The extremely loyal members of his team are hoping O'Brien, who led the Apaches to the last three CIF-Southern Section Division I and two of the last three CIF State Division I titles, will get his position back. He was fired on Monday. Administrators said they wanted the program to go in another direction. They appointed assistant coach Michael Feraco-Eberle as the head coach shortly after informing O'Brien of the decision.
"There is no transparency about the whole process," O'Brien said of his dismissal. "I deserve at the very least somebody to sit down with me and say this is exactly why. I deserve that much."
However, O'Brien, who coached the team for 17 seasons, said he will let bygones be bygones and will support the team in the upcoming season.
"I'm getting behind Michael Feraco right now," O'Brien said. "I'll be supporting him from (at least) behind the scenes. I'm going to support Mike Feraco in whatever he needs. I'm really pleased in the direction the program will be headed and I support him 100 percent."
O'Brien said that if he has his wish, he would be an assistant coach to Feraco-Eberle. O'Brien, will remain as a physical education teacher at Arcadia. Feraco-Eberle was an assistant for six
"They're not likely to take me in through the back door, but anything's possible," O'Brien said. "Maybe they will see the error in their ways and give me the opportunity to transition the team smoothly."
The team has scheduled an informational parents/students meeting on Monday night.
School administrators did not return phone calls on Friday.
Feraco-Eberle said he has not decided on a staff, especially since he is now in charge of both programs.
"I have not given any thought to developing my coaching staff yet," he said. "I have not consulted with Jim or the people who let him go. I don't know the reason why they let him go. Jim is my friend and mentor. I do not know that if he comes back if it would be like flying in the face of the staff.
"Thanks to him, I am the coach that I am. Jim has supported me unequivocally. I believe him when he says I have all of his support. I will not make him persona non grata."
The Apache boys lost only one athlete among their top nine runners from last year and will again be one of the favorites to win CIF and national titles; they took their second Nike Nationals crown last year.
"The (athletes) will have to adjust to changes," Feraco-Eberle said. "We have to move forward. That's the hope There are a lot of kids committed to the program. The kids can trust our leadership."
O'Brien said that he just wants to see the team succeed, no matter who is the coach.
"I don't need recognition for being the coach of record," he said. "I told the kids I can be happy to see you guys succeed. You can't let this derail you. Stay true to who you are. The training will not change throughout the summer or season.
"No one is bigger than the program."
O'Brien still plans on operating his club team, O'Brien's Army, this summer and he has already established the team's high-altitude training camp in Mammoth Lakes in late August. Once the season begins, he said he will not be associated with the team unless hired as an assistant.
"He's the most knowledgeable and passionate person I know about cross country," Feraco-Eberle said. "I hope we are able to use that knowledge and can count on his support. This ship has a lot of moving parts."
Without a reason for his dismissal, O'Brien can only speculate, although he said he would like to sit down with an administrator at some point for closure.
"There's not one instance I can recall where as coach of this program that I would say I had a lack of judgment, a lack of ethics, a lack of caring for the kids and a lack of being an advocate for kids," he said.
He admits he can rub some people the wrong way, but he said he only has done it to support his athletes and program.
"Maybe I am a little rough around the edges at times and I've approached people the way they didn't exactly like, but that's probably just me,." he said. "I'm an East Coast guy. I am what I am. I am honest to a fault.
"If you push me, I'll push back. I'll disagree with you. But when it comes to shove and you give me a direct order, I'll follow your order. If you give me wiggle room, let's dance."
Perhaps the falling apart began when the Arcadia Educational Foundation, which supports the district's summer school and summer sports programs, asked coaches to keep students on campus grounds because of liability issues. That would prevent O'Brien from a key component to summer training: long-distance runs. He formed O'Brien's Army through USA Track & Field so that his team, in which other high schools runners are free to join, could make off-campus runs.
"I only did that because they handcuffed me," he recalled. "We can't operate that way. I'm sure that was a sticking point way back."
O'Brien thinks he got into the school administrators' cross hairs when the girls cross country coaching position opened four years ago, O'Brien applied for the position with the intent of combining the programs. He said he was the only full-time on-campus applicant. The job was offered first to then-part-time teacher Landis, which is against district protocol, O'Brien said.
The final straw, O'Brien thinks, may have been the breakdown in communication he had with track and field coach Chris Schultz. O'Brien, who had been the team's coach for five years before stepping back to take over only the boys cross country program because of family obligations, had been the team's distance coach for several years. But Schultz did not invite him back to his staff this past season.
"I thought the differences could be easily be rectified," O'Brien said. "I told him nobody will benefit if you fire me."
That is likely where relationships really began falling apart. O'Brien had always taught a spring training class, used mostly by athletes who want to compete in track and field, but did not meet the team's qualifying standards. All but eight of the 88 members of his boys cross country team opted to join the class and not compete for the track and field team.
"I know my kids," O'Brien said. "They will stay loyal to me."
O'Brien said that he had to protect the integrity of his team's training program and he gave the students an option, without ramifications, on which direction to choose if they made the track and field team.
"We have a nationally recognized cross country program, which the next three, four months are very important for us to progress to be in a position to win the national championship," O'Brien said.
"I think I can do that better hands on than hands off.
"As long as I am not responsible for track, then my only responsibility is for cross country. I have to have them ready.
"That had a debilitating effect on my opportunity to be the cross country coach this year. That rattled them and made them really upset. I told the principal that I had a meeting with kids. It was the kid's choice. You cannot force a kid to go to track and you cannot force a water polo player to be in swimming. I just wanted him to know the way it had gone down and that it would not look good for anybody."
Only two of the top nine members of the team decided to compete in track.
Navy-bound Mitchell Pratt suffered a stress fracture early in the season and did not compete and freshman Phillip Rocha, who won the Pacific League 1,600-meter title, did not compete in the following week's CIF-SS preliminary meet because he was ill.
That left all but one returning cross country runner, including senior-to-be Estevan De La Rosa, who finished second in the CIF-SS and CIF State meets last season and was the Pasadena Star-News' Runner of the Year.
Those seven athletes who didn't compete in track ran in O'Brien's Army in open meets, mostly against collegiate competition.
Also missing from this season's track and field team was senior-to-be Roni Yamane, who could not join O'Brien's class. The Star-News Runner of the Year, who advanced to the state meet as an individual, did compete for O'Brien's Army in open meets.
Feraco-Eberle did not coach on the track and field team this season, even though he had already been chosen as the girls cross county coach. but he said he hopes to work with that team next season.
"We're both English teachers," he said, referring to Schultz. "I hope to work with him."
O'Brien said he wanted to work with the track and field program this season.
"I was the one reaching out," he said. "I wanted to solve the problem so I could save the kids from this issue so they would not get caught in the middle. But once they were done with their hatchet job, I had to be loyal to the kids who were loyal to staying with me. I had no allegiance to track whatsoever."
keith.lair@sgvn. com 626-544-0856