49ers Defense Buck Stops with West’s O’Neil
To Run in the November 23rd Bucks County Herald
Jim O’Neil was at a cross roads.
A star lineman at CB West in the mid 1990s, O’Neil had just completed a solid career at defensive end for Towson.
“I wanted to stay involved with the sport. I didn’t think I was good enough to play at the NFL level,” O’Neil admitted. “Instead of training and kidding myself that I would be drafted, I volunteered and coached spring ball at Towson. I sent a hand written letter to every Division I and Division II school in college football trying to get a graduate assistant position, and it eventually popped for me at Albany.
“In order to climb the ladder,” he pointed out, “you have to move around a lot which I’ve had to do. My Dad wasn’t a big time coach and I wasn’t a big time player so I had to start at the bottom and work my way up.”
Handwriting letters to 150 plus schools takes energy and determination. Fortunately O’Neil, now the defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers, has ample amounts of both.
The grad assistantship at Albany led to several Division I coaching positions and eventually, to O’Neil’s big break- a meeting with Mike Pettine, Jr of the Baltimore Ravens. Mike Sr., obviously, was the legend for whom O’Neil played under at CB West.
“I got to know Mike (Junior) over the years, first on a professional level, and he allowed me access to the Baltimore Ravens practices. I did some projects for him to help him and (coach) Rex (Ryan) when my season was over in college football,” ONeil described. “Mike and I became really close friends. He taught me the ropes in the NFL with how to attack protections, how to build a defense and how to build a game plan. He let me in on a lot of meetings that most people don’t get to sit in on. That really accelerated my learning and my career.”
O’Neil said that the jump from coaching college to the NFL “is not as big as people think.” The college coach has to worry about academics and recruiting whereas the NFL coach can focus purely on football.
“But whether they are college guys or NFL guys, they want to get developed, they want to be coached and they want,” O’Neil continued, “to be held accountable. They want a guy who can get them better.”
Jim O’Neil made people better- first as a defensive backs coach with the New York Jets under Pettine and Rex Ryan, and then as a linebackers coach with the Buffalo Bills. When the Cleveland Browns named Pettine their head coach in the 2014 season, O’Neil was hired as defensive coordinator.
Soon after Pettine’s staff was let go after the 2015 season, O’Neil was snatched up as defensive coordinator by another household name- 49ers’ head coach Chip Kelly.
“Mike’s organization and his way to present stuff to players, his way to sell a game plan was something that really had an impact on me as a competitive football coach,” O’Neil replied when comparing his two most recent bosses. “I didn’t know Chip a lot until I got the job here but Chip has been unbelievable to work with. He really focuses on the staff and trying to make them better in terms of as far as teachers and what you can do to improve. He’ll have professionals come in, watch you, evaluate you and let you know that you can be doing this better. I think that Chip is obviously very an outside the box thinker. He is not a guy who is going to do it just because it’s always the way it’s been done. He is going to challenge theories.”
Kelly and O’Neil share beliefs that the two are now bringing to San Francisco. The 49ers have struggled at times this season: they lost All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman and a second talented young starting linebacker in Ray Ray Armstrong to injuries, forcing O’Neil to adjust.
“There are obviously certain schemes that I am comfortable with and I think part of the reason I got hired was a result of some of those schemes. I think that you have to match your scheme to what personnel you have so you have to be able to adapt to the skill set of your players,” O’Neil commented. “We’re still in the mode right now where we are learning our players and trying to fit the scheme to fit them.”
On the one hand, O’Neil arguably has one of the coolest jobs in America. On the other hand, the drain on coaches can be brutal.
“My wife has gotten really good at moving and I have outgoing kids that can make friends pretty easily, which is huge,” he pointed out. “To be honest with you, for six months of the year, if you are married then your wife is a single Mom. You buy a Starbucks on the way home and you prop yourself up and you give everything you have while your kids are awake. But it’s tough during the season, especially when you have young kids. You hope that you are not moving all around and that you can be in a place where you are given time to build something and lay roots for a while.”
“The funny thing is I was a homebody. I never pictured myself moving all over the country,” Jim’s wife Stacy told Cleveland.com early in 2015. “But Jim’s passion is contagious. It’s a train you want to jump on because you know it’s going somewhere.”
O’Neil’s journey to San Francisco started in Doylestown. “Probably my favorite memories were the CB East games…the rivalry games,” he recalled. A 9-0 West met 9-0 CB East in O’Neil’s senior year. “It was a tie game at half time or it was a close game. We came out with the ball and ran out the whole third quarter. I think we ran 20 something plays,” O’Neil remembered. “It set the tone for that second half and we ended up beating them.”
O’Neil’s parents still live in Bucks County and dozens more relatives are in the Delaware Valley. The coach finds time for both his family and for giving back.
For four years, O’Neil ran a free football camp at the CB West high school that strongly influenced him. “Coach Pettine (senior) taught me a lot about work ethic and setting high standards,” O’Neil reflected. “I think the one thing they did at CB West all of those years was maximize everybody’s potential. They squeezed every ounce out of everybody and got everything out of you that they could.”
The first 21 years of Jim O’Neil’s life made him a highly unlikely candidate for an NFL coordinator job. That he has reached this elevated coaching level is proof positive that he has maximized his potential and squeezed every ounce of himself that he could.
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