NC State head football coach Tom O’Brien has been fired following his sixth season, the school announced Sunday.
O’Brien finished with a 40-35 record at NC State. That record is accompanied by a much less impressive 22-26 mark in ACC play. If you dig deep enough through the numbers, you’d find that O’Brien actually had a losing record against Division 1-A (FBS) teams.
Offensive coordinator Dana Bible will be the interim head coach for the Pack’s bowl game, wherever that may be, and all of the assistants will be retained through the bowl game.
O’Brien’s failure to take the Pack to the next level led to his departure from the university, and finishing 7-5 in a season with what O’Brien claimed was his most experienced and talented group wasn’t enough to earn the former Marine a seventh year in Raleigh.
One could argue that O’Brien did exactly what one can expect out of this NC State program. Taking over a program that was in the national spotlight with Philip Rivers, but was ultimately left gutted by predecessor Chuck Amato, O’Brien took State to four bowl games in six seasons, averaging just fewer than seven wins a year.
The Highs and Lows
He preached discipline and leadership, on the field, in the classroom, and in the community. Ultimately his players achieved just that- building a model program that nearby UNC-Chapel Hill could only hope to replicate. The program was turned 180 degrees from the Amato era, but even if the highs weren’t as high, the lows were certainly not as low.
Among those highs were multiple signature wins. Two at home over Florida State, both in primetime on last-second finishes, and one in dominating fashion over a top-10 Clemson team at Carter-Finley last season. To the lows, the Pack never won less than five games in a season under O’Brien.
His 5-1 record against rival North Carolina certainly pleased the Wolfpack faithful, but the one attached to that record might have had just as much to do with his firing as the 33-6 beat-down his team took the following week at the hands of Virginia, a team that finished the season at just 4-8, and 2-6 in ACC play, in front of a home crowd at Carter-Finley Stadium on Homecoming day.
NC State hasn’t won an ACC Championship in football since 1979. O’Brien’s team had a chance to end that streak in 2010- NC State’s most successful season under O’Brien. After beating Florida State in the final seconds on October 28th, the Pack faced an under-achieving Clemson squad in Death Valley. Tom O’Brien elected to punt on fourth-and-short in Clemson territory late in the game down 14-13. The Pack never got another shot to take the lead and ultimately ended up losing 14-13.
After Florida State was upset at home by North Carolina, NC State controlled its own destiny to the ACC Championship Game again, all the way to the final regular season finale at Maryland.
The Pack jumped out to a 14-0 lead, but ultimately collapsed and lost 38-31, sending Florida State to the ACC Championship Game and the Pack to Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando.
O’Brien’s two strengths at Boston College had always been developing NFL caliber quarterbacks, and solid offensive lines. He never achieved the latter due to poor recruiting and injuries, but he did develop an NFL starting quarterback in Russell Wilson, and current senior Mike Glennon should be one of the first quarterbacks taken in the upcoming NFL draft.
The Russell Wilson Saga
Speaking of Russell Wilson, the national reputation of O’Brien might never overcome the attention the program received when Russell Wilson left NC State to play his final year at Wisconsin. O’Brien got a bad rap for the way he handled the situation, and ultimately the criticism was he received for it was unfair.
O’Brien never told Wilson to take a hike, and he never directly told him he couldn’t play baseball and football at NC State. The national media never understood that. He simply told Wilson that if and when he came back to football practice in Raleigh that he would have to fight to earn his starting spot for the Wolfpack- a situation that nearly every college football player in America faces year in and year out.
Had Wilson returned, Glennon probably would have left. Had Glennon left, O’Brien wouldn’t have made this long in Raleigh, as true freshman Manny Stocker would have been the starter and probably wouldn’t have won more than four games in his first season under center.
O’Brien made the best decision for the future of the program. Not for himself, not for Wilson or Glennon- for the program. This was understood and respected by Wolfpack fans, even if the program took tons of heat, especially as Wilson led Wisconsin to a Big Ten Championship and a Rose Bowl appearance.
Loyalty: O’Brien’s Undoing
O’Brien’s loyalty to the university was honorable. He said all of the right things to the media that represented the school the way it needed to be. His loyalty, though, was also his undoing.
O’Brien preached continuity, leading to a loyalty to his assistants and coordinators that is nearly unprecedented in college football. He never relieved defensive coordinator Mike Archer or offensive coordinator Dana Bible of their duties over the six-year run, even though they struggled year in and year out.
Bible, working with an NFL-ready quarterback and a stable of capable running backs, finished this most recent regular season 71st nationally in points per game (28.4). That NFL-ready quarterback led a passing game that finished 20th nationally in passing yards per game, but the running game that was supposed to be helped by O’Brien’s most complete offensive line in his tenure finished the regular season ranked 108th in rushing yards per game. This was the usual tale (minus the passing success) throughout O’Brien’s six seasons in Raleigh.
O’Brien never replaced defensive coordinator Mike Archer. This baffled many, including myself. In this final season, Archer’s unit allowed at least 33 points in all five of the Wolfpack’s losses. An experienced secondary that was thought to be one of the nation’s best entering the season, was horrible for about half of the Pack’s games this year, and inexperience at linebacker ruined any chance the Pack had of having a magical season. They finished 46th nationally in points allowed per game at 24.6.
Had O’Brien found replacements for his coordinators, he might have been able to win a few more games over the years, and would probably be preparing right now for a more prestigious bowl game.
For these reasons, one can conclude that O’Brien, who is certainly a quality football coach- and man, was undone by his loyalty to his assistants and his players.
A Thank You to Tom
In a statement, O’Brien had this to say: “I appreciate the opportunity to have coached at North Carolina State University and I feel that the program is in a better place now than when I started.”
The program is certainly in a better place now than it was when O’Brien began his tenure in Raleigh, but I feel that it is the Wolfpack faithful that owe Tom a “thank you”.
Thank you, Tom, for building a solid foundation at North Carolina State University. There is no doubt you ran the program the right way and were an excellent representative for the university. Your efforts are certainly appreciated as the program moves forward.
For up to the minute news on NC State sports, be sure to follow J.J. Greenstein on Twitter @TheJJGreenstein.