May 17, 2024

OC Sports Zone: Community First

Tim O’Brien, legendary high school boys basketball coach, dies after battling cancer

Long-time Northwood High boys basketball coach Tim O’Brien. (File photo courtesy Harrison Zhang, For OC Sports Zone)

Legendary long-time Orange County high school boys basketball coach Tim O’Brien died Thursday night at UCLA Medical Center after a long battle with cancer, school officials confirmed Friday morning.

Coach O’Brien was 66.

Faculty members at Northwood were informed of O’Brien’s death Friday morning.

“He was like a brother to me and I am struggling with the fact that he is gone as are many,” said long-time friend and Northwood High colleague Susan Weatherholt, ASB accountant and the first athletic secretary at Northwood. “The most gracious, caring, man ever. He is a happy man now.”

O’Brien returned to coach Northwood last season. The Timberwolves were 11-18 and finished third in the Pacific Coast League with a 6-4 record. The Timberwolves lost to Sonora 72-50 in the opening round of the CIF 2A playoffs. Assistant coach Zach Johnson coached the team when O’Brien was unable to.

During his 35-year coaching career in Orange County, O’Brien was a head basketball coach at Northwood, Estancia, Santiago and Tustin high schools and Orange Coast College.

O’Brien also had coaching stops at Mesa Community College in Arizona and Saguaro High School in Scottsdale.

The highly-successful and popular coach, known for his strategy and ability to lead his players and make an impact in their lives and his Christian faith, recorded 481 wins and nine league titles. He led Estancia to the CIF title in 1990 and the state crown in 1991.

O’Brien was Northwood’s first basketball coach in the 1999-2000 season when he took over the program’s junior varsity team. He was one of the school’s original faculty members in 1998. O’Brien retired from teaching health in 2018. He was planning to coach the Timberwolves again next season if he was healthy enough.

O’Brien coached the first varsity team at Northwood in 2000-2001. The Timberwolves, led by Drew Terry, finished 21-8 and advanced into the semifinals of the CIF IVAA division playoffs, losing to St. Paul.

He stepped down in 2007 and took a five-year break from coaching but in 2012 returned to coach Northwood.

O’Brien returned to coaching last season after taking the 2018 season off to battle Acute Myeloid Leukemia, a form of cancer. O’Brien said he had a bone marrow transplant on July 13, 2018.

“There are a lot of challenges every day that I have to take care of before I come to basketball, but it’s nice to be on the bench,” O’Brien said upon his return. “It’s a good release.”

One of the highlights of his illustrious career was when he was inducted into the Southern California Interscholastic Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame in February 2019.

In June of 2019, O’Brien said he had been cleared by doctors to coach and in February he indicated he was cancer free. O’Brien was Northwood’s first coach in 1999 and has been the head coach for 14 of those years over two stints with 273 wins.

O’Brien told OC Sports Zone in August 2018 of his diagnosis and said he expected to return the following season. Yousof Etemadi was named the interim coach in 2018.

“After 110 days of treating this cancer, which included three rounds of chemo and a bone marrow transplant, I was released, cancer free from UCLA Ronald Reagan Hospital.

“There are still months and maybe years ahead of recovery and follow up care, but things are trending in the right direction for me,” he said at the time. “I look forward to returning in full capacity some day as head coach at Northwood, but in the meantime, am limited in what I can do from home.”

O’Brien’s return was welcomed by fellow coaches.

“He’s such a valuable person in the basketball community,” said former Godinez coach Greg Coombs, a long-time friend in an interview in December 2019. “His knowledge of basketball and everything else is unsurpassed and just having him back after not having him last year is great.

In Februrary 2019, O’Brien said in an interview with OC Sports Zone:

“Biggest win ever occurred in the summer of 2018 when after being diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (cancer) on April 10 2018, to be cancer free on July 30, 2018,” he said. “Best victory of all.”

Long-time friend Ernie Medina recalled a story that O’Brien shared with him.

“One of his favorite quotes he told me in 1999 was ‘find a job you love and you never have to work again in your life,'” said Medina, the plant supervisor at Northwood. “Very true; he loved coaching and teaching and he didn’t see it as a job.”

Coach O’Brien is survived by his wife Susan and the couple’s children; Chris O’Brien (a former Northwood basketball standout) and Devyn.

No details have been released on funeral services. School officials are working with alumni basketball players to plan a tribute to Coach O’Brien.

No replacement has been announced.

-Tim Burt, OC Sports Zone; timburt@ocsportszone.com

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