Tim O’Brien, who coached Estancia High boys’ basketball to prominence, dies after battle with cancer

Tim O'Brien, a former Estancia High and Orange Coast College basketball coach, died Friday. He was 66.
Tim O’Brien, a former Estancia High and Orange Coast College basketball coach, died Friday. He was 66.
(Courtesy of Mia Fujii)

Tim O’Brien, who turned the Estancia High School boys’ basketball program into a powerhouse in the late 1980s as part of a coaching career that spanned nearly 40 years, died early Friday morning after a battle with cancer. He was 66.

O’Brien, who had acute myeloid leukemia, is survived by his wife, Susan, his son, Chris, and his daughter, Devyn. Chris played basketball for his father at Northwood High School in Irvine and went on to play at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Tim O’Brien, who lived in Irvine, was head coach of Northwood boys’ basketball for 14 seasons over two different stints, returning in 2019. He also coached boys’ basketball at Santiago and Tustin high schools.

O’Brien guided the best era in Estancia history. In five seasons there, he led the Eagles to their lone CIF Southern Section Division 3-AA title in 1990 and the CIF State Division III championship the following year. He had a 110-42 record with the Eagles.

Edison High boys’ basketball coach and athletic director Rich Boyce coached under O’Brien at Estancia before becoming the Eagles’ head coach from 1996-2000.

“He was the best man in my wedding, probably the best man in my life,” Boyce said. “He was a great man … Battling [cancer] for 2½ years, it took such a toll on his body. His body just gave up. He never did. He battled.”

O’Brien went on to coach men’s basketball at Orange Coast College for seven seasons before becoming the first Northwood boys’ basketball coach in 1999 after the school opened. He was inducted into the Southern California Interscholastic Basketball Coaches Assn. Hall of Fame in 2019.

Agustin Heredia, who was the Estancia boys’ basketball head coach from 2008-14, was also a star guard for O’Brien before graduating in 1990. In that year’s CIF championship game, he scored the Eagles’ final seven points as they beat Servite 51-49 in overtime at UC Irvine’s Bren Events Center. The following year, future professional beach volleyball player Matt Fuerbringer, then a junior, helped Estancia win the state crown.

Heredia said that he “became a man” under O’Brien’s guidance.

“We loved him and feared him at the same time, but he was always kind,” Heredia said. “We were very grateful to have played for him. I just can’t believe this has happened, but a lot of great memories … I didn’t have a father around, and he was the closest that I’ve had. He was very demanding, but fair.”

Later in his coaching career, O’Brien’s Northwood teams would often clash against Ryan Schachter’s Corona del Mar boys’ basketball squads in the Pacific Coast League. The games would often have league title implications.

Northwood boys' basketball coach Tim O'Brien, right, and CdM coach Ryan Schachter share a moment in 2019.
Northwood boys’ basketball coach Tim O’Brien, right, and Corona del Mar coach Ryan Schachter share a moment during a game in 2019.
(Courtesy of Mia Fujii)

Schachter said he became friends with O’Brien in the last several years.

“His teams almost never beat themselves, which is a testament to what he was able to do with the team,” Schachter said. “His role players knew exactly what their role was. Whether they liked their role or not, they played their role in games.”

Brett Matsen, who played basketball at CdM, played against O’Brien’s Timberwolves for three seasons. He then coached with O’Brien for five seasons at Northwood from 2013-18.

“He’s just one of the guys in this county that people should really know about,” said Matsen, now an assistant coach at CdM. “First and foremost, he cared about his players. He held players accountable, but he cared about them. The other thing I was always impressed with about Tim was just his preparation. Everything we did in practice would transpire in games. There was no wasted time, no wasted drill.

“His energy was also unreal. When I was with him, he was in his early 60s, and he had relentless energy. Coaching with Tim those five years was like getting a graduate degree or a master’s degree in coaching.”

O’Brien had a sizable coaching tree. Several current boys’ basketball head coaches in Orange County were once assistants for O’Brien, including former Foothill coach Rusty Van Cleave at Ocean View, Mark Hill at Esperanza and Nate Harrison at Canyon.

Coach Tim O'Brien led Estancia to the 1990 CIF Southern Section Division 3-AA title and 1991 CIF State Division III crown
Coach Tim O’Brien led Estancia to the 1990 CIF Southern Section Division 3-AA title and the 1991 CIF State Division III crown.
(Courtesy of Xavier Castellano)

Estancia boys’ basketball coach Xavier Castellano, who played point guard for the Eagles before graduating from the school in 1998, is too young to have played for O’Brien and never coached with him. But he said O’Brien sent him an email congratulating him after Castellano guided the Eagles to the Orange Coast League title and the quarterfinals of the CIF Southern Section Division 5AA playoffs in February.

Castellano has kept the email. He said Friday that he wants to lead efforts to name the basketball court at Estancia after O’Brien.

Castellano remembers when he was an assistant coach at Estancia in 2004-05. The Eagles, then coached by current CdM assistant Jason Simco, played O’Brien-led Northwood in an Estancia Coast Classic game.

“For us, that game was like the NBA Finals,” Castellano said. “We wanted to show Coach O’Brien that Estancia had finally come back, that we were good again. We wanted his approval. We played our tails off. They beat us [60-58] on a last-second shot by [Tino] Zaragoza, who’s now the coach at Huntington Beach. But after the game, he shook our hands and was very complimentary, and it meant the world to us. It was the greatest loss I’ve ever been a part of, just because we got that man’s approval. To me, he’s Estancia basketball.”

Boyce said he’s not sure if a formal memorial service for O’Brien will be planned, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’ve gotten dozens of calls and texts from coaches who played for him, coached him or knew him,” Boyce said, “and they all want to do something for him.”


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