In a two decade career as a Georgetown coach and administrator, few were as more beloved among its student body than John D. O'Reilly, who coached men's basketball in two periods from 1914 through 1927.
"John D. O'Reilly has done more for Georgetown than has any one man for any institution in the country," wrote The HOYA in 1920. "This summer he had the satisfaction of seeing three of his proteges in the Olympic games, last winter his basketball team lost but one game, while last spring the O'Reilly-coached baseball sluggers were adjudged the champions of the college world. Mr. O'Reilly deserves the deepest gratitude of the hosts of Georgetown men all over the country for his capable and efficient work as mentor of Blue and Gray athletes."
John O'Reilly was born in Boston in 1878, a first generation Irish-American whose parents had emigrated to New England. Following four years at Holy Cross, O'Reilly returned to Boston as teacher and athletic coach, where he win five straight football titles at Boston English HS and also served as a coach at Dorchester HS. In 1914, he was hired by Georgetown as the director of physical fitness at Ryan Gymnasium, and soon became an indispensable part of the athletic landscape.
"Georgetown fells justly proud in the acquisition of Mr. O'Reilly, who came here the past fall as trainer of athletes and coach of track, basket-ball and baseball," wrote the College yearbook. "In his profession he ranks with the best men in the country. For many years past he was head coach and trainer of the high schools of Boston, Mass., and many of the most prominent athletes of the Eastern college world are products of his tutelage. His success at Georgetown the present year has been pronounced."
For the next seven years O'Reilly maintained a busy schedule, running the tiny gymnasium's training and physical education efforts, serving as head coach to three of the school's four leading sports, and the trainer and assistant coach to its most prominent sport, football. The role was an important one in that its head coach, Albert Exendine, was an attorney by trade who spent eight months out of the year in Tulsa and commuted to Washington in the fall. Keeping up the off-season recruiting and conditioning fell to O'Reilly, who soon established himself as one of the best.
One of O'Reilly's first changes in succeeding James Colliflower as basketball coach was in moving all home games to the campus gym, which not only saved money for the Athletic Association but soon established Georgetown as one of the toughest home teams in the East. In a seven year stretch from 1918 to 1925, Georgetown won a record 52 straight games at Ryan Gym, with wins over the likes of Kentucky, Georgia Tech, and North Carolina. Indeed, O'Reilly played a hand in a renaissance of Georgetown sports in by the close of the decade, including a combined 22-2 over two basketball seasons and a 34-12 record over four seasons in football. Two sports hit hard by the Great War, baseball and track would soon experience a golden age in national competition in the 1920's.
With a thick cover of gray hair on the 42 year old O'Reilly, he was dubbed the "Silver Fox" by his students, but time would catch up with him at the close of the 1921 football season, when he complained of stomach pains following a Thanksgiving day game at Griffith Stadium. A few weeks later he was diagnosed with an abdominal abscess, requiring major surgery which sidelined him for the 1922-23 basketball season, to which former coach James Colliflower ably assisted. A year later, O'Reilly fell victim to exhaustion at the close of the 1922 football season, and he missed a second season as coach.
O'Reilly returned in the fall of 1923 but was relieved of his football duties to focus on the remaining three sports. The two year gap as coach did not weaken his skills or resolve, but the gap in any substantive recruiting set the course for some mediocre Georgetown teams in the mid-1920's for baseball and basketball, while track continued under his tutelage with some outstanding performers. After a combined 10-14 mark over his final two seasons at the gymnasium, O'Reilly resigned as basketball coach after the 1927 season to concentrate on track, and retired overall in 1931.
At the conclusion of his tenure, O'Reilly was the school's all time winningest baseball coach (now third best-overall), the school's all-time winningest basketball coach (now fifth best overall), and the coach of many of the greatest track and field starts Georgetown has ever produced.
"Mr. O'Reilly's official position at Georgetown is that of Physical Director but that title indicates only a small part of the good work he has done here," write the dedication in the 1926 Ye Domesday Booke. "Year after year he has been the guiding spirit behind Georgetown's winning baseball teams. Perhaps his greatest performance was in 1922 when his team was unanimously chosen intercollegiate champions. Up to this last season his basketball teams have always been equal to the best in the Eastern colleges."
"His only reward for this is the everlasting gratitude of the boy and the internal joy he feels at being able to help a fellow man. Perhaps it is this attitude of unselfishness that has made the man the overwhelming favorite of the University. Perhaps it is the flowing eloquence of his silver tongue giving wholesome advice that makes the whole school take him for its counselor in times of uncertainty. Perhaps it is that same flowing eloquence abounding in wit and humor as well as an irresistible philosophy that enables him to take by storm every assembly he has occasion to address. Perhaps it is that affable smile of his that makes him the friend of every worth-while man in the school. But certainly the ultimate cause of the respectful popularity in which he is held by every Georgetown man is that instinct that prompts him to say to his teams: "Go in and play a hard game; play a winning game if you can; but at least play a clean and upright game."