In 2003, he took over a Woodstock football program that had lost its last 24 games.
But he had hope.
“I felt like that, if we could change the attitude, we could make a winning program out of it and contend in the state,” O’Brien said.
He did just that.
Over the next seven seasons, the Wolverines had some ups and downs, but in the end, they were contenders. When O’Brien retired following the 2009 season, Woodstock had just gone 10-2 and reached the second round of the Class AAAAA state playoffs — one season after the Wolverines made an improbable run into the state quarterfinals.
For all of his contributions, O’Brien will be inducted into the Cherokee County Sports Hall of Fame on Friday as a member of its class of 2013.
While O’Brien now has strong ties to Woodstock, his coaching began decades earlier in south Georgia.
An assistant to Nick Hyder for 15 years at Valdosta High School, he helped lead the national powerhouse to six state championships and three national titles. After Hyder’s unexpected death from a heart attack in the spring of 1996, O’Brien succeeded his mentor and spent the next seven seasons in the head-coaching position.
O’Brien led the Wildcats to four region titles and a state title in 1998. He was named the Class AAAA Coach of the Year in 1996 and ’98 and the National Coach of the Year by American Football Quarterly in ’97.
After learning that his contract would not be renewed following the 2002 season — despite compiling a record of 70-20-1 at the Wildcats’ helm — O’Brien found himself with the challenge of breathing life into Woodstock’s program.
He arrived in Cherokee County with retirement in mind.
“It was later in my career and I was thinking about retirement,” said O’Brien, who went on to finish his career with a 112-54-1 record. “But, once we got here, we enjoyed the school, enjoyed the kids, the coaches — everything just fell into place. The place was just exciting and that got me excited and I ended up staying a lot longer than I thought I would possibly stay. We decided this is where we wanted to live, so we are here for good.”
O’Brien admits there was a bit of culture shock moving from a small town that revolved around high school football, to the northern suburbs of Atlanta, where students and parents didn’t even attend games.
“There is a saying in south Georgia that if you want to rob a bank, do it on Friday night because everybody will be at the game,” O’Brien said. “That wasn’t the case up here. I was surprised that the fan base wasn’t excited, but toward the end, our parents began to pack the stadium and travel well.”
O’Brien recalled the Wolverines’ quarterfinal-round state playoff game in 2008 at Camden County, when officials at the southeast Georgia school said it was the largest visiting crowd they had ever hosted. Woodstock came one point away from beating the undefeated Wildcats, who were on their way to winning the state championship.
O’Brien said he still follows the program at Woodstock, now led by his former defensive coordinator, Brent Budde. He visits with the players and goes to as many games as he can each season.
While winning the state title at Valdosta ranks among the best moments in O’Brien’s career, he said that turning the program around at Woodstock was another high.
“Seeing the look in those kids’ eyes, when they hadn’t won a game in two years, and then to start winning and gaining respect around the state, was something special,” O’Brien said. “There isn’t one achievement that could take the place of that concept that we were able to turn things around, and the kids were proud of themselves. That school, the community, the parents were just unbelievably excited.”