---- — DANVERS — The best way to describe Jim O’Leary comes from something Pat Yanchus said to me a little more than three years ago.
“Jim,” Yanchus, the recently retired St. John’s Prep baseball coach, said of the head football coach he assisted for 28 years, “has a place in his heart for the not-so-great player that has passion for the game.”
That always resonated with me, probably because that’s who I was a player in high school: the kid who probably couldn’t start but loved practice and just wanted to be a part of something great.
Yesterday, as O’Leary was stepping aside as head football coach and one of his former players, Eagles’ great Brian St. Pierre, was taking over during a press conference at the school, I couldn’t get that quote out of my head.
O’Leary won 207 games, two Super Bowls and had 24 winning seasons in 30 years as head coach. He won nine Catholic Conference titles. Think of the most talked about football games not just on the North Shore, but in state history, and he’s in the middle of them: the 1997 ‘Holy War’ against Xaverian, the 2002 Division 1 Super Bowl against Everett, etc.
If anything, O’Leary might be underrated as a football coach. Some people believe that coaching at a school with the resources St. John’s Prep has is easy; you just roll out the pads and the talent takes care of itself. Trust me, it’s a lot harder than it looks.
High school football is about more than X’s and O’s. Among all the intangibles that make it great, it’s about brotherhood and motivation. Few coaches understood that the way O’Leary did. He seemed to be all about the Jimmy’s and the Joe’s.
“I was blessed with players, and not just the great ones. Great players are going to be great no matter where they go,” O’Leary said yesterday morning. “The little guys made our program great. Those are the guys that came every day and put up with my nonsense and bought in. They made us.”
The 62-year-old O’Leary will continue as athletic director at St. John’s, a post he’s held since 1999. He’ll be helping shape the athletics at the Prep’s middle school, which is set to open in 2015, and the landscape of an AD’s job has certainly changed over the last 15 years. O’Leary and his staff (the dedicated Ann Egderton and Jameson Pelkey) oversee almost 700 events during the school year.
Think about 42 years coaching in some capacity. The midnight film sessions during the week and fall social functions that are all but impossible to attend. As O’Leary said, “That’s a lot of Saturdays.”
“It’s time,” he said, asked what factored into the decision to step down this year. “I’ve probably thought about it 30 years. Every year, unless you win a state championship or win on Thanksgiving, you come in the next Monday worrying about how to get better. It takes a toll.”
Just about anyone who played for O’Leary will tell you he’s an incredible motivator. Chris Zardas, one of the school’s all-time greats at running back, once told me his high school teams believed they could beat the Patriots after an O’Leary speech.
Legend has it that he once got his hands on an opposing team’s helmet and smashed it to bits with a hammer before a game.
“The best motivator I’ve ever been around,” said St. Pierre, who played for PIttsburgh Steelers legend Bill Cowher, among others, in an incredible quarterbacking career.
O’Leary will be remembered as an aggressive coach. He’d go for two or forgo a field goal in favor of a touchdown try any day. He quipped yesterday that maybe he should’ve punted more. He could be outspoken, and he worked tirelessly on the MIAA’s football committee to make the sport stronger in the Bay State.
The other hallmark of his Eagles was their desire to play anybody, the best of the best in high school football. “We’ll play in the parking lot,” he once famously said.
St. John’s Prep has been an incredibly stable program, and that’s a credit to both O’Leary and Fred Glatz, his predecessor who was in attendance yesterday. The Eagles had two coaches in 47 years, and a 6-5 season that would be cause for celebration in some communities is considered a down year.
In the big picture, O’Leary gave thousands of young men a chance to be a part of something bigger than themselves. He instituted a no cut policy in the 1980s that swelled the Prep football program to as many as 150 kids some years. He made them all ‘Eagles for life’ and that seems more important than any one football game.
What other man could’ve handled Jared Coppola’s 2010 spinal injury with the poise and grace O’Leary displayed? The way the St. John’s Prep community rallied around Coppola -- and Pete Frates’ recent fight with ALS, for that matter -- is a credit to those amazingly charismatic young men, but also to the sense of family O’Leary’s instilled at the Prep.
As the book closes on O’Leary’s head coaching career, he’ll remember some big wins, including one where he told Lonnie Hill to go deep in the final minute of Thanksgiving in 2001. He’ll remember special team gunners, too, and the way his kids played the game the right way, win or lose.
Every man that’s been an Eagle will remember something, too. They’ll remember the feeling they had in their gut when Coach O spoke before a game.
Pride. Confidence. The best things he could ever give them.
Matt Williams is the assistant sports editor at The Salem News. You can contact him at MWilliams@salemnews.com, 978-338-2669 and follow him on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN.