasons.

For the next five campaigns, they were a powerhouse. The overall record in O’Brien’s tenure at STA was 49-5. That span included two Prep Bowl appearances. The Cadets never lost in sections under O’Brien’s watch, and suffered just one regular-season defeat.

Which makes it obvious as to why Holy Family would want O’Brien to coach the Fire. But why, exactly, would O’Brien want to coach at Holy Family? Many people have asked the football coach that very question since the news came out in January.

“Probably more than 100,” O’Brien admitted after Tuesday’s walk-through practice at the school. “Probably 1,000 people have asked me that.”

You cannot find a program further on the opposite end of the spectrum from where St. Thomas Academy currently resides than Holy Family. The Fire are presently immersed in a 21-game losing streak. They have not won a game since October 2020. Eight of their nine losses last season came by 20-plus points. Their last multi-win season was 2018.

What makes the move more puzzling is that O’Brien had no intention of leaving St. Thomas Academy.

“Not at all. This came out of nowhere. I love the Academy. That place was fantastic to me. It was fantastic to my family. And it’s right by my house,” the Mendota Heights resident said. “There are a lot of reasons why you could say, ‘You could never leave there.’ So no, I certainly wasn’t looking for it. This kind of came out of the blue.”

But, O’Brien said, “as more information came out, there was more reasons for me to look at it and to consider it.”

Atop the list was his staff. Joining O’Brien in this rebuilding venture are Jeff Ferguson and Dave Nelson, Hall of Fame coaches known for their work at Totino-Grace, Minnetonka and Blaine. Those are the two guys O’Brien consulted when he re-joined the high school coaching ranks in 2018. O’Brien had a strong interest in working alongside the two coaching titans, and knew this would be his one chance to do so.

Holy Family Catholic is also investing massive resources into its athletics program, especially in football, which it hopes to get on par with the success the school has recently experienced in other sports. That administrative backing is attractive to any coach.

O’Brien also noted his mindset changes as he gets older.

“Would a state championship be nice? It would be fantastic. But more importantly to me is to take this challenge on and see if we can make better men and better leaders through the game of football,” O’Brien said. “So when you put all those things together, it just seemed like a fantastic opportunity. … At the end of the day, I said, ‘Shoot, let’s make a run at it and see what happens.’ ”

The O’Brien era officially kicks off on Thursday, when Holy Family hosts Academy Force — a co-op of small public charter and private schools in the East Metro — in its season opener. The ensuing results will be interesting for all to see.

O’Brien led the Cadets to the Prep Bowl in his first season at the Academy. But that situation compared to this one is apples and oranges.

St. Thomas Academy’s football program regularly touts 100 kids from grades 10 through 12 to go along with 55 to 60 freshmen. Include middle-schoolers, and O’Brien estimates roughly 200 football players lined the sidelines for the national anthem ahead of home games.

Holy Family currently has 62 kids in its program, which is, frankly, a solid number for a struggling program. There were only 21 players on last year’s team. The upshot in growth is partially a product of O’Brien and his staff scouring the hallways for new players. Holy Family has strong baseball, basketball and hockey programs. Many of those athletes haven’t played football.

“We’ve been fortunate to get some of those kids,” O’Brien said. “They’re not experienced playing football, but they’re good athletes.”

Still, fewer than 20 of the 62 players currently in the program are upperclassmen. Nearly half are freshmen. O’Brien noted the program is “starting at Ground Zero.” They mostly have been focused on fundamentals ranging from stances to starts to ball security.

“Some of those things that some people might take for granted, or I would have taken for granted at St. Thomas Academy. But those are kind of things that we feel are important to start,” O’Brien said. “So far, it’s been good. I think that, for the most part, the kids have accepted and looked forward to the increase in expectation and a different standard. I think that, like anybody, nobody wants to go and lose for two and a half years.”

O’Brien noted the Fire have a “long, long way to go.” The expectations reflect the current starting point. If he was still at St. Thomas Academy, O’Brien admitted his mindset would be looking at practicing the week of Thanksgiving and prepping for another potential Prep Bowl appearance.

“That’s the level of where that program is at,” he said.

This, however, is a different challenge. But, he noted, it’s also a refreshing one. Teaching the game at its most basic levels brings O’Brien back to the roots of coaching.

“So yeah, it’s fun. I’m having fun every single day doing it. The kids have been great. They’re eager to learn,” he said. “They’re excited to try to go out and compete and do something special.”

And for this year’s seniors, O’Brien noted, that could be winning one varsity game. Most of the upperclassmen on this roster have never done that.

“So if we can deliver that experience where they can win one game, and we do some things and establish the groundwork for a successful program down the road,” O’Brien said, “a one-win season could be a successful season.”

O’Brien seems to recognize losses are coming. That, he noted, has required “a mind shift.”

“But in some ways, it’s a little bit of a relief, too. When you have a program that’s at that level (of the Cadets), the expectations, there’s pressure that goes along with that. There were times where we could win a football game at St. Thomas Academy by 21 points, and people would say, ‘Well, what happened?’ ” O’Brien said. “Out here, if we score 21 points in a game, it’s going to be phenomenal.” (Note: The last time the Fire scored more than 21 points in a game was in 2018.)

O’Brien said there’s still pressure in this job. His staff badly wants to help this team — and this senior class — win at least one game to get the proverbial monkey off the back.

But losses will likely no longer feel like failures.

“Fail and lose are two different things, but with what you become accustomed to, the losing is failing,” O’Brien said. “It was a hard end to a season last year (when the Cadets lost in overtime to Mahtomedi in the state tournament quarterfinals). We were 10-1. That’s a fantastic year. And at the end of the year, it was a disappointment. So that’s hard.”

This will be hard, too. Such a steep rebuild is never easy. Many coaches who take on these types of projects don’t stick around long enough — either by their own choice or the administration’s — to see it through to the other side. O’Brien, certainly, has quite a bit of cache given his pedigree. He thinks the current freshman class has a chance to be pretty competitive by the time they graduate, and would love to see success come sooner than that.

And, until that time comes, he knows what he wants the message to be to both his players, and himself: “As long as we work our hardest every day, as long as we see improvement and as long as we compete on Friday night, the scoreboard will take care of itself.

“And if we’ve done the very best we can do, if we’ve done all the things that we always talk about that make you a better man and a better leader, at the end of the night, we’ll put our head on our pillow, and no matter what the scoreboard says, we should be able to sleep just fine.”

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