By Matt Williams
The hallmarks of St. John's Prep football under Jim O'Leary are honesty, integrity, preparing young men for the next level of both football and life, and taking on absolutely all challengers.
And winning. O'Leary and the Eagles have had more than their share of that attribute, too.
In 26 years as head coach at St. John's Prep, O'Leary's teams have posted 20 winning seasons, taken seven Catholic Conference championships, earned several national rankings and appeared in four Super Bowls, with a championship in 1997.
With 178 career victories heading into his 27th season this fall, O'Leary is the Prep's all-time wins leader and ranks among the winningest active coaches in the state.
"We say at St. John's that we don't rebuild, we reload. That's a testament to Coach O," said Chris Zardas, who rushed for nearly 4,000 yards for the Eagles from 2000-04. "We've had a strong program for as long as I can remember."
Seldom does a preseason Top 20 list in the Bay State not include St. John's Prep, another testimony to the respect O'Leary has built up over the years. It doesn't matter what type of season the Eagles are having; as an opponent, when St. John's Prep comes to town, you know you're in for a tough afternoon.
For O'Leary, who turns 59 in October, the road to success on the field is relatively simple. After a standout career at North Reading High School that led to a stint playing (and then coaching) at the University of New Hampshire, O'Leary became defensive coordinator for Fred Glatz at St. John's.
The Eagles' basic philosophy still holds true to those defensive principals.
"The first day of practice this week, we'll work on special teams," O'Leary said. "After that we're going to focus on playing great defense. Then, last, we'll play offense. From Day 1 that's what we'll do — because that's how you win."
Indeed, St. John's has had some ferocious defenses over the years and hasn't needed much in the way of wizardry and trickery to put some gaudy offensive numbers, either. By mixing up formations, the Eagle offense ends up like novocaine — give it time and it always works.
"It was an 'if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it' approach. Basically, we ran what we ran until they stopped it — and for the most part, nobody did," Zardas recalled.
A self-professed film nut, O'Leary always has his teams prepared no matter what the final score is.
A Nest of Eagles
When you're an Eagle, it's for life. O'Leary hasn't just built a football team, but a community of brothers that help each other and pass traditions down.
"We've always told our kid that it doesn't end when you go out the door," said O'Leary.
It might be as simple as NFL players Brian St. Pierre and Jonathan Goff helping current Eagles work out during the summer, or former NFLer and 1993 Prep alum Rob Konrad stopping by to say hello. O'Leary admits there have been some jams he's helped former players out of, too, always with an eye on getting them on the straight and narrow.
"He always made it seem like we weren't just playing for us, but for the whole Prep community," Zardas said. "The guys before us always came back to talk with us — it's a big family. As a player, you want to do well for those guys and leave your own stamp and name on the tradition."
O'Leary instituted a no-cut policy in his second year as head coach, and it's helped the Prep's football program grow to include upwards of 175 players per year. The Eagles have a dedicated sophomore team (a rarity in the state) and it's a big part of O'Learys motivational skills that every player — not just the stars — are on board.
"Jim, I think, has a place in his heart for the not-so-great player that has passion for the game," said Pat Yanchus, the Prep Hall of Famer and head baseball coach that's been on O'Leary's staff since '84.
"If they put the helmet and the pads on, we love them," O'Leary said. "If you're a good player, not-so-good player, big or small, it doesn't matter to us.
"This is a hard game, and if a kid shows up every day and sticks it out they deserve to be here."
That care that O'Leary shows for each of this players comes out before kickoff. The Eagles are always ready to fly.
"He's very quiet all week, and then come game day he's like no coach I've ever had," said Zardas, who was an All-CAA honoree at UMass and is still hoping to catch on with an NFL team. "We were so prepared he'd have us convinced we could beat anybody; we thought we could've beaten the Patriots. His speeches were unbelievable; you'd be ready to take a bullet for him."
The Prep's great teams — and great wins — over the years are almost too many to list. O'Leary is most proud of the triumphs that came as his Eagles battled through adversity.
St. John's scored a huge overtime upset win over Brockton — then ranked as high as No. 3 in the nation — to open the 1991 season (a game St. Pierre says sold him on the Prep as an impressionable young boy). The Eagles later finished that regular season unbeaten, only to learn that player Chip Schruender passed away tragically the night before.
"We'd just beaten Cambridge at Harvard Stadium to finish undefeated, and that's when we heard the news. It was horrendous; some of the kids had never been to a wake before," O'Leary recalled. "The way our staff handled that became more important than beating Brockton (in a rematch in the Super Bowl)."
St. John's also had the parent of a player pass away during the 1997 championship season. And of course, the Eagles staff did a remarkable job keeping things in perspective last year when Jared Coppola suffered a broken neck in a preseason scrimmage.
"Our record wasn't great (last fall), but that was one of the best coaching jobs we ever did," said O'Leary, who is now also the Prep's athletic director. "We've had some great moments and great games, but those reality checks along the way keep it in perspective. It's just a game."
The Eagles, led by the running of Konrad, returned to the Super Bowl in 1993 only to be upset by Peabody High.
Finally, in '97, O'Leary won a state title with what might be the best team ever seen on the North Shore. St. Pierre was the quarterback while Brian Lentz, Wayne Lucier and Zach Magliaro were outstanding, Hall of Fame-type players.
"That was a close knit team. One thing about the Prep and playing for Coach O'Leary is you're playing the big boys every week. There weren't any cupcakes on our schedule — and we dominated," said St. Pierre.
The biggest game, as usual, was against Xaverian on Thanksgiving. A tradition O'Leary helped start in 1992, it evolved into a Game of the Year affair and was perhaps never bigger than in '97.
In what was named No. 3 on the Salem News' list of the Greatest High School Games of the last 20 years, the Prep prevailed, 15-14, in front of some 10,000 fans at Cronin Stadium.
"I think we were the best two teams in New England. There were probably 20 Division 1 or 1-AA players on those teams (combined)," said St. Pierre, who helped the Prep steamroll New Bedford, 25-0, in an academic Super Bowl win the next week.
The Prep went on to win four straight Catholic Conference titles from 2001-04 and played their last Super Bowl in an instant classic in 2002. A team dotted with the likes of John McCarthy, Matt Antonelli, Goff, Nick Borsetti and Zardas fell by a whisker to Everett on Frank Nuzzo's interception return for a TD.
"The Catholic Conference — there's no competition. It's the best high school football in Massachusetts," said Zardas. "The talent we played with and against — to win four straight is an accomplishment."
Taking on all comers
There's little doubt O'Leary could have more coaching victories, and a better winning percentage, if he didn't have the hardest high school football schedule in the Bay State — if not in New England — every year.
But it's not about inflating the numbers. It's about program building and the respect the Prep has earned by playing — and beating — the best teams, which can't be measured.
"My first meeting as head coach, we said we wanted to win league championships, win 70 percent of our games and be nationally ranked," said O'Leary. "The only way to do that was to upgrade the schedule. People come to us because of our schedule and, at the next level, our kids aren't in awe when they travel or play a big game."
Over the years, the Eagles have challenged clubs from Connecticut (Greenwich, Fairfield Prep and West Haven) New York (Holy Cross, St. John the Baptist and Xaverian) and Maryland (St. Joseph's), as well as the Bay State's best including Central Catholic, Brockton and most recently Everett. The Prep halted the Crimson Tide's 63-game regular season winning streak in 2008 behind George Sessoms' monster game.
"We thought we were the best and we wanted to play the best," reasoned Zardas.
Beyond the stripes
O'Leary's influence reaches far outside the X's and the O's, and even far outside his own Danvers campus. He's always been involved in the state's Football Coaches Association and, more recently, in the MIAA's Football Committee. He's one of the state's most influential voices in terms of where Bay State football should go and how it can grow.
"Football is 12 months a year for him," said Yanchus. "He's very connected and always involved in the committees. It's not just coaching at St. John's but running combines, attending meetings and working on different playoff schemes."
The long-time involvement has also helped the Prep head coach build a network of contacts in college football. The Eagles' program is always high on recruiting lists because they're accommodating and O'Leary tells it like it is.
"From Day 1 the administration has supported that. They've given me time to do that and they allow (college) coaches on campus," O'Leary said. "I'm always honest with both our kids and the coaches, and that goes a long way. We don't inflate heights or 40-yard dash times.
"Coaches know what they're getting from us, for that most part they're good kids who can play and are going to graduate."
The Prep program has sent players all over the country, from Bowl Championship Series conferences to the Ivy League. They've placed plenty of players at lower levels with just as much academic rigor, a testament to work done by the entire staff that includes Michael Barbati, Peter Argeros, Dave McHenry, Brian Flatley, John Westfield and others.
O'Leary is also grateful to Ann Edgerton and Jameson Pelkey for their work in the athletic office.
"We take great pride in getting our priorities right with kids. Getting into college has always been No. 1," said O'Leary. "Part of the responsibility when I send them out the door is you can't let this program down. The guys before you set the table for you, and you want to set the table for the next group; it's like a big brother/little brother relationship that way."
St. John's Prep has only had three head coaches since 1962, and there's no sign that number will change to four anytime soon.
O'Leary has been the pillar of stability at the Prep and he's thankful that Glatz, who stepped down to watch his sons play college football in '84, saw him as the right man for the job.
"I've been blessed with some great kids. I had the opportunity to coach my son (Michael) and not everybody can enjoy that at this level," O'Leary recalled. "I've been blessed with some great assistants, too.
"Having coached in college, this is as close to college coaching as there is without having to go out on the recruiting trail. The kids are always good academically, and it's one of those jobs that doesn't come open very often."
As the 2010 Eagles reported for the preseason earlier this week — and depart for training at Camp Androscoggin in Maine — there's a new generation of young men eager to learn a few life lessons from O'Leary and his staff. They'll work hard, be ready for life when they graduate and, with some good fortune, they'll win.
"I keep coming back and you know what? They haven't changed the locks yet," O'Leary quipped.
JIM O'LEARY — BY THE NUMBERS
178: Wins, most among active North Shore coaches and most all-time at the Prep
.656: All-time winning percentage
7: Catholic Conference championships
4: Super Bowl appearances
20: Winning seasons