In 2008, Kevin O’Connell was a rookie backup quarterback with the New England Patriots. His coach was the legendary Bill Belichick.
Now, O’Connell is a rookie head coach with the Vikings (8-2), and Thursday night they will face New England (6-4) at U.S. Bank Stadium. And, yep, Belichick is still coaching the Patriots.
“You really can’t put any kind of term on how much respect I have for him as far as the person, the coach, the leader, what’s he meant to this league, and ultimately the challenge that I know it’s going to be,” O’Connell said Tuesday about taking on a mentor.
The Patriots selected O’Connell in the third round of the 2008 NFL draft out of San Diego State. And when starter Tom Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener, O’Connell became the backup behind Matt Cassel. He ended up getting into two games as a rookie, and completed 4 of 6 passes for 23 yards.
As it turned out, O’Connell never appeared in another NFL regular-season game. The Patriots waived him just before the start of the 2009 season, and he spent time with Detroit, the New York Jets, Miami and San Diego before retiring as a player after the 2012 season. He returned to the NFL as an assistant coach in 2015, and ever since has been using lessons learned from Belichick.
“I was lucky enough to play (in New England),” O’Connell said. “He is one of my coaching influences regardless of the fact, if at the time, I knew I was going to get into coaching or eventually become a head coach. Those characteristics, those foundational things you learn there, even in the short time that I was there, have stuck with me.”
O’Connell, 37, has more than just memories of his time with Belichick, who in his 23rd season with the Patriots. He has what he learned in writing.
“I still have old notebooks with team meeting notes and things like that that are always great to go back and look through,” he said.
When O’Connell arrived in New England, Belichick already had won three Super Bowls and the Patriots were coming off a 16-0 regular season in 2007, although they lost 17-14 to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII. After O’Connell departed, Belichick won three more Super Bowls, giving him a record six for an NFL coach.
Belichick, 70, has a 296-147 record in 28 seasons as an NFL coach with Cleveland and New England. He looked back this week at O’Connell’s progression from a player to a coach.
“Smart, smart kid out of San Diego (State),” Belichick said. “Had a lot of things to like about him, his size, arm, and all that, but ultimately it didn’t work out here, … (O’Connell) obviously has done a great job with Minnesota. Followed his career. … He has done a heck of a job and climbed through the coaching ranks quickly. Based on the way the Vikings are playing this year, you could see why he has done it. He’s done a great job.”
Former Gophers star running back Laurence Maroney, who played with the Patriots from 2006-09, remembers O’Connell as a player being a “hard-working, smart guy.” He said Tuesday it will be “cool” seeing O’Connell go against Belichick for the first time as a head coach.
“If I consider myself a great player, I want to go against great players,” Maroney said. “If you’re a coach, what’s better than challenging arguably the greatest coach of all time?”
Maroney called it “crazy” that on Thursday O’Connell also will face a player who was a rookie on the 2008 Patriots. Special-teams ace Matthew Slater is in his 15th New England season, and O’Connell spoke Tuesday about his former NFL roommate.
“He still is (on the Patriots), remarkably,” O’Connell said. “What an unbelievable career. …. There’s a reason he has been a captain on that team for as long as I can possibly remember. He was in my wedding. He’s going to remain one of my best friends for a long time.”
As for Belichick, O’Connell has had opportunities to talk to him since leaving the Patriots, including when he was an assistant coach for four different teams before coming to Minnesota. He has had continued appreciation for what Belichick has meant to his career.
“It has been a huge part of my football journey to be able to experience being there for that period of time, and he helped me grow tremendously,” O’Connell said.