First impressions of Alabama football offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien

Nick Kelly
The Tuscaloosa News

Alabama football assistant Bill O’Brien said he’s not a fan of labels, but coach Nick Saban was quick to offer one up Sunday when asked about his new offensive coordinator.

Teacher.

“And I think when you’re a good coach,” Saban continued, “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.”

Teaching and instructing are two things O’Brien can focus almost solely on now that he’s in Tuscaloosa. No longer the general manager and coach of the Houston Texans, O’Brien doesn’t have to focus on running an organization. He doesn’t have to tend to every matter under the team’s roof.

Now, all he has to do is coach quarterbacks and call plays. And he sure seems excited about it.

Maybe a bit relieved, too.

O’Brien spoke to reporters Sunday for the first time since taking the job, and he didn’t try to wow anybody. He wasn’t trying to sell himself or convince people that he's capable, even though that might be the natural thing to do after losing a prominent job.

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Instead, he expressed gratitude. Frequently.

Gratitude to Saban, first and foremost, and gratitude for the chance to learn from him. No doubt, it's a smart move to thank your boss and praise his abilities. O’Brien's no dummy. He’s sat in front of the media plenty over his near three decades of coaching. But he genuinely seemed grateful to have the chance to return to the college ranks, even if his role is a step down from his previous job.

It’s easy to tell this guy relishes the chance to teach football. That’s not a given for all coaches who have spent time in the NFL ranks. Some serve as supervisors more than instructors. O’Brien doesn’t seem to be one of those guys.

As the quarterbacks worked during the team’s first practice Friday, O’Brien stood where a nose guard might be and barked feedback while the signal-callers went through a drill making quick throws. Here are a few one-liners:  

  • “Step up, set, throw.”
  • “You want to get it in his hands. You want to get it in his hands as fast as you can.”
  • “See it, give it to him. Don’t try to get the laces. You’re not going to get the laces.”

O’Brien seems hands-on in his approach to coaching. That’s going to be best for these young quarterbacks. They have the guy who has coached Tom Brady, Deshaun Watson and more standing only a few feet away, teaching them.

First impressions of O’Brien also show a guy who pays attention to detail. For example: During his press conference, he mentioned something Saban said at SEC Media Days weeks ago about the evolution of offenses. That showed O’Brien is paying attention in general and listening specifically to what Saban wants.

O’Brien clearly knows his place in the program. It might be easy for a guy who was running an NFL franchise to come in and try to impose his way of doing things, running an offense or leading a team. But he’s not taking that approach. At least not publicly.

New offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien watches the quarterbacks work during practice. The Alabama Crimson Tide opened practice for the 2021 season as they prepare to defend the 2020 National Championship Friday, Aug. 6, 2021. [Staff Photo/Gary Cosby Jr.]

O’Brien, who has spoken for years in front of the media and knows the power of his words, stressed during his press conference the fact that they are going to run “Alabama’s offense." He made sure to say that exact phrase four times.  

“That’s what we’re running,” he said.

O’Brien intentionally aligned his messaging with that of Saban, which is another smart move on his part. Throughout the offseason, Saban has stressed they will continue their offensive system, even with a new coordinator.

And that new coordinator, based on first impressions, is saying the right things. He’s taking the right tone, and he’s not trying to be more than he has to be.

He’s just expressing gratitude, in part because O’Brien’s football class is back in session.

Contact Alabama football reporter Nick Kelly: nkelly@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter: @_NickKelly