HOUSTON -- Ask Bill O'Brien to assess the stress of being a sports dad, and the Houston Texans' hyper-intense second-year coach holds nothing back. "Watching my son pitch, or making a fourth-down call? I'm way less nervous coaching an NFL game -- no question. When I watch him play, I'm a mess."
Yet O'Brien, while taking down a pair of soft tacos Tuesday night at a Mexican restaurant near his Houston home, managed to mine his angst for some comedic value. Recounting a story in which Michael O'Brien, a talented 10-year-old lefty, was attempting to close out a recent game in an all-star tournament in nearby Westbury, Bill said, "He started with a strikeout, but then a couple of things went wrong. Little League is huge here, and the stands were packed -- I mean, there must have been almost 200 people. So much pressure ... Then, bam, he gives up a double, and the winning run comes in. He takes his glove and slams it to the mound, as hard as he can. And I look down, shake my head and say to everyone, 'Yeah -- he got that from his mother.' "
The joke worked on multiple levels. Colleen O'Brien gave up her job as a lawyer to care for the couple's older son, Jack, who suffers from lissencephaly, a brutal neurological condition that, among other severely debilitating effects, causes him to endure numerous seizures on a daily basis. Bill lauds Colleen's patient, even-keeled demeanor, describing her as a "rock star."
Colleen's husband, meanwhile, attacks his job like Ozzy Osbourne in the heyday of Black Sabbath, with a similar affinity for F-bombs. O'Brien's forceful, driven demeanor was a major reason for the Texans' impressive turnaround last season -- despite being forced to play four quarterbacks, Houston improved upon its 2013 victory total by seven games, nearly sneaking into the playoffs with a 9-7 record -- and has the potential to make him a breakout star when the team is featured on HBO's "Hard Knocks" this summer.
If that happens, it won't be because O'Brien craved the attention. He hardly knocked on HBO's door asking them to invade the Texans' training camp with cameras; as with most coaches, he was told by his bosses that such an arrangement would be good for the organization, and he decided to make the best of the situation. That said, he has already informed the show's producer that he would prefer the storylines focus primarily on the Texans' players -- "This isn't about me; it's about our team," he explained Tuesday -- and he says he'll review all footage before it airs to ensure that they're not portrayed in a compromising light.
And while it has been presumed that the impending quarterback competition between Brian Hoyer and Ryan Mallett, two players O'Brien previously coached during his time as the New England Patriots' offensive coordinator, will be one of the reality show's most obvious and compelling storylines, he might be giving that the wet-blanket treatment, as well.
"That decision may be made before training camp," O'Brien said. "They're out here competing (in OTAs and at mandatory minicamp) every single day, and it's pretty intense. So, we may pick a guy very soon. And if we don't, and the decision does go into training camp, it'll be made pretty early on. The team needs to know who the guy is, and we need to go forward."
O'Brien's full-speed-ahead approach has served as the Texans' driving force since the franchise hired him in January 2014 to replace Gary Kubiak -- who, after coaching the team to the first two playoff seasons in its history, bottomed out with a disastrous two-win campaign in 2013. Yet the circumstances weren't especially daunting to O'Brien, who had coaxed a pair of winning seasons out of Penn State in the aftermath of the late Joe Paterno's retirement, the shameful Jerry Sandusky scandal and the accompanying NCAA sanctions.
Throw in his impressive stint as the Patriots' offensive coordinator during the 2011 Super Bowl run, his fifth season on coach Bill Belichick's staff, and O'Brien has a hell of a résumé. He has proven to be even better than advertised, at least in the eyes of the Texans' best and most respected player.
"He's a very, very good football coach," said defensive end J.J. Watt, the NFL's reigning Defensive Player of the Year. "He's extremely knowledgeable, he has high expectations and he holds people accountable. I like the fact that he understands that it takes extreme hard work, it takes a lot of study, and it takes everybody knowing (his) role on the team and doing (his) job to be great.
"There's no substitute for hard work, and I like the fact that we work to be good. To be a coach like that, you have to be willing to put in the work yourself. You can't just talk about it; you have to be about it."
O'Brien doesn't shy away from his reputation as a taskmaster. On Tuesday, while sipping a Corona and keeping tabs on Game 3 of the NBA Finals, the coach pulled out his iPhone and revealed its standing, daily alarm of 4:30 a.m. "I usually wake myself up by then anyway," he said. "It's so great, getting to be one of the 32 people who's an NFL head coach, and grinding is the only way I know how to do this. We worked them hard today, and it was hot out there. But that's who the Houston Texans are."
A native of Andover, a Boston suburb, O'Brien has certainly attempted to create an environment similar to New England's. He is an unabashed admirer of Belichick -- and he remains close with Josh McDaniels, who both preceded and succeeded him as the Pats' offensive coordinator -- but he is far from a Hoodie clone.
Whereas Belichick would rather spend an afternoon shoveling snow in a tuxedo than reveal a shred of personality -- especially to outsiders -- O'Brien has a congenial side that he doesn't try very hard to conceal. In the words of one former Patriots front-office employee, "He's a disciple of Bill, but he's very much his own man. And even as he has moved on and had success, he hasn't changed at all. Great coach, great guy."
Said Hoyer: "He's still the same fiery, intense guy I played for in New England. Having lived there, when you think of a guy who grew up in Boston, sometimes the accent will come out when the yelling starts. He's kind of the definitive blue-collar guy who works his butt off and demands a lot out of you, but he can also make you laugh. He keeps it light. He talks a lot about having perspective on things."
In O'Brien's case, perspective is a given. Jack's condition is a constant source of stress and fear -- when Bill is at work, Colleen contacts him when their son suffers a grand mal seizure, but lesser episodes are so routine that she handles them on her own. Diagnosed around the time of his first birthday, Jack, his father recalled, "wasn't supposed to make it to 2. He's 13 now. I actually told the team about it the other day, to make a point about beating the odds and defying expectations."
Though O'Brien helps care for Jack when he's not at work, and has basically distilled his life to coaching and family, maintaining a healthy balance is a struggle.
"I'm not as good at it as I sometimes think I am," he conceded. "I think about the Houston Texans all the time. I've got to be the best head coach I can be for this team, every day -- but I don't bring work home. When the season's over, that's when my perspective's better. And it'll be hard to have great perspective when 'Hard Knocks' is around, but I'll try."
If O'Brien decides on a starting quarterback before the cameras start rolling, it will be because either Hoyer or Mallett will have stepped up and seized the job. "Both guys are competitive as hell," O'Brien said. "We feel like we have two really good guys. I know people on the outside aren't high on our quarterbacks, but I feel really good about our situation."
As further proof of O'Brien's growing comfort level, he'll cede one of his major responsibilities to George Godsey, the trusted associate he recently promoted from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator. "I'm going to let him take over play-calling," O'Brien said. "He'll do a really good job -- and I feel like you have to be careful, as a head coach, not to focus too much on any one area. You have to be the coach for the whole team."
While O'Brien has many mentors, including former college coaches George O'Leary and Ralph Friedgen, that philosophy represents another instance in which Belichick's influence is obvious.
"He can go to any position meeting, and he can go to any position on the field during practice, and coach that position like it's his position," Watt said of O'Brien. "And for a guy to know every single position on the field, and every single assignment that they're supposed to have, while having every other responsibility as a head coach -- well, it's pretty impressive."
Less impressive is O'Brien's wardrobe, as discerning "Hard Knocks" viewers will discover.
"My wife asks me, 'Do you ever change your clothes?' " O'Brien said. "I wear the same thing every day: A ball cap, a white undershirt, a blue T-shirt and blue sweatpants that are really light, because I have Irish skin and don't want to get sunburned. The undershirt can be white or blue, but the T-shirt is always blue. And I always have a white towel around my neck, because I sweat a lot, and I need to wipe my (follically challenged) head. I have two of everything, so the clothes are usually clean. I told our equipment guys, 'I'm not a very complicated man.' "
He's also not very PG-13, though O'Brien insisted he'd do his best to clean up his language when HBO's cameras are rolling out of deference to his parents, John and Anne, who'll be watching from their home in Cape Cod.
"They may have to bleep out a lot," Hoyer said. "I'm a little nervous about (swearing on camera) myself. But I think people who don't know Billy will see him and will love him for the way he is. He demands a lot out of you, and he's gonna tell you how it is. Sometimes you may not like it, but for the most part, he's usually right."
As O'Brien polished off his plate and prepared to head home Tuesday night, he dropped another nugget that could preempt another expected "Hard Knocks" storyline: Second-year pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney's struggle to return from last December's microfracture surgery on his right knee. There has been speculation that Clowney, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2014 draft, might not be the same player following the surgery, but O'Brien was surprisingly optimistic.
"I think he's gonna be there for the opening game (of the regular season) against Kansas City," O'Brien said. "I think he's going to make it back, and I'm really looking forward to that. He's working very hard to get back."
Of course Clowney is; anything less, and his coach will be very tempted to start dropping F-bombs, quite possibly in a Boston accent.