Dan O’Connell’s formula for coaching success is not revolutionary.
“The biggest thing I’ve found is that if you get the community behind you and you treat the kids with respect and get them to believe in themselves, you’re going to be successful,” he said.
That such a philosophy isn’t sport-specific makes sense given the circumstances O’Connell inherited when hired as head football coach at John Bapst of Bangor in 2003.
The program was an endangered species after player suspensions forced the team to forfeit its last five games of the 1998 season. Four straight winless years followed, but when O’Connell joined the John Bapst staff as an assistant in 2002, he brought with him a unique perspective on the Crusaders’ plight.
The 1995 Bangor High graduate had gone on to experience just three victories during a four-year playing career at Bates College, and while the first of those victories ended a 37-game losing streak, the overall experience also enabled him to see smaller victories within the larger competition.
So when O’Connell took over a John Bapst program riding an 0-40 streak, he already was armed with a lesson plan designed not just to generate touchdowns or even first downs, but to instill hope and confidence.
“It doesn’t always translate into wins and it certainly won’t always translate into championships,” he said, “but if you can get everyone involved to become a family and get the kids to believe they’re special, it can have a special effect and they can be successful. That’s been the basis of what we’ve been trying to do since we’ve been here.”
And it’s worked, with step-by-step improvement leading to the realization of championship dreams.
In O’Connell’s second game as head coach, John Bapst defeated Maranacook of Readfield to end its 41-game run of futility.
Another victory followed the next weekend, leading to the first of three straight 3-6 seasons, the last of which in 2005 ended with Bapst’s first win over a playoff team since 1997.
The freshmen on that 2005 team — now seniors — broke through as sophomores to earn their own playoff berth, and as juniors last fall took an even bigger step, helping John Bapst reach the Eastern Maine Class C final before falling at Foxcroft Academy, the 2007 state champion.
“This year’s seniors didn’t have any link to the 0-fors and dark days when the program was struggling,” said O’Connell. “They’d gone 3-6, 5-4 and 9-1 and they had one more step to take, and here we are.”
Where they are now is atop the Class C football world, with a brand new gold ball residing at the private school on Broadway to prove it.
Bapst’s 21-14 victory over Winthrop in Saturday’s state final was the culmination of a confluence of championship ingredients. Team chemistry was forged among players whose football roots spanned myriad communities and feeder programs, offseason commitment, imaginative game plans and motivational speeches second to none by a coach who arrived on the scene six years earlier with his eyes wide open but unwilling to settle for mediocrity.
“We’re just a team that will never give up,” said senior quarterback Derek Smith, echoing his absorption of O’Connell’s lesson plan. “We made that one of our three goals this year. Never give up was the last one, after Will and Intensity. It all spelled ‘WIN,’ and that’s what we did. It’s just amazing.”
For Dan O’Connell, that’s a lesson well taught.