By Max Goodwin
Over 51 years of coaching high school sports, Tom O’Brien has learned to measure the success of each season from the look on the faces of the kids he coaches.
For example, the Barstow girls tennis team won a triple crown of a singles title, a doubles title, and a team Class 2 state title. When talking about that season, those achievements weren’t what stood out in O’Brien’s mind; it was the look of pure joy on the kids’ faces as they posed with the state championship trophy.
That award ceremony had to be moved indoors due to a rainstorm that moved in just as the championship match ended. After the ceremony, the kids ran into the rain and posed with their trophies in the downpour. That’s how O’Brien measures success.
It’s an approach that has led to the news that he would be inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame as part of the 2023 induction class. On April 23rd, in a ceremony at Municipal Auditorium, O’Brien officially entered the Hall of Fame along with a class that included Lorenzo Cain, Carl Peterson, and Muna Lee.
Based in Springfield, the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame has honored coaches, athletes, and sports programs since 1994. Recently it began an expansion to honor sports figures from specific areas of the state.
From south Kansas City, the Rockhurst High School football program, a historically dominant presence around the state in football, was also honored along with O’Brien and the 2002-2010 volleyball teams from Archbishop O’Hara, which was a Catholic high school that was open from 1965 to 2017 in southeast Kansas City.
O’Brien began his coaching career at Bishop Hogan High School. He moved to Hickman Mills High School in 1980, where the girls basketball teams he coached won 10 conference championships and finished as runner-up in the Class 4 state championships in 1986. His winning percentage (.785) as a girls basketball coach is the second-best in the 60-year history of the Suburban Conference. At Hickman Mills, O’Brien also coached boys basketball and golf.
In 2006, O’Brien became head coach of the Barstow tennis program. The teams he has coached at Barstow have won two girls state championships (2013, 2021) and one boys state championship (2021). Barstow tennis teams have finished eight times in the top four of the state tournament. Three boys tennis players have won an individual tennis state title with O’Brien as coach at Barstow; Fletcher Scott in 2015, Bradley Frye in 2017, and Richey King in 2021. Two girls have won state titles; Alena Frye in 2012 and Sarena Biria in 2021. Six groups of girls have won doubles titles, and two boys doubles teams have won a title.
Last year, the National Federation of High School Coaches named Tom O’Brien the national coach of the year after Barstow boys and girls teams both won state titles in 2021. Barstow High School held a Tom O’Brien Day at the school with a presentation to honor him for the award. Whenever O’Brien is asked about his accomplishments, he always gives the credit to the kids he has coached over the years.
“Tom has never cared about or even kept track of win-loss records. He has always been about player development and preparation for the toughest matches they will face to get to a state title. His players from 40 years ago still write and ask him to speak at their parent’s funerals. That’s the kind of coach and person he is,” said Tom’s wife, Gina O’Brien, at that time.
“You look back on the season, and it really boils down to: did the kids that you coached feel like it was worth it?” O’Brien said.
O’Brien remains coach at Barstow tennis even after his induction into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame.