In early 2007, Bill O'Brien's football journey took a step backward and giant leap forward at the same time.
In the short term, O'Brien went from the offensive coordinator post at Duke to a quality control assistant with the New England Patriots. It was a drastic slash in salary and rank. But it served as a springboard to where he is now.
"I called Colleen and said 'We're going to take about a $150,000 pay cut here, and we're going to go to New England,'" O'Brien said of that conversation with his wife. "I heard the phone drop. Like, 'You idiot!'"
The Texans head coach steadily moved up the coaching ranks throughout the 1990's and early part of the 2000's. But everything changed, for the better, when he picked up the phone and heard Bill Belichick's
voice on the other end of the line.
"Coach called me and said he had a quality control job," O'Brien said during his weekly show on Texans Radio. "'I want you to interview with Josh McDaniels, and Nick Caserio at the Combine.' It was right after the 2006 season. So I went and I interviewed."
His huddle with the McDaniels/Caserio duo went so well, that he didn't catch the plane back from Indianapolis to Durham, North Carolina.
"From the Combine, they flew me right back to Massachusetts," O'Brien said. "I couldn't even go back to Duke, and they offered me this job. I'm not going to tell you what the salary was, but it wasn't much."
Like he's done at every other stop in his coaching career, O'Brien immersed himself in the job and was quickly elevated from the quality control post.
"I think he felt like I could coach a position," O'Brien said of Belichick. "So after one year, I became the wide receiver coach in '08."
It was a jarring juxtaposition from his start in coaching as a 24-year old, when he was in charge of the Brown University tight ends.
"I walked into that wide receiver meeting, I'll never forget that, the first wide receiver meeting," O'Brien said. "In that wide receiver room was Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Donte Stallworth, Kelley Washington, Jabar Gaffney. At that time in the NFL, it was probably the best receiving corps in the NFL, and here comes this guy from Brown walking in there. They were like 'What? What do you know?'"
O'Brien would spend the next two years coaching Tom Brady and the quarterbacks, and took over the offensive coordinator duties in 2011. His time in New England helped prepare him for the head coaching stint at Penn State the two years after, and the Texans gig starting in 2014.
"That experience with the Patriots was just a great experience for me," O'Brien said. "It taught me a lot about football. It taught me a lot about myself, and I owe a lot to Bill for that."
O'Brien and the Texans are focused on toppling Belichick and the Patriots this Sunday night. He took a moment during his Monday press conference, and then again during his radio show to reflect on his five-year stop in New England. While he made a lot less money that first year in the NFL, he said the experience and knowledge gained was priceless, and never a "risk" in terms of his football career.
For O'Brien, the Texans and their fans, hopefully everything gained from his time as a Patriot pays dividends against his former team on Sunday evening.
President George H.W. Bush met with head coach Bill O'Brien and wife Colleen on Thursday. Images courtesy of Cristi Harvey Photography.