Kevin O’Connell was a seldom-used backup quarterback when the Detroit Lions traded him to the New York Jets on Sept. 6, 2009 for a seventh-round draft pick. That move laid the groundwork for him to one day become an NFL head coach.
O’Connell, who was named last Wednesday the 10th coach in Vikings history, had spent his rookie season with the New England Patriots after being a third-round pick in 2008 out of San Diego State. When star quarterback Tom Brady went down in Week 1 with a season-ending knee injury, and Matt Cassel took over as the starter, O’Connell moved up to the backup role and completed 4 of 6 passes that season for 23 yards.
O’Connell was waived by New England just before the start of the 2009 season and claimed by the Lions, who soon traded him to the Jets. There was speculation that then-Jets coach Rex Ryan was mainly interested in O’Connell to get some inside information on the archrival Patriots. And the quarterback did indeed deliver some.
“He started doing some things with the coaches, with Rex Ryan, with (then defensive coordinator) Mike Pettine, with some of the defensive people in New York, helping the defensive people getting some rush-type configurations against his former team, the Patriots , and Mr. Brady,” O’Connell’s father, Bill O’Connell, said. “In fact, he was very successful at that, and the Jets were able to knock off Mr. Brady a couple of times.”
O’Connell was named a team captain for the Jets’ Sept. 20, 2009 game against the Patriots, when he was a backup to then-rookie Mark Sanchez and didn’t play. The Jets pulled off a 16-9 upset victory that day.
The following season, with O’Connell helping out, the Jets upset the Patriots 28-14 in Week 2 and 28-21 in the playoffs to advance to the AFC Championship Game. O’Connell didn’t get into any games in 2009 or 2010, but he still impressed Ryan.
“When Mark Sanchez was drafted by the Jets, he and Mark became very close and Kevin was kind of the stabilizing force for Mark and would kind of help Mark through the rookie time with learning schemes and the different aspects of preparation for the game,” Bill O’Connell said. “And Rex Ryan came up to Kevin and said one day, ‘You know what, you may never be a starting quarterback in this league but you’re going to be a superstar coach some day.’ And I think he always remembered that.”
O’Connell was released by the Jets in 2011, and he went to play briefly with the Miami Dolphins and San Diego Chargers before retiring as a player after the 2012 season. He never did appear in another regular-season game after the two with the Patriots in 2008, but a coaching career in the NFL would remain on the horizon.
O’Connell, who grew up in Carlsbad, Calif., just north of San Diego, returned to the area after his playing career and did broadcasting work for several years. He was a San Diego State sideline analyst and hosted the coach’s show for the Aztecs on television, and he also did some work for ESPN. But he stayed close to the coaching aspects of football.
O’Connell trained players in preparation for the NFL draft. He worked with 2012 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M, who went to the Cleveland Browns with the No. 22 pick in 2014, and with 2014 Heisman winner Marcus Mariota of Oregon, who went to the Tennessee Titans with the No. 2 selection in 2015. The workouts were held at La Costa Canyon High School in Carlsbad, where O’Connell had been a star quarterback and top-notch forward on the basketball team in the early 2000s.
“He would bring guys like Johnny Manziel and Marcus Mariota over to our facility and those NFL prospects would throw to our high school kids,” said Sean Sovacool, who has been La Costa Canyon’s coach since 2010 and first got to know O’Connell when he was at San Diego State from 2003-07. “And I think him working with Johnny Manziel was a big reason why he ended up in the NFL as an assistant. Kevin helped prepare him for the draft, and he created a good relationship.”
O’Connell’s first NFL coaching job was as quarterbacks coach of the Browns in 2015, which turned out to be Manziel’s second and last year in the NFL. Another key reason for O’Connell being hired was that Pettine was then the Browns’ head coach; he had gotten to know O’Connell during his 2009-12 stint as Jets defensive coordinator.
Pettine was named the Vikings’ assistant head coach on Thursday, and will work closely with O’Connell and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell. He attended the Thursday press conference during which O’Connell was introduced, and the new coach singled him out.
After a year with the Browns, O’Connell spent 2016 as special projects assistant with the San Francisco 49ers. During that season, he worked with Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, who was then in the 49ers’ front office. Adofo-Mensah was named Jan. 26 to replace Rick Spielman as general manager. Spielman was fired Jan. 10 along with head coach Mike Zimmer after two straight losing seasons.
O’Connell spent the 2017-19 season with Washington, the first two seasons as quarterbacks coach and the last one as offensive coordinator. He worked with current Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins in 2017.
Then it was on to the Los Angeles Rams, with O’Connell serving as offensive coordinator the past two seasons under head coach Sean McVay. O’Connell was offered and accepted the Vikings job on Feb. 2, though nothing could be official until after last Sunday’s Super Bowl LVI, a game the Rams won, 23-20 over the Cincinnati Bengals.
“To truly get somebody to commit to you for this type of opportunity, you’d better truly feel you’re ready, and I do,” O’Connell, 36, said of becoming a head coach for the first time. “I do absolutely feel like I’ve been building up to this opportunity for a long time in my career, both as a player and a coach.”
Indeed he has. Perhaps O’Connell wasn’t being earmarked as a future coach when he was growing up, but many who knew him figured he would go on to do something special.
O’Connell was born in Knoxville, Tenn., the son of Bill and Suzanne O’Connell, and the family eventually settled in Carlsbad. Bill O’Connell is a retired FBI agent.
After O’Connell enrolled at La Costa Canyon High School, it didn’t take long for him to make an impact. Darrin Brown, who was the school’s football coach from 2000-09, remembers first meeting O’Connell when he was a sophomore in 2000.
“He was a 6-foot-5, 200-pound stud, a good-looking kid,” Browns said. “He was a great athlete. When I saw this big stud throwing a beautiful spiral, it was like, ‘This is going to make my job easier.’ ,
O’Connell became entrenched as the starting quarterback in 2001 and 2002, and starred for the Mavericks. But Brown said O’Connell was much more than just a top player.
“He always carried himself well and was such an outstanding adult student, mature, a leader always,” said Brown, who is now a PE teacher at San Dieguito High School Academy in San Diego and has continued to keep up with O’Connell. “So kids looked up to him. Always had that smile. He was great in the classroom. Great on the field. Positive attitude.”
O’Connell also starred in basketball for the Mavericks, and averaged about 18 points a game when he was team captain as a senior. A freshman on that team was Chase Budinger, who averaged about 15 points per game that season and went on to play in the NBA, including a 2012-15 stint with the Timberwolves.
Budinger said he “looked up to” O’Connell because of his tremendous athletic ability and his leadership skills. Budinger, now a highly regarded pro beach volleyball player, continues to keep up with O’Connell. So does Dave Cassaw, La Costa Canyon’s basketball coach then and now.
“He was like a coach on the floor, he was that kind of kid, for sure,” said Cassaw, who also taught O’Connell in history class. “I have tremendous respect for Kevin, and how he treats people. I remember he came back one summer, and I asked if he would come to my basketball camp and speak to the campers. He came in and we got him a whiteboard and he sat there for 15 to 20 minutes and talked to our kids about success and what it means and how to go about being the best person and athlete you can be. So I just feel like that’s what Minnesota is getting, a guy with such character.”
Cassaw said O’Connell had the ability to perhaps play Division I basketball had he not been committed to football. He went on to San Diego State, where he was redshirted in 2003 and played football from 2004-07.
O’Connell was the starting quarterback for the Aztecs in 2006 and 2007. His 2006 season was cut short due to injury and he only played in six games. But as a senior in 2007 he developed into a solid NFL prospect when he threw for 3,063 yards with 15 touchdowns. Then-coach Chuck Long was thinking more at time about what O’Connell might do as an NFL player, but he did see plenty of attributes that would one day make him a successful coach.
“I always say coaching minds, they want to absorb everything, and that’s what he did,” said Long, who finished second in voting for the Heisman Trophy as an Iowa quarterback in 1985 and played in the NFL from 1986-91. “He just wanted to absorb everything and learn all the time.”
After leaving San Diego State, O’Connell joined the Patriots, who were coming off an undefeated regular season in 2007 before suffering a stunning 17-14 loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII. After losing Brady in the opener, the Patriots went 11-5 in 2008 but failed to make the playoffs.
O’Connell was waived before the start of the 2009 season, but he did enough to impressive legendary coach Bill Belichick with his football mind. Belichick over the years has congratulated O’Connell before games about how he has moved up in the coaching ranks.
“He was just a hard-working, smart guy,” said Laurence Mulroney, a former star University of Minnesota running back who played for the Patriots from 2006-10, and got to know O’Connell. “He was a student of the game. You knew he was going to be something else after being a football player. He studied the game, and you knew he was going to have a bright future.”
Mulroney was excited to see O’Connell being named coach of the Vikings after helping the Rams to a Super Bowl win.
“To be a head coach, with him being so young, that says a lot about his character and his talent,” Mulroney said. “What he did with the Rams is nothing less than amazing.”
McVay called the offensive plays for the Rams during games but O’Connell had plenty of input. O’Connell played a key role in quarterback Matthew Stafford throwing for 4,886 yards and 41 touchdowns and Cooper Kupp winning the triple crown in receiving with 145 catches, 1,947 yards and 18 touchdowns and being named NFL Offensive Player of the Year.
O’Connell said McVay “had a huge impact” on him and he wants to bring a similar “type of team and culture to Minnesota.” McVay is optimistic that will happen.
“He’ll be a great (head) coach,” McVay said. “He’s a great leader. … He’s got a great ability to relate to the players and be able to connect with them. … He’s got a great way with people. He’s got phenomenal character. I can’t say enough good things about him.”
Now, the Vikings are hoping to duplicate what the Rams have done. Vikings owner Zygi Wilf is optimistic that O’Connell can lead the franchise to its first Super Bowl victory.
“I saw in him the ability to come here and do the same thing,” Wilf said. “That was very exciting to see him come to that final goal that he’s always been reaching for. And I think the group that we have here, we can do that.”