DERRY, N.H. — If karma, kismet, fate and the alignment of the moon and stars mean anything, Exeter High School doesn’t stand a chance tomorrow afternoon in the Division 1 state title football game.
Brian O’Reilly doesn’t believe in any of that stuff.
The Pinkerton Academy head coach will tackle this weekend like he has most every day of the past 35 years — meticulously, methodically and most enthusiastically with due diligence.
He’ll leave nothing to chance.
O’Reilly is in line for what could be one of the great weekends of his coaching life.
Saturday afternoon in Exeter, his Astros shoot for his 11th Division 1 state title against the top-seeded Blue Hawks. Sunday night, the teacher/coach, now 59, will be inducted in the NHIAA Hall of Fame.
“I didn’t expect it, and I’m also very pleased, whether it was coincidence or not, that I’m going in when (former Astros legend) Ryan Mihalko goes in,” said O’Reilly. “He exemplifies best, the main reason I am going in to the Hall ... my players.
“I’ve been so blessed with great players, in both (football and lacrosse).”
One of the winningest coaches in state history, O’Reilly takes a 259-101 career football mark and a 434-128 lacrosse record into the weekend.
But numbers, as amazing as they are, hardly tell the Brian O’Reilly story.
As longtime former Pinkerton athletic director Bob Royce noted in his nomination letter, O’Reilly “served as a model for his student athletes and others by consistently promoting good sportsmanship and maintaining a positive approach at all times.”
From the sideline, win or lose, as competitive a son of a gun as you’ll find, O’Reilly finds a way to keep things positive and fun. Honestly, he has since the first high school game I ever covered, on the road at Portsmouth High back in 1991.
His sideline swagger — and the fact that he’s held Pinkerton at or near the top of Division 1 since Mihalko, Joe Segreti and the rest of the mid-80s crew busted in for title No. 1 in 1985 — have left a target on his back at all times.
Yet the guy has done little but prosper and produce quality teams and quality kids, year in and year out.
“It does literally seem like yesterday, And it’s a little unsettling when you think about it, like we just did that,” said O’Reilly. “You look back, and what we’ve accomplished is hard to imagine.”
O’Reilly came to Pinkerton fresh out of Bridgewater State, where he didn’t play football and never knew lacrosse existed.
He was a track athlete for the Bears and actually tried coaching it at Pinkerton for one season.
“Track was a great sport to participate in, but I had no desire to coach it,” he said.
A freshman football coach for one year and then a varsity line assistant for two more, he was introduced to lax by Dick Bly, who brought the game to Pinkerton in the 1960s.
In his fourth fall at Pinkerton, he took over the football team with two games left when the head coach at the time moved on. At the same time, he learned lacrosse from the basics of stick work all the way up.
At the age of 25, Pinkerton headmaster Brad Ek entrusted O’Reilly to head up two major varsity sports.
“I owe it all to him, all the opportunities, my entire teaching and coaching career,” said O’Reilly. “I didn’t have much of a resume. But once you get foot in the door, and you show people what you cane do. Teaching is teaching, whether it’s coaching or in the classroom. Resumes and all the other stuff is just superfluous.”
O’Reilly is quick to name his favorite Pinkerton team, the football champions of 1985, which put the Astros on the map.
“The first one is so special. That was a big deal because Pinkerton’s previous football title had been 1958,” said O’Reilly. “That team brought the whole community out. We had a great opponent in Ken Sciacca’s Salem team. That one is different from all the others.”
O’Reilly ran out the superstars.
He helped Mihalko reach for the stars at Notre Dame, Segreti achieve greatness at Holy Cross and Matt Jordan won a national title at UMass.
He backed them — and all of his athletes — every step of the way.
Back in the 90s, one former area coach in Massachusetts tried tweaking the Astros with Jordan in the middle of their amazing run.
He called them a “nice little team.”
O’Reilly spoke out bravely, challenging that coach’s team and any other from the Bay State.
“A line on a map doesn’t change the quality of the game,” he would say repeatedly.
O’Reilly then put his team where his mouth was, initiating the annual series with then-Mass. superpower Brockton.
“I loved it. Other than playoffs, Brockton was the highlight of the year for me,” said O’Reilly. “The only thing better were our years with two open dates, and we played both St. John’s Prep and Brockton.”
O’Reilly is known around New Hampshire as the architect of lacrosse sweeping through the Granite State. Typically, he deflected praise to of all people, Royce — as the coach chuckled — “a baseball guy.”
“It was all Bob. With his connections to the other high schools and the other A.D.’s, he was able to push the sport here before in NH, before it kind of swept in up here,” added O’Reilly.
“Bob was a baseball guy, and he still did what he thought was the right thing to do.”
THE LACROSSE MYTH Brian O'Reilly, contrary to the urban legends, was no lacrosse superstar in high school or college. In fact, until he came to Pinkerton Academy as a teacher/coach, he hadn't seen the game. But it was love at first sight. O'Reilly immersed himself in the game immediately, learning basic skills with the stick all the way up. "It was pretty humbling," he noted. Lacrosse provided O'Reilly with one of his great coaching thrills when his son, Patrick, played goaltender on the Astros' 1997 state title team. "I thoroughly enjoyed coaching him," said O'Reilly, noting that Patrick went on to win a Division 3 NCAA title at Middlebury as well. "But it was easy for me. Field goal kickers and goaltenders, I tend to leave them alone. So coaching my own son was pretty easy."