Longtime MVHS athletic director, coach Kevin O’Brien retires after four decades

  • Kevin O’€™Brien in the Merrimack Valley High School gym on June 16, 2022. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Dave Huckins is pictured in the lower right urging the crowd on at UNH during their championship run after he was injured in an earlier game. COURTESY—

  • Kevin O’€™Brien in an undated photo at Merrimack Valley. Courtesy

  • Kevin O’€™Brien in his office on June 16. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 7/1/2022 2:50:13 PM

It’s nearly impossible to walk through the halls of Merrimack Valley High School and not see a reminder of Kevin O’Brien.

In the gym where the banners hang and proudly display championship seasons for the Pride’s programs, the boys’ basketball banner displays three titles. All belong to O’Brien’s teams. When you step inside the school from the main entrance and make a left, you’ll see trophy cases filled with nets, basketballs and other mementos.

If you go a little farther down the hall, the last office on the right has Merrimack Valley memorabilia covering its walls. A poster of the 1974-75 varsity basketball schedule, various photos documenting moments throughout the past three decades, and a growing collection of softball items.

The most notable presence amid the collection is the person who pulled it all together. O’Brien also happens to be the office’s inhabiter. 

That collection is a bit thinner now. After 37 years, O’Brien retired at the end of June, taking with him a few posters and some aged photos, but leaving behind a giant legacy.

The new guy andmaster motivator

O’Brien and MV’s relationship started in 1985 when the freshly mustached 26-year-old volunteered as an assistant boys’ basketball coach. He took over the head coaching duties ahead of the 1987-88 season when his predecessor left for Merrimack.

“MV had had several teams over the years that had some promise, but just couldn’t get over that hump,” he said. “The community, the parents and the kids were so thirsty to win.”

“And so was I.”

The challenges of overcoming that hump started off with earning both the trust and respect of his players. It could’ve been easy for a group of high schoolers to test a young, inexperienced coach and they certainly did according to O’Brien.

Some didn’t run through the line during after-practice conditioning. Others went off-script with the plays or simply talked back. O’Brien navigated the minor frustrations with pushback of his own.

It didn’t take much time for then-senior captain Mark Kimball to follow his new coach into a season filled with unknowns. But one thing was known and it was that O’Brien was their head coach.

“When he first came we were kind of leery and wondered what he was going to bring to the table,” Kimball said. “To motivate players, he was one of the best ever. There was a moment where the switch flipped and he was one of us. We were going to follow him.”

Any time there was an open court in the state of New Hampshire, the Pride were there. Summer leagues in Concord, outdoor leagues in Manchester, tournaments at UMass, the Pride took the court and played.

“We had talent, but where did we want to go with it?” O’Brien said. “There’s many high schools that have talent, but don’t reach where they want to go. What are our goals, what do we want to do? This is the plan. Are we in or are we out?”

The work almost paid off in O’Brien’s first season. After an o-2 start the Pride looked like they were headed for their third loss when they played at Kingswood. In a back-and-forth game, Kimball scored the game-winning shot that set the course for the next decade and a half.

“You have those moments in your life where the road is going two ways and you’re sitting there going ‘boy oh boy.’” O’Brien said. “I could’ve found myself on an airplane to China because people were counting on me. I felt the pressure of the world and mostly because that’s who I am. I said put it on me.”

There wasn’t a one-way flight booked for O’Brien. MV won 14 consecutive games before it lost in the semifinals to eventual 1988 state champion Oyster River. A final four finish in year one was an incredible start, but it was just that.

A start.

Banners, trophiesand legacies

It didn’t take long for the recipe of O’Brien’s first team to carry over into the offseason. The workouts were longer, more difficult. The expectations were raised and there was less tolerance for goofing off. Simply put, the hard work in year one intensified in year two.

A large part of the success came from experience. O’Brien’s systems were in place, he had earned the team’s trust, and he proved to the school and community that winning at MV was real. Despite it only being year two, O’Brien’s crew was ready.

These teams still are talked about, but none more than O’Brien’s first championship team. Names like Jason Smith, Scott Drapeau and Dave Huckins filled the lineup.

Wins happened in droves and all the way through the semifinals things were on MV’s side, until Huckins sprained his ankle the night before the championship game against ConVal. Shorthanded in pursuit of their first title, the Pride rallied behind their coach in the third quarter as they were down 18.

O’Brien called a timeout to stop the game from getting out of hand, but the timeout had a greater purpose. A reminder of what they had worked for.

“I called the timeout and said to myself the next 45 seconds will be the most important 45 seconds I ever say to a group of kids,” O’Brien recalled. “I had them look in the crowd and I said ‘your families are out there. your mothers, your fathers, your sisters, your brothers – we’re not going out like this.’

“Let’s go get it. And God willing, that’s what happened.”

More than 33 years later, O’Brien remembers how the rest of the game transpired as if it happened last night. Slowly but surely, the Pride chipped away at the Cougars’ lead. The final blow happened with about three seconds left when MV scored the game-winner and secured the program’s first title, another foundational piece of O’Brien’s legacy.

One of those aforementioned photos contains that 1989 team. It’s through tears now that he looks back on that team and what was accomplished. Tears of joyful memories, tears of hard work paid off, tears of never-ending grief for a player gone too soon.

Huckins scored over 1,400 points in his career at MV and didn’t play in that championship game. He instead hobbled around on his crutches still doing his part. He pumped up the crowd and held guys accountable. Huckins and O’Brien talked about that game whenever they saw each other. Those conversations ended once Huckins died from cancer in 2017, leaving his coach with a memory and a story to tell.

The 1989 season was seminal for O’Brien and his program. It turned the school into basketball-crazed fans, the community wanting to see the team even in the offseason and more room for O’Brien to ramp up the standards.

MV played in three more championship games with O’Brien as their coach and won two of them, the last in 1993. As a result, the school became known as a basketball school. If you were a player and wanted to go someplace, MV was the destination. Its reputation was built on and lasted through one of New Hampshire’s most storied players in Drapeau.

Drapeau’s basketball resume is impressive. He still remembers the plays and the moments, playing for O’Brien. Now in his late 40s, Drapeau’s memories now shift toward O’Brien’s off-court mannerisms and what he’s done for him.

“If you put the time in with Kevin, he’ll put the time in with you,” Drapeau said. “Besides my father, (O’Brien’s) one of the most important people in my life. He’s always looking to better the person he’s helping and put the person before the athlete.”

The effect of winning a championship is never-ending. And a legacy that was created in the 20th century continues to hold strong.

New destinations and a farewell

O’Brien’s run as the basketball coach ended in 2002, but he added a new title well before it was over.

In 1994 he took over as MV’s athletic director and brought with him the same tools that made him successful as the basketball coach. His growing mission when he took over was to transform the moniker of a basketball school into dominance across all sports.

That mission has taken the better part of 28 years to accomplish, but the Pride’s athletic programs have flourished. MV has played for 24 state championships and won 10 of them with O’Brien as the athletic director.

O’Brien, now looking toward his 64th birthday in August, sits in his office near the end of his tenure, reflecting upon the summation of his career.

There are plenty of things he’ll miss, like seeing both current and former athletes pop in for a visit in between class periods. He’ll miss his parking spot. Most of all, he’ll miss his home.

“When I met Merrimack Valley, I knew it was for me,” he said. “We hit it off automatically and we started our journey. I’m so fortunate that we found each other, I’m a lucky guy.”

Matt Parker bio photo

Matt Parker is a sports reporter at the Monitor and started in August 2021. He is an Ohio native and relishes being from the Buckeye state. A proud graduate of Ohio University located in Athens, Ohio, he served as the sports editor for the student-run newspaper, The Post, from 2019-20. When not at a game or chasing around a coach, you can catch him playing his guitars or looking for the next Peanuts memorabilia piece to add in his growing collection.

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