Bill O’Brien always wanted to come home to SIU.

By Gus Bode

Now he’s home for good.

The Bill O’Brien memorial football locker room will assure that Saluki players and coaches for generations will remember the legacy left by this athlete, coach, educator, administrator and Marine.

Thanks to a gift by Laverne O’Brien, the football locker room was given a $50,000 facelift.


“Bill cut quite a path at this institution and represented this institution well,” Athletic Director Paul Kowalczyk said.

O’Brien came from nearby Zeigler, Ill., to the university to be a student-athlete and he wound up leaving a very large imprint on the world around him.

He would not stay at the university for long, as World War II compelled him to join the Marines to fight for his country. He would later serve in the Korean War as a Colonel.

Upon returning from war in 1946, O’Brien continued his education at SIU. He lettered in football and baseball after and earned the most valuable player award in 1947, the year he received his recreation degree.

O’Brien coached high school football for one year before returning home.

He was an assistant baseball, basketball and football coach at Southern before being named head coach of a struggling football program prior to the 1952 season.

Bill O’Brien didn’t bring glory to the football program, but he did teach young men valuable lessons.


“You can’t say enough about that man,” said Richard Kelley, “He was one of the most outstanding guys I’ve ever been around.”

Kelley played football during all of O’Brien’s three-year tenure.

O’Brien later began officiating high school games and it was at one of these contests that he met Don Beggs, a football player at Harrisburg, Ill., high school.

“He genuinely cared for students whether it was in athletics or in the classroom,” said Beggs, who later became Chancellor at SIU and is now president of Wichita State University.

O’Brien later became a college football official, but he didn’t forget the university that educated him. He frequently volunteered his time as an official for SIU intrasquad games.

“He contributed a lot of his time when it related to officiating,” Beggs said.

Officiating also gave him the chance of a lifetime.

O’Brien worked both games of a doubleheader at Ole’ Miss and was not overly tired, thanks partly to his Marine background.

LaVerne O’Brien remembers the call she received after that game. An NFL representative called and said, “‘If he can run like that for two games and not be winded, we need him in the NFL.'”

In his 17 years as an NFL official, O’Brien became an elite one. He officiated Super Bowl X, three Pro Bowls and the first NFL game in London.

“He had a great love for it (SIU),” LaVerne said. “No matter where he went, he always wanted to come home.

O’Brien also played an integral role in the formation of SIU’s Little Grassy campus, now known as Touch of Nature.

He, along with Bill Freeberg, was a pioneer in programs for the disabled. O’Brien was involved in the planning stages of the campus and it’s camp for designed to allow disabled children the same camp experiences that everyone else gets.

Camp Little Giant will celebrate its 50th anniversary next summer.

The two also were involved in starting the National Special Olympics.

“He cared deeply about the disabled, both children and adults,” widow LaVerne O’Brien said.

In addition to the care he had for the disabled, O’Brien also cared deeply about his students.

“He loved teaching,” Mrs. O’Brien said, “He loved the students.”

“He could motivate students to do the best of their abilities.”

O’Brien taught and presided over the thesis committee of Bill McMinn, director of the student recreation center.

“He was an excellent teacher,” McMinn said. “The reason that he was such a good teacher was that he had a willingness to listen to the student.”

Education was very important to Bill O’Brien. He earned five graduate degrees and was chairman of SIU’s recreation and outdoor education program before retiring in 1983.

He was also named teacher of the year in 1974.

“He was the proudest of his teaching and ability to reach inside of people,” Mrs. O’Brien said.

Mike Reis, the voice of the Salukis, was also profoundly effected by O’Brien.

“Just being around him you wanted to earn his respect,” Reis said.

He also taught Reis, then just beginning in broadcast journalism, the importance of ethics.

“One of the things that he instilled in me was that I could still be ethical but do my job,” Reis said. “Bill felt there was a professional way to go about his job…we all benefited from that.”

Bill O’Brien left a great legacy behind, and now he’ll be better remembered by all associated with Saluki athletics.

McMinn “He set the standard for integrity and character