Wednesday July 18, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- The first basketball coach that Bob O'Neil worked for in Berkshire County called him a true student of the game.

Even more than that, former Williams College basketball coach Harry Sheehy said his former assistant was beloved by his players.

"He had a really nice temperament to coach kids as well," Sheehy said. "The JV kids that played for him really liked him.

"The other thing about Bobby that I'll always remember is he was just a sweetheart. There are just people who have sweet spirits in this life. Sometimes we're blessed to know some of those people. I'm blessed to have known Bobby."

O'Neil, 64, died Tuesday morning of complications from ALS. He passed away at his Pittsfield home, surrounded by family and friends.

Sheehy, who is currently the athletic director at Dartmouth University, had O'Neil on his staff at Williams for three years, one while O'Neil was finishing up his undergraduate degree more than 20 years ago.

"There's an overriding memory of Bobby and that was how hungry he was to learn the game," Sheehy said in a phone interview with The Eagle. "You hear a lot about students of the game, but Bobby thought about the game of basketball that way -- as a student."

O'Neil coached at Williams until joining Tony Simonelli's staff at Pittsfield High School for two seasons. He took over for the 1995-96 season when Simonelli was named vice principal at Taconic High School. O'Neil stayed there until taking over at Taconic for the 2006-07 season. He was a social studies teacher at Taconic. O'Neil won three Western Massachusetts Division I titles and took those three teams to the state title game.

"He was a great competitor," said Pittsfield High School girls basketball coach Joe Racicot, another former Taconic coach. "We tried to make girls basketball a better game. Any time you went into a game against Bob, you had to be sharp and your kids had to bring their ‘A' game."

Former Pittsfield Public Schools superintendent Howard "Jake" Eberwein III has a unique perspective on O'Neil. Both were teachers in the Pittsfield system and while O'Neil was coaching basketball at Pittsfield, Eberwein was coaching softball at Taconic.

"Bob and I talked a lot about coaching girls," Eberwein said. "We had a lot of conversations. He was a great mentor of mine in terms of being a better coach.

"He had a way of counseling people and supporting people."

Simonelli, the current Ward 7 Councilor in Pittsfield, was practically a life-long friend of O'Neil's. They grew up on the same block and both went to St. Joseph's, where O'Neil graduated in 1966. Simonelli and his wife Diane visited the O'Neils on Monday night after getting the word that he didn't have much time left. O'Neil died quietly Tuesday morning.

"It's unfortunate that something like this happens to somebody that young," Simonelli said. "He was a great guy. He was a great father. He was a great coach."

After nearly two decades in Florida, O'Neil returned to Pittsfield and after getting his degree and first coaching experience at Williams, O'Neil joined Simonelli's staff at PHS and was there when Simonelli's team won a Division I championship in 1995. The next year, the Generals repeated as Division I champion.

The next time O'Neil hung a banner in the Moynihan Field House was 2001, when Pittsfield again went back-to-back as Western Mass. champions. The Generals went to the state title games both years. Pittsfield lost to Brockton 66-62 in 2001 and to Cambridge Rindge and Latin 61-48 in 2002.

While teaching at Taconic, O'Neil had a chance to take over the girls program there in 2006. He remained there until his last game, Dec. 20, 2010.

"It was a natural fit for him to be working with young people," said Eberwein.

When Colleen Nicewicz, 27, played for Pittsfield, she was Colleen Burke. After playing collegiately at Babson, the newlywed worked in the Boston area. Now she's planning to go after her MBA this fall at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"He always created such a team environment where you had such a [good] support system," she said. "I find myself surrounded with a similar support system. You can't make that decision without having a team in your corner."

Courtney Shepard, 28, played on O'Neil's final two Western Mass. championship teams. The all-time girls' scoring leader at Pittsfield who later went to play at Union, said she learned of O'Neil's passing early Tuesday morning. She also said that literally hundreds of people were saying nice things about O'Neil on Facebook during the day.

A big bear of a man, O'Neil would sometimes bellow at his players. Shepard recalled one such incident.

"In my senior year we were in the Western Mass. finals and it came down to a last-second shot. He was yelling and [drawing] on the clipboard. All I heard was ‘They think we're going to Court. Don't give her the ball,' " Shepard said, adding that all she remembered was not to get the ball.

Meredith Sullivan sank the game-winning shot for Pittsfield.

"I actually remember walking out of the time out and asking Courtney what are we supposed to do," Nicewicz said. "The best part about it was the next day in the paper it was all about this incredibly executed play."

When it came right down to it, Shepard said Bob O'Neil was much more than an X's and O's guy on the bench.

"He was the best coach. I don't even know how to put it into words," she said. "We played college basketball because of Coach O'Neil. He molded us in ways words can't describe. He made us winners in every aspect of our lives."

To reach Howard Herman:
hherman@berkshireeagle.com,
(413) 496-6253.
On Twitter: @howardherman.