The Wright Call

By Dave Wright

A month or so ago, Saint Thomas Academy football coach Dan O’Brien got a phone call from Jeff Ferguson, a longtime friend. Ferguson had considerable success coaching high school football at Totino-Grace, winning eight state titles, but retired a couple of years ago. That was fine, but when Ferguson was asked by Holy Family Catholic to evaluate what was wrong with its troubled prep football program, he couldn’t resist the challenge. The Fire went winless the last two seasons, getting outscored 762-183 in the process.

Ferguson first asked O’Brien if he knew of anybody who might be able to take over the coaching reins at Holy Family in Victoria, which is just a bit west of Chanhassen. Later he asked if O’Brien might be interested in the job.

Passing at first

“I said ‘no,’” O’Brien recalled. “We had a good thing going at Saint Thomas Academy.” During O’Brien’s five years at the helm, the Cadets made it to the state Class AAAAA tournament every year it was held. That includes advancing to the title games in 2018 and 2019, and going undefeated in the COVID-shortened 2020 season when the tournament was canceled.

A couple of weeks later, Ferguson called O’Brien with another pitch. Ferguson and fellow retired grid boss Dave Nelson, who won state titles at Blaine and Minnetonka, thought it’d be neat to revive Holy Family’s football fortunes as assistants if O’Brien would agree to serve as head coach.

“When you’re younger, you chase championships,” O’Brien reflected. “When you get older, you learn to value the relationships you develop in coaching together.”

“When you’re younger, you chase championships,” O’Brien reflected. “When you get older, you learn to value the relationships you develop in coaching together.”

Offer he couldn’t refuse

O’Brien decided to take the offer. Now he just had to tell STA athletic director Reed Hornung that he was leaving a football program with 150 kids playing at all levels for one that had a little more than 30 varsity players last season and only a freshman team to feed it.

“A lot of people, including my wife, thought I was nuts to do this,” O’Brien said. “Saint Thomas was fantastic to me. Reed said he understood. I don’t have a lot of tread left on the tires. While I can still do it, I couldn’t resist the chances to work with two longtime friends who I can learn from.”

STA football
Dan O'Brien in his first year as STA's head coach in 2018. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Working with smaller numbers

O’Brien has some history working with smaller football programs. After he left his job as an assistant at the University of Minnesota, he spent a season as an assistant at Saint Agnes. Although the Aggies’ roster has grown in recent years to roughly 50 kids, there were a little more than 30 the year O’Brien was there. The same kids play on both offense and defense, as well as special teams. O’Brien said he will use the memory of that season as well as talking to friends at smaller schools that have done well, such as Caledonia (a perennial Class AA power), to learn how to run practices with smaller numbers.

“At Saint Thomas, we could split up the offense and defense for practice,” he said. “We can’t do that now. We have kids, particularly on the line, that go both ways.”

Getting to know the troops

Indeed, the Fire have just 17 returning juniors and seniors. A check of the 2022 roster revealed just three potential returnees weighing over 200 pounds. Last week, O’Brien conducted his first meeting with his new charges and 37 showed up. The hope is to increase that number to 50 by the time practices start in August.

O’Brien was asked if he had looked at any film of Holy Family games from last season. “Yes,” he said. “The good news is the quarterback (Gavin Frye) will be a senior. We must replace a lot of the line on both sides of the ball.”

High schools are allowed 11 summer sessions before hitting the ground for real in August. Schedules won’t be released until sometime in April. In 2022, Holy Family found itself in the East Central South Conference. That placed them with defending Class AAA champ New London-Spicer, Watertown-Mayer and Dassel-Cokato.

“It’s a heavy lift,” O’Brien summarized, though he is undaunted by the challenge.

The word gets out

O’Brien might tell his new charges about 1999. At the time, he was the head coach and athletic director at Concordia University, which had just moved from the nonscholarship UMAC conference to the Division II NSIC. On a mid-October afternoon at Griffin Stadium, the new kids on the block upended Minnesota-Duluth 35-27.

Concordia didn’t win another game the rest of the 1999 season, but the tone was set. The next year, O’Brien gave up the football reins to concentrate on being an athletic director and watched his baby grow up quickly as the Golden Bears went 7-3 in 2000.

Holy Family may not make that quick of a jump, but it won’t be for lack of effort. “Change is good,” O’Brien said. “You get re-energized by it.”

New STA grid coach sought

After the story about O’Brien broke, Hornung said, “I was on the phone all weekend.” He hopes to start talking to prospects early next month and have STA’s new head football coach in place by April.

“You need time to meet the returnees and sent up the summer practices,” he said. “The wheels are starting to turn. The job is posted.”

Hornung tried to talk O’Brien out of leaving, but to no avail. “Some guys are wired that way,” he said with a sigh.  “Dan wanted to do this. It’s the nature of being an AD to accept it and move on.”

STA Vis pool
A rendering of the proposed STA and Vis pool.

STA-Vis make more waves in swimming

O’Brien’s announcement was just one part in what turned out to be an interesting week for Hornung. A day earlier, STA and Visitation School announced that Chip Michel and his wife, Mary, were making a $3 million matching gift to help fund a new $10 million aquatic center. The Michels had apparently already given $1 million for the project. So the family’s $4 million gift is the largest in the history of both schools.

Chip Michel is a 1967 STA grad who had been a four-year member of the school’s swimming program. The family’s largesse hopes to encourage more donors to join so the Cadets can move on from their five-lane pool that was built in the early 1960s and isn’t deep enough to host current diving competitions. 

“The new pool would be eight lanes with a regular diving board,” Hornung said. “We are about 65-70 percent there.” The aquatic center also will feature  seating for 300 and expanded deck space. The schools hope to complete the project by the 2025-26 swim season.

The STA pool gets a lot of work, supporting more than 130 student-athletes. Visitation uses it in the fall when girls’ swimming competes, and the Cadets dive in for the winter. The state boys’ swimming championship is slated for March 2-4 at the University of Minnesota.

Despite the small, aging facility, the Blazers and Cadets are powers in the sport. Visitation has 13 overall state titles and won its ninth straight last fall. The Cadets have won 15 state titles since 1995. Along with a space for the Cadets and  Blazers to train and compete, the new center will serve local swim clubs and other Catholic schools.  

Dave Wright can be reached at dwright53@msn.com.

 

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