Dave O’Brien, former director of athletics, sports law scholar and director of the sport management program in the Goodwin College of Professional Studies at Drexel University, passed away March 1 at the age of 57 after a long battle with cancer.
O’Brien was a mentor, role model, educator and father figure to many people over the years. He was tough but also fair and compassionate. Above all, O’Brien was a leader in every sense of the word and has become known as the leader’s leader.
“For me, he was just an incredible leader,” professor of sport management Brett Burchette, who had worked with O’Brien at both Temple University and Northeastern University prior to Drexel, said. “He was someone who inspired us, and we tried to emulate and be like him in every aspect of his life. He set the bar very high.”
In 1989 O’Brien made the leap to athletics after spending time with the New Jersey State Senate and Montclair State University by joining Long Beach State University as the director of athletics. He oversaw the construction of the unique multi-purpose arena known as “the Pyramid,” as well as multiple national championships by the 49ers.
Following a move to Temple University in 1996, O’Brien continued his successes, overseeing the construction of what is now the Liacouras Center and growing the football program’s on-field success and attendance. He also hired Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Dawn Staley, who initially had no interest in becoming the head women’s basketball coach and had turned down the position on multiple occasions. O’Brien was persistent, knowing that Staley had what it took to lead the program. Staley eventually agreed at O’Brien’s urging and became the winningest women’s basketball coach in the program’s history.
O’Brien’s final stop as an athletic director was at Northeastern University. From 2002 to 2007, he helped the school transition its athletic department from the America East Conference to their current home in the Colonial Athletic Association, as well as hired current men’s basketball coach Bill Coen and women’s basketball coach Daynia La-Force.
At each of his stops, O’Brien always fought for fairness and led with a clear vision. He stabilized each athletic department and hired the best people he could find to fill the voids. He had the uncanny ability to recognize strengths and talents in people that they may not have even seen in themselves.
O’Brien built Drexel’s sport management program with the same clear vision. From his first day as program director in 2007, he identified talent and put a talented team of faculty together. He fostered a culture of success within the department and a sense of family among the faculty and students. Whether it was the faculty or the students, O’Brien had a way of always getting the best out of everyone he crossed paths with.
“Right away, you get this sense that you never want to disappoint him, like a father,” professor of sport management Amy Giddings said. “I think that really permeates, and it makes you want to be the best you can possibly be, so he can see that and appreciate what you’re doing.”
Students remember O’Brien as an educator who challenged them intellectually in the classroom, yet someone who could keep the atmosphere light and humorous, whether it was by pretending to turn a double play or using one of his catchy and colloquial phrasings to explain a complex concept. He also helped students develop into better leaders professionally and well-rounded people in life. He pushed his students to be better in every aspect.
“Even though his classes were some of the toughest I have taken, he always taught them in an enjoyable and entertaining way,” junior sport management student Greg Monforte said. “He pushed me to want to work harder, which has helped me in school and as a professional.”
“We just wish that every student can find their Dave O’Brien,” Burchette said of his mentor.
Even as the illness took its toll, O’Brien remained dedicated to his role as an educator, teaching until the past fall term.
Outside of the classroom, O’Brien served as a legal adviser, the editor of College Sports Business News, and the author of numerous law review articles. He was a devoted and loving family man to his wife, Eva, and sons Kevin, Daniel, James and the late Michael. O’Brien was also an avid and accomplished golfer with multiple club championships at Cedarbrook Country Club.
There will be a visitation at St. Rose of Lima Church in North Wales, Pa., March 8 from 9-10:50 a.m followed by a funeral mass at 11 a.m. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Mike O’Brien Memorial Fund, which benefits the little league baseball field that is named after his late son.