By Max Goodwin
Tom O’Brien has learned over more than four decades coaching high school athletics that the individual games are never as important as they feel at the moment.
He stopped judging success on wins and losses long ago. Instead, it’s the look on his players’ faces at the end of the season.
“You look back on the season and it really boils down to, did the kids that you coached, did they feel like it was worth it?” O’Brien said.
Almost always, O’Brien has seen the look on their faces that tells him it was. It’s a look of joy, he says.
There’s been a lot of that joy around the Barstow tennis program in recent years. Barstow has been perennial contenders since O’Brien took over as coach of the girls team in 2006 and the boys team in 2008, accumulating 325 wins since then.
The Barstow girls team completed a triple crown this past season winning the state doubles championship, team championship, and junior Sarena Biria won the singles state title. The Barstow boys won a team state championship and junior Richey King won the singles state championship.
Barstow tennis won nearly everything there was to win in the past year. And then O’Brien added on some more. The National Federation of High School Coaches had already named O’Brien the Missouri state coach of the year, as well as the regional coach of the year, and on January 20 named him the National Coach of the Year for the sport of tennis.
“When I read the letter I still didn’t believe it, I mean how do you pick the best coach in the nation? It’s crazy,” Tom O’Brien said. “If anything good happened last year, it happened because of the kids.”
O’Brien has coached three different sports since starting out in 1978 as a girls basketball coach at Hickman Mills High School. He has coached junior varsity and varsity, boys and girls, public schools and private.
Throughout that wide-ranging coaching career, it’s always been about the kids and their progress. He feels most rewarded by the long journey when he sees the kids he has coached years later as adults. Some of them are coaching kids of their own now.
“His players from 40 years ago still write and ask him to speak at their parents’ funeral. That’s the kind of coach and person that he is,” said Gina O’Brien, Tom’s wife and a retired Grandview teacher.
Even after such prodigious seasons by Barstow teams, O’Brien said he never could have anticipated such a big award as national coach of the year.
“How would anyone imagine this?” O’Brien said. “It’s crazy,”
O’Brien has some simple advice for young coaches just starting out in high school sports.
“Put the time in, do it for the sport, and count your success on the faces of the kids you coach,” O’Brien said.