By Jean DePlacido
---- — After 30 years as the head coach of the St. John’s Prep football team, including more than 200 victories and a pair of Super Bowl championships, Jim O’Leary is stepping down.
A press conference is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. today at the school, where a new head football coach will be named. O’Leary will continue in his position as athletic director at the Danvers parochial school.
“I’m not going anywhere. I’ll still be here as AD,” said O’Leary, who will retire as football coach with a career record of 207-106-2 at St. John’s. His teams won state Super Bowl titles in 1997 and 2012 and reached the Super Bowl four other times.
After the 2013 season ended, O’Leary said he was going to take a few months to decide if he would come back as coach or not. Although he would not specify his reasons why, his office released a statement yesterday saying that he was stepping down and a new coach would be named this morning.
“In my 42 years of coaching (including a dozen with former head coach and Prep AD Fred Glatz), I never missed a game,” said O’Leary, a UNH graduate who lives in Groveland with his family. “Football is my passion, but I can now spend the time I devoted to football doing all the things an athletic director has to do. I’m good with this decision.”
In addition to the success his teams have enjoyed the past 30 seasons, many of O’Leary’s former players have gone on to play college football; others even into coaching themselves. The most high profile ex-Eagle now coaching is Bill O’Brien, the former Patriots’ offensive coach and Penn State head coach who was recently named the Houston Texans’ newest head coach.
“He’s the reason I wanted to be a coach,” Ryan Leahy, who is in the St. John’s Prep Hall of Fame and currently an assistant baseball coach at the school, said of O’Leary. “I had a great personal experience learning how to handle situations from seeing the way he did (it). He served as a role model for me and we’re still good friends.”
Leahy was a junior starting at wide receiver and defensive back on the Prep’s 1997 undefeated Super Bowl champions, a squad led by future NFL players Brian St. Pierre at quarterback and Wayne Lucier on the line.
“We struggled when I was a freshman because we had a lot of young guys. That made winning the big title all the more special,” Leahy said. “(O’Leary) had the right personality for the job. It was fun to play for him, but he always expected things to be done right.
“I’ll never forget those pre-game speeches he and coach (Joe) Lovett used to give, including the poems they read. They knew how to really motivate the team.”
When Glatz stepped down as the Eagles’ football coach in 1983, he never hesitated in picking his young assistant coach, O’Leary, as his successor.
“I made a very good choice,” said Glatz. “He was always a hard worker, and when I retired there was nobody else as far as I was concerned. He’s had a lot of good years and done a very good job. Jim is very personable, likeable and open minded.”
Among the many friends O’Leary made in the coaching ranks over the years, count Masconomet’s Jim Pugh as one who likes and respects his fellow coach.
“I’ve known Jim a long time and he’s a personal friend as well as a fierce competitor,” said Pugh, whose Chieftains played St. John’s Prep in the 2008 season opener. The two have worked together with the Mass. State Football Coaches Association as well as the MIAA’s football committee. “St. John’s plays the top teams in the state year-in year-out every week of the season. They might lose a few, but they always take on the best.
“Jim will be missed because he does a great job and is always classy. When I first started as head coach in 1989, he was always very supportive. He has produced not only some top teams, but some of the best players in Massachusetts have come out of his program. Thanksgiving (vs. Xaverian) won’t be the same without Jim going against (Hawks’ head coach) Charlie Stevenson.”
Former Prep standout Rich McNeil went on to play football and compete in track at Bates College, and reminds O’Leary fondly. He is now finishing graduate school at Springfield College and will get a degree in athletic administration, and is also a graduate associate track coach.
“Some of the things coach O’Leary instilled in his players prepared me to do well at the next level. He laid the foundation for what I’m doing now and set the tone with his message to work hard all the time,” McNeil said. “He was always willing to put himself out there, knowing St. John’s kids want to go on to the next level. He promoted all his athletes and helped them get to that next level, even if they weren’t the best on the team.
“Being an athletic director takes a whole lot of time and effort these days. I know it can’t be easy for him to give up the coaching job, though, because he always put so much into it.”
Mike Geaslen quarterbacked the Prep football team last season and said O’Leary’s love for the game stands out.
“He cares for the team and all the players on it so much,” said Geaslen, who will play baseball at Northeastern University. “Football is his passion, and I know he’ll always be around to help out.
“The way he ran our practices was special. They weren’t the longest, but we got the most out of them because he did the same things we were going to do in games.”
Stevenson, whose Xaverian teams have had some classic Thanksgiving battles with St. John’s Prep over the years, said he’ll miss his good friend.
“High school football and the Catholic Conference lost one of the best 10 coaches in the history of Massachusetts football,” said Stevenson. “I wish Jimmy the best; he’s a great friend and has always been very supportive and helpful to me.
“I always tell people we get to play the greatest non-league rivalry in New England (vs.) Brockton, and the greatest league rivalry in St. John’s Prep. It’s not the longest Thanksgiving rivalry (starting in 1993), but it’s the best because of the caliber players involved going against each other. You won’t find that in any other rivalry, and Jim and I had so much fun preparing our teams to compete.”