How to Build a Dynasty with 3x State Champion Coach Brendan O'Connell of Eleanor Roosevelt HS

Coach Brendan O’Connell poses with his players after winning the 2019 Maryland 4A State Championship  Photo Credit: 247Sports

Coach Brendan O’Connell poses with his players after winning the 2019 Maryland 4A State Championship

Photo Credit: 247Sports

Tristan: All right, welcome in, everybody. We got Coach Brendan O'Connell on the other line right now. Head coach at Eleanor Roosevelt High School, recent recipient of the 4A State Championship down there in Maryland. I believe that's a third time that they've actually picked up that title. Coach, how you doing today?

Coach O’Connell: I'm doing great, thanks for having me on.

Tristan: Absolutely, thanks for joining us. Has the hangover worn off? How are we doing after winning that third state championship, there?

Coach O’Connell: It feels good, it's going to feel good for a while.

Tristan: There we go. Are we still relishing on it, or we already onto next season?

Coach O’Connell: No, we don't start that fast. I'm still enjoying that season and enjoying going home at 3:00 every day with not too much to do.

Tristan: That is a nice little plus, I definitely agree with you in that realm. But it's not too long, though. I feel like maybe another week or so, we're already getting back into the training plans, back into the developing for next season.

Coach O’Connell: Yep. We usually start up right after Spring Break.

Tristan: There it is.

Craig: There. All right, then you're back into it. Start reserving that gym time, for sure.

Tristan: Coach, let's just get it started right there. Tell us about your start into this role here. I mean, you took over this program at a very, relatively, young age at, I believe, 24 years old. You took it over, you've been handling it since then. Tell us about that transition into coaching, your experience prior, and what drew you to the position.

Coach O’Connell: Yeah, well I didn't really know what I was going to do. I was in college, but I knew I wanted to teach. I figured that out about halfway through my time at the University of Maryland, and the first place I got a job teaching, out of college, was at Eleanor Roosevelt High School. And, I've always been into basketball and all sorts of sports, so I just started helping out with the team there. I coached JV for a season, assisted with the varsity, and then got lucky enough to get that job really early, and I've had it ever since.

Tristan: Okay, yeah. And then, so, when you took it over, I believe the school had, maybe, one state championship under its reigns. You kind of came in there, really changed the mindset, it looked like. At least, judging from the statistics realm, and really took over. Tell us about instilling that winning attitude in a team that you're just jumping into, young age. Maybe these kids are just a few years younger than yourself. Tell us how you really took hold of that position.

Coach O’Connell provides in-game feedback during a home game.  Photo Credit: Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post

Coach O’Connell provides in-game feedback during a home game.

Photo Credit: Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post

Coach O’Connell: You know, I get asked that a decent amount, and I don't feel like I have a great recipe, like, "Hey, this is what I can point to." I just feel like... Just trying to develop the attitude of working hard and caring about yourself and your school and representing your teammates well, and just... I mean, we just kind of dove into it there, and I look back, and it's not like... It all happened really fast, I was not expecting to get the head coaching job there, so it's not like... Like you said, I was 24 years old, I didn't have a great idea in my head, like I'd been an assistant for years, and this is how I wanted to run a program. It just kind of happened, so we just kind of dove in. But yeah, I mean, we were lucky, early on, to have... I've been really lucky to have a bunch of great assistant coaches, and then those first few teams of kids who just wanted to work hard and cared about winning, care about each other, and it just kind of evolved from there.

Craig: Yeah, so what did you do before the head coaching role? Did you start in youth coaching or assistant coaching anywhere before that? Or you kind of jumped right in?

Coach O’Connell: You know, I've worked at camps. I worked at a bunch of basketball camps growing up, in college, that sort of stuff, but yeah, I didn't have a ton of experience. I had a year helping out as an assistant, and then half a year coaching JV, and then we had a little situation at the school, and then I had a head coach, who... Sorry, I had a principal who just trusted and believed that I was the right guy for the job. Luckily, that's worked out.

We try to keep our practices very consistent, in terms of, we’ll start every single practice with skill work. Dribbling, passing, shooting, every single day. Our next chunk will be a chunk of defense. A lot of it, breakdown. We play a lot of man-to-man defense, and then we’ll mix in some offense and some pressure stuff, toward the end of practice. But, we try to keep it very consistent. I think the kids respond to the consistency.

Craig: Yeah, so what kind of advice would you have for other coaches who find themselves in a similar position? They're new, they're... High expectations of them, what would you say to them?

Coach O’Connell: If I would give any sort of advice, I would say, just be true to who you are. There's a lot of distractions these days, in terms of social media and parents and outside influence, and really just try to enforce the culture you want. I think it was super important, early on, that we had the right kids and right coaches and right parents in our program. And even if that would've meant, "Hey, here's one super talented kid that has a little bit of an attitude problem," cutting him. I think making sure you've got the right people to work with, every day, is super important.

Craig: Yeah, how do you instill a culture like that? How do you actually define the type of culture that you want to have within your program?

Coach O’Connell: That's like I was saying earlier. I don't know that I got a great answer for that. It just kind of happened. I feel like... I try to lead by example, a lot. I hope the kids, and other coaches in our program, see me working hard all the time and treating people the right way and being of high character, and I hope I can sort of set that example, but I don't know. If someone could write a boo on it, and just do it, everyone would do it. So, I recognize that I have been fortunate. I think, early on, that we had some people that bought in, and then it's just, sort of, now... It just sort of carries itself. The new incoming freshman look at the upperclassmen, and they sort of, you know, "Hey, this is how we do things here." And so... Luckily, we got off the ground running, early on, and now it just keeps rolling.

Tristan: There it is. Yeah, you set the tone early, and all of a sudden, what do you know? You're still... You're creating a little dynasty in your own right, that's for sure. So, let's get into the skills development of your team each year. Obviously, you're coming into each season, you have different skillsets that you have to deal with, you have different players you have to deal with, different attitudes. Tell us about how you start off your year, in terms of skills development. Any sort of drills or training exercises that you lean towards, that really get the kids into the right mindset, into that right physical frame?

Coach O’Connell: So, no. We're a public school in Maryland, so we have some limitation on how we can work with the kids on the basketball court, out of season. But, we do do a lot. We do a lot in the fall, with conditioning and strength training, and I think a lot of that helps just set a work ethic tone for the season. But, just in terms of... Our fall is typically spent on the track, a lot, in the weight room, doing sorts of agility and conditioning things. We do a lot of that in the fall because we are a little limited on how much we can actually work with the kids on the courts.

Tristan: So, we're getting into the season now, and we're... The season's starting up, you've already had your training camp, you've already figured out... You've already, unfortunately, made the cuts that might have to come along with it, you got your core group of guys. Now, let's say you're approaching the season, you start off on a hot streak. All of a sudden, you might hit a little bit of a skid. How do you change the mindset of those kids, there? How do you turn that around? Is there any sort of, like I said, training drills, practice exercises that you prefer, whether it's scrimmaging every practice, or if it's individually working with one student, alone, or a couple students at a time? Is there any kind of strategy that you instill there?

Coach O’Connell assessing his team’s play in the state semifinals.  Photo Credit: The Sentinel

Coach O’Connell assessing his team’s play in the state semifinals.

Photo Credit: The Sentinel

Coach O’Connell: We try to keep our practices very consistent, in terms of, we'll start every single practice with skill work. Dribbling, passing, shooting, every single day. Our next chunk will be a chunk of defense. A lot of it, breakdown. We play a lot of man-to-man defense, and then we'll mix in some offense and some pressure stuff, toward the end of practice. But, we try to keep it very consistent. I think the kids respond to the consistency. Obviously, if we think we're slacking in one area, we certainly will emphasize it a lot more in practice. We watch a lot of film at Roosevelt, and really... Hey, if I don't they're learning back, very hard, on defense, I'm going to show that to them, a lot, on film. And then, we'll go in and simulate that. Or, if I think we're being lazy with the ball, I'm going to show that, a lot, on film. So, practice is... The model is pretty consistent, we'll switch up the drills, we'll emphasize some things, but we do talk a lot, meetings before and after practice, and we do watch a lot of film, too.

The new incoming freshman look at the upperclassmen, and they sort of, you know, “Hey, this is how we do things here.” And so... Luckily, we got off the ground running, early on, and now it just keeps rolling.

Tristan: Sure, yeah, of course the film has to play a part in there. Now, would you say that you're the one identifying it, or do you really try and push it onto your players, to be the ones to take it onto themselves, to watch this film, take some time after school, after classes, and really dig into it, or are you walking them through it, the entire time?

Coach O’Connell: Both. Both. Obviously, we've been using Huddle now. HUDL, Krossover, all the online platforms, that's really changed things in the last few years, and made it possible that all the kids can watch the games that they just played, as soon as they get home, full game, on their phones, on their iPads. It's nice that I can track that, so I can see who's watching what. I can clip things up and send it to them. But, if there's some things that really need to be addressed, I like to do it as a group, so we'll do both.

Craig: So, let's say you've moved through the season, I know consistency is really important with the way that you practice, but say you're moving into the post-season. Maybe you've got fatigue setting in, or even some injuries on the team. How do you adjust your skills development, or do you change up the types of drills that you do there, towards the end of the season?

Coach O’Connell: Yeah, for sure. We shorten practice. We'll typically go two, two and a half hours, early in the year, and then we're down to one and a half hours, late in the year. I mean, I think late in the year, certainly in the playoff run, we don't need as much live basketball being played back and forth. It'll be a lot more skill work, shooting, passing, dribbling. A lot more shooting as the end of the season and the playoffs come down to stretch. A lot more walkthroughs because yeah, I mean, these kids... Their bodies wear down, everybody's tired. And yeah, certainly, I think injuries are more likely to happen when people are mentally and physically tired. So, in terms of... Nothing, again, no totally new drills, but we'll tweak them, so that they're not quite as live or they're quicker, or something like that.

Craig: Okay, got it. And, I mean, it sounds like you've got a winning formula here. I wanted to ask, kind of, a general question about skills development and the types of drills that you use. How do you balance, kind of, individual focus in the types of drills that you choose, versus team-level drills? You know what I mean? Like, being able to provide that individual focus that a particular player needs, versus the needs of the broader team?

Coach O’Connell: Yeah, that's a great questions because that's one that I struggle with, too. I think, as coaches, sometimes we get caught up, too much, in the entire group, and don't focus enough on individual instruction. So, I try to emphasize as much individual instruction as possible. I'm lucky that I have, typically, two, three, and four coaches with me, so we can split up in groups, and we do a lot of... We'll split up by position group or we'll split up by grade level, freshmen and sophomores at one basket, then juniors and seniors, to address specific needs. But yeah, I mean, I always worry that we're spending too much time running through plays and because... None of that's going to work if the kids don't have the individual skills. So, trying to find that balance is hard. I'm reminded of that a lot, as I have little kids, now, who are starting to play sports. And, I'm going to their practices, and I'm watch them, and I'm thinking basically 100% of their practice should be skill work. Individual skill work. At that age, they just need that. And then, somehow, when they transfer into high school, we got to find that balance. But yeah, it's hard. It's hard to find that balance.

Tristan: Absolutely. Well, I certainly wouldn't want to be that little league coach that's got the state championship looking over his shoulder. That's just me. So, here at Hustle, we're all about the advancing, the training plans via technology, when the coaches aren't around. You mentioned that watching the film plays a big part in the program, at Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Huddle technology, and all that. Is there any other technology aspects that you use right now, in terms of training, in terms of skills development, and what do you think the future holds high school and up, in terms of basketball playing, here?

Coach O’Connell: Well, one thing that I would like to see, that I do, and I'm sure there's some app for this that I'm just not aware of, but I like to film the kids shooting, and film their shooting form individually. And then I like to watch that with them. And, you know, every kid's unique, so I'm not exactly sure how you would... I'm sure someone out there is smart enough to figure out an app that could correct peoples' form. But, that's one thing I love to do with the kids because I'm telling them, "Hey, you're not shooting the ball high enough," or, "You're not getting your shoulder up high enough when you shoot." They hear me, but until I actually show it to them... I just bring the iPhone out and put it in slow-mo, and it's really a great way for them to analyze their own shot. We have one of the shooting guns at Roosevelt, so you get those kids on that shooting machine, and they can take... There's another piece of technology that's great. But, they can take 100 shots in five minutes, and I can sit there and film their form, and then we can analyze it later. So, that's one thing I do a lot, that I think it helpful to some of our kids.

Craig: Got it. Great, yeah. I think that's a really interesting idea, about analyzing form through mobile apps, and you know, with Hustle, we are constantly evolving and that's certainly something that we've discussed, internally, about... And you're not the only coach that's asked a similar question. Let's move onto the last round before we wrap up. It's out rapid fire round.

Coach O’Connell: Okay. 

Craig: So, ask a number of quick questions, and kind of learn a little bit more about you. So, I'll kick this off right away. Are there any YouTube channels for coaching content, that you're always visiting?

Coach O’Connell: Not off the top of my head, but I am always on Twitter, and I like a lot of the X's and O's strategy YouTube channels.

Tristan: All right, then, so give us the top... Let's say one to three accounts. IF we can't come up with three. Let's say one to three accounts that you utilize for those coaching tips.

Coach O’Connell: I just follow a bunch of coaches, so... Zak Boisvert has a great one. He's been all over the play at Maine and Army, but he's got a great X's and O's site that I follow.

Craig: So, what's your favorite sports movie of all time?

Coach O’Connell: My new favorite, I think because my kids love it now, too, is The Sandlot.

Craig: Oh yeah.

Tristan: What a throwback.

Craig: Yeah, that's good. 

Coach O’Connell: I loved it as a kid, but now that I watched it with them, and they loved it too, it made me love it more.

Tristan: All right, next rapid fire question. You mentioned your kids are getting into the sports now. Are you leaning toward the basketball realm, or are you getting them into the other sports, as well, trying to make it a more well-rounded approach?

Coach O’Connell: I've got three kids, and none of them currently play basketball, so that answers that.

Tristan: Wow.

Coach O’Connell: It'd be great if they love it later, but they can do whatever they want.

 Tristan: There it is. Well coach, definitely appreciate you taking the time here tonight. Thank you again. Is there any... You mentioned the social media before. Any kind of social media, any organizations you want to plug here before we set you on your way?

Coach O’Connell: No, you know, we're really proud of what we're doing at Roosevelt. Our Twitter handle is @ERoosRaiders. You can give us a follow, check us out. Great program with a lot of kids doing a lot of good things in college and beyond, so hopefully that'll continue. Appreciate you guys having me on. 

Tristan: Absolutely. That's one more thing I got to ask. It's completely off the cuff here, so no worries if you don't have the exact number. Do you have any idea how many athletes you've sent to play on, at the next level?

Coach O’Connell: No. I think it's about 50 or so.

Craig: Wow.

Tristan: That'll do. That'll do.

Coach O’Connell: But yeah, no, yeah, we've been lucky. 

Tristan: Yeah, I'd say so. Changing lives.

Coach O’Connell: A lot of good players come through.

Tristan: Yeah, changing their lives one step at a time. Well, I know you folks definitely have a couple of college commits from this past year. Definitely wish you all the best in the future, as well, as well as to all your players, and appreciate the time once again here, coach.

Coach O’Connell: Yeah, thanks, guys.