Prep Football Practice Opener: New St. Thomas Academy Coach Excited to be Back in Prep Ranks

August 14, 2018 09:54 AM

It's been well over 20 years since Dan O'Brien was last a head coach at the high school level.

But the former Gophers assistant, and longtime area college coach and administrator, believes the experience he's built up since then will serve him well as he returns to the prep coaching ranks at St. Thomas Academy this season.


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"The football piece is similar," O'Brien said. "You're still dealing with 11 guys out there on the field. And they all put their pants on the same way. It's just that the guys I'm coaching now are a little smaller than the guys I was working with before."

O'Brien was hired at St. Thomas Academy this offseason, replacing Jason Sedlak, who stepped down after two seasons on the job.

In addition to his role as head coach, he is also the school's director of community outreach and partnerships.

He brings an impressive resume to his new position. He was an assistant coach at Benilde-St. Margaret's and Lakeville High School from 1987-93, then took over as the head coach at Bemidji from 1993-95.

Since then, he has worked in the college ranks. He was first an assistant, then the head coach at Concordia-St. Paul, and served as the school's athletic director from 1999 to 2002. He was the athletic director at Hamline from 2002 to 2007, then served as director of football operations at the University of Minnesota from 2008 to 2014.

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After serving as the senior associate athletic director for football from 2014-15, he joined head coach Tracy Claeys' coaching staff with the Gophers in the last stages of the 2015 season and the 2016 campaign.

Claeys was let go following the 2016 season and O'Brien took a job at Sun Country Airlines. But he helped out as an assistant coach at St. Agnes last fall, and that experience convinced him he wasn't ready to be done with football.

"It was an absolute blast, and I knew I would eventually try to go out and get a head job," said O'Brien, who expected to have around 90 to 100 players out in grades 10-12 as practice got underway for the majority of fall athletes throughout the state Monday.

St. Thomas Academy activities director Bob Slater said O'Brien's resume made him an attractive choice.

"He brings a wealth of coaching experience at both the high school and college level, and he's very well connected in the football community," Slater said. "He's not a newbie by any means. There's not going to be much of a learning curve."

His new players are excited to have him onboard.

"We all knew about his background and all the places he's coached," said senior captain Brendan McFadden after the season's first practice Monday. "So we were all excited to have him here. Maybe a little intimidated at first. But he fit right in and set all of us at ease. We're really looking forward to getting going."

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O'Brien said he gained a lot of valuable knowledge during his time in the college ranks. He expects to draw on that as he starts his new job.

"A lot of the offensive stuff we're doing are things I learned from [former Gophers coach Jerry] Kill," he said. "The defensive stuff will draw on some of the things I did back in Bemidji. But there will be stuff I learned from Coach Claeys as well. There's going to be a bit of everything thrown in there."

After a scrimmage at Burnsville on Aug. 25 that will also feature Bloomington Kennedy and Rochester John Marshall, St. Thomas Academy opens its season at North St. Paul on Aug. 30.

After advancing to the Class 5A state title game in 2015, the Cadets haven't been quite as successful the past two seasons. The team finished 6-5 last year, falling to Apple Valley in the Section 3-5A final.

"A down year at St. Thomas Academy is a little different than in a lot of places," O'Brien said. "They still had really good teams here the past couple of years, and those kids worked hard. We have a lot of talent back and I'm excited to get going."

Donation drive for helmets

St. Cloud Cathedral wanted to purchase newer and safer helmets this season. But the cost of getting enough to meet the team's need ran close to $20,000.

"And we don't have big numbers," Crusaders activities director Emmett Keenan said. "Just imagine how much it costs for schools that do have bigger numbers."

The school began a fundraising drive in July and Keenan said they are very close to reaching their goal. In fact, 58 new Schutt F5 helmets have already been ordered.

"Halfway through we took a leap of faith," Keenan said.

"The response has been great. We've had people send us $25 and we've had people send us $1,000. It's all appreciated. We've received donations from people who graduated in the 1940s all the way up to people who graduated two years ago."

Moorhead adds experienced assistant

Moorhead head coach Kevin Feeney's coaching staff got an unexpected boost this summer.

Spencer Stowers, who was the head coach at Queen Creek Casteel High School in Arizona and led the team to a 14-0 record and a state championship last season, joined the Spuds as an assistant. Stowers' wife is from the Fargo-Moorhead area, and they moved to Minnesota in the offseason to be closer to her family.

He found an open job in the Moorhead school district and took a place on Feeney's staff.

"He'll coach on the defensive side of the football," said Feeney, who also expected around 90 to 100 players in grades 10-12 at the start of practice Monday. "He'll coach our outside linebackers and he'll be involved on special teams. But really, he's going to have a role in every facet of the game."

"When you have a guy with his background, you really want to pick his brain. I've already been talking to him about how they handled this or that. We're really lucky to have him here," Fenney said.

Stowers played college football nearby at Jamestown (N.D.) College.


Frank Rajkowski

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