For those who played for him and coached alongside him during a career that began more than two decades ago as Bishop McDevitt High's freshman coach, none of those images matched the O'Connor they knew.
While they recognized the hyperintense coach who appeared to shove and kick at Matt Kravchuk during an early-morning practice at the Northeast Philadelphia school, the man they knew was far more complex.
Whether O'Connor will land another job and whether history will recall him as a figure of sympathy or scorn remains to be seen. But, to a man, those contacted said they hoped he would be treated fairly.
"I'm not defending what he did, but how many of us would like to be judged forever by the worst 15 seconds of our lives?" said Jim Finnerty, the Germantown Academy coach who hired O'Connor as an assistant in 1989.
Rather than a villain, the picture of O'Connor that emerged from interviews with Finnerty; Tom Dearborn, who played at Drexel in the late '90s when O'Connor was a coach there; and several others was of a passionate basketball junkie who pushed hard, demanded much, and cared for the underdog.
"What happened," said McDevitt coach Jack Rutter, "was an accident. And after you've been in an accident, what do you always say? 'Wow, how did that happen?' "
O'Connor was, they said: a typical Catholic League gym rat who couldn't walk away from the game; a man so absorbed by basketball he didn't marry until he was 42; a teacher who yelled and screamed but leavened the harsh lessons with humor; a strategist who demanded physical toughness; and, finally, a longtime assistant who departed Georgia Tech for a tiny Division II school so he could be near his aging parents and because, as he told Finnerty: "I'm a Philly guy." None defended his physical encounter with Kravchuk, who cut a lip and injured a wrist in the encounter and has since left the team, but all said the angry player-coach confrontation they saw was commonplace.
"I was on the other side of some very awkward situations with him," said Dearborn. "But that's part of being a Division I basketball player. He'll call you out, and at the time it doesn't feel good. If you're not used to that type of criticism, it can be very difficult for a player.
"But underneath it all you knew that he knew basketball was not life and death. He just wants, when you're between the lines, to get you to give your best effort."
Ever since the tape surfaced, these men said, they have been getting concerned calls from others O'Connor coached, most wondering how they could help.
"I'd say 95 percent of his players are going to be in his corner," said Dearborn.
Alvin Williams, who was at Germantown Academy when O'Connor coached there and went on to Villanova and the NBA, phoned Finnerty on Friday.
"He said, 'Coach, what can I do for Johnny O?' "
Malvern Prep coach Jim Rullo, who also played for O'Connor at Drexel, said, "No one will ever know how many lives he changed for the better."
Play the game hard
Born in 1959, O'Connor grew up in Richboro, Bucks County, where his parents still reside. Like so many Philadelphia-area Catholic school kids, he gravitated toward basketball early.
"You could see he was definitely one of those Philly gym rats," said Pat Betley, who played at Lafayette when, between 2001 and '04, O'Connor was an assistant there to another local gym rat, Fran O'Hanlon.
A 1977 graduate of Archbishop Wood, he played basketball in high school but wasn't good enough to attract any college interest.
"Johnny's only about 5-9, 5-10," said Finnerty. "He used to get his butt kicked by Alvin Williams after practice when he was here."
Some suggested it may have been that lack of ability that instilled in him the scrappy, take-no-prisoners attitude he would demand from his players.
"Johnny believed you played the game hard," said Finnerty.
O'Connor went to Penn State, where he saw Joe Paterno's football team win a national title in 1982. He graduated a year later with a degree in exercise physiology and a teaching certificate.
After college, he was hired by a Bucks County health club. He did a little amateur coaching until he got his first meaningful position, as McDevitt's freshman coach in 1988.
A year later, Finnerty was looking for an assistant at GA. The fact that O'Connor was his wife's cousin didn't hurt his chances.
"He was always the one who identified and took care of the kid who needed it the most," Finnerty recalled. "People think that here at GA we're all millionaires. We're not. And if there was a kid who needed sneakers, by the time I'd find out about it, Johnny had already taken care of it. When he was at Drexel, there was a special-needs kid who hung around the program [Calvin Hicks] and Johnny right away gravitated toward him."
Then, in 1992, O'Connor learned that Villanova coach Steve Lappas was looking for a graduate administrative assistant. He got the post, breaking down film, stuffing envelopes, and performing other non-coaching duties for the Wildcats.
That whet his appetite for the college game, and when Bill Herrion needed another assistant at Drexel in 1993, O'Connor was hired. He would stay there for eight years, two as Herrion's top assistant and one as the chief aide for his replacement, Steve Seymour. The Dragons made three NCAA appearances in that span.
"I feel like I can be an objective observer because I wasn't buddy-buddy with him," Dearborn said. "He's competitive and very intense, but he always treated you with respect. And I can tell you, I would have had a different response if you had asked me about some other Drexel coaches."
Single and living in an apartment on South Broad Street, O'Connor seemed to spend every waking hour in Drexel's Market Street gym. The only other interest anyone could identify was golf.
Herrion, Dearborn said, forbade his assistants from fraternizing with players off the court, but when Seymour took over, O'Connor hosted the whole team for dinner.
"We all crammed into his little apartment," Dearborn said. "His fiancee made the dinner, I think. He just wanted to get to know us as people. He made it a point to know us off the court. Other coaches I had at Drexel did not. He was the only one."
In 2001, he married Fay McColl and joined O'Hanlon's staff at Lafayette, staying at the Patriot League school in Easton until 2004.
"He was a great guy," said Pat Betley, who played there under O'Connor for his freshman and sophomore seasons. "I loved him off and on the court. But there's no doubt he was an intense guy. He had a kind of in-your-face style."
At Lafayette, Betley said, O'Hanlon and O'Connor often ran the Leopards through the same "combat rebounding" drills that precipitated the conflict at Holy Family.
"We did that all the time, and nothing ever really happened," Betley said. "It's just a normal basketball drill. Basketball is a physical sport. It's an intense sport. And you've got to be intense to play it at the Division I level."
Mike Farrell, who played at Lafayette and later returned to coach there, said he used what he learned from O'Connor when he came back.
"I loved Johnny O," said Farrell. "Off the court, he was hilarious, a real Philly guy. On it, he was intense, and he would challenge you, and he was very, very verbal. But he was a guy you could always go to with a question. He stuck around after practices to help you work on your game, to make you better."
Along the way, like most assistants, O'Connor became a fixture at summer basketball camps, where he sometimes would place dollar bills on the floor to try to prod his players toward better performances.
In what might have been his own words, a brochure for a 2007 Coaches vs. Cancer clinic at GA describes him as "Johnny O . . . one of the most sought after basketball clinicians in the nation; known for his enthusiastic approach to the fundamentals."
One of Lappas' full-time assistants during O'Connor's year at Villanova was Paul Hewitt. In 2004, Hewitt, the head coach at Georgia Tech, asked his old acquaintance to be his director of basketball operations. A year later, O'Connor was back on the bench. The drills he liked to run at practices there were just as intense as those at Lafayette.
"Great coach," said the 76ers' Thaddeus Young, who was recruited to Georgia Tech by O'Connor. "He was one of my favorite coaches on the staff. . . . Very intense in workouts.
"My first experience with him, I actually knocked him out of the workout, out of a drill," Young recalled. "We were demonstrating, and I kind of like elbowed him in the face and almost gave him like a concussion."
The intensity of life picked up at Georgia Tech. His wife, an architect, got a good job with an Atlanta firm and the two of them seldom got back to Philadelphia, missing three Christmases in a row at one point.
So when he heard that Holy Family coach Danny Williams had stepped aside at the Division II school in his hometown, he applied for and won the job.
"I asked him why he would leave Georgia Tech to take a job at Holy Family, because I knew he took a big pay cut," Finnerty said. "He said his parents needed him, that his dad was ailing. And he said, 'I'm a Philly guy. I've got to come back.' "
Watch video of John O'Connor's NBC10 interview at www.philly.com/coachtears
Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or firstname.lastname@example.org.