The way I see it, Tom O’Brien, is just another Herb Sendek, former NC State basketball coach, but not as good. In another way, O’Brien is similar to Dick Sheridan, former NC State football coach, but not nearly as good. With those characterizations, and, since for various reasons I was not fond of either Herb or Dick and was glad to see both voluntarily vacate their positions, I wonder why O’Brien remains the Wolfpack’s head football coach except for the money. (He makes in excess of $1.5 million a year.) I guess one major difference is that Sendek and Sheridan were quitters who turned their backs on the Wolfpack while O’Brien—once a Marine always a Marine—seems to be a fighter, even when his troops produce mediocre results at best. The casualties, though and for the most part, are on the Wolfpack and not with the enemy.
Before more on O’Brien and a look at his results one or two games shy of six seasons, let’s review Sendek and Sheridan:
Sendek, publically dull and with a sleeping pill offense, was head basketball coach from 1996-97 through 2005-06. The Wolfpack’s overall record with Sendek was 191-132 with 9-of-10 winning seasons. State’s Atlantic Coast Conference mark under Sendek was 72-88 including only 4-of-10 winning ACC records. The Wolfpack played in four NITs and five times went to the NCAA Tournament, once making it to the Sweet Sixteen, under Sendek. His best records were two of his final three years.
After 2005-06, Sendek left NC State to coach at Arizona State. He was not fired. He simply could not take the heat that came from NC State fans who wanted more. But it’s obvious that no matter how hard he worked, (and there’s no doubt he was a hard worker), Herb would have never taken the program any further than he did. Wolfpack fans wanted more and there’s nothing wrong with that. Yes, State would have returned to the NCAA tournament many times under Sendek, but there were no regular season ACC titles (there’s always a chance at a tournament title, the official ACC basketball championship) in his foreseeable future. Read more about Herb at Wikipedia.
Sheridan’s story is a little different. He took the Wolfpack job prior to the 1986 season, coaching for seven years. Sheridan, who seemed satisfied in signing two and three star athletes and getting them to over-achieve, was a successful head football coach and Athletic Director at Furman for seven years prior to his move to Raleigh. He could have come to State three years earlier but word is he had cold feet. He warmed to the idea in 1986 and put together a solid program compiling a 52-29-3 overall record and 31-18-1 mark in the ACC, three times finishing 2nd in the league and only once had a losing conference record. State played in six bowl games and only had one overall losing record under Sheridan.
Dick left State for various reasons, some “personal” and some hard-headed. He left coaching altogether. He once told me that being head football coach made him State’s biggest fan. I laughed at him when he said it, knowing I was a life-long State fan, and explained that long after he would not football coach at State, long after he left the program, I would remain the Wolfpack’s biggest fan and he wouldn’t be one at all. There’s not a lot except his coaching record, but read more about Dick at Wikipedia.
Now, let’s get back to O’Brien. In six years, O’Brien has a just better than average overall record, 39-35, and, for NC State, an embarrassing ACC record of 21-26. In 2007, O’Brien’s first year, the Wolfpack tied for 8th in the ACC with a 3-5 record. In 2008, State was 4-4 in the league for a five-way tie for 5th. In 2009, the Pack’s ACC record was 2-6, tied for 9th. In 2010, a 5-3 record gained a tie for 3rd. In 2011, a 4-4 record put State in a 7th place conference tie. This season, IF, and that could be a big IF, State beats Boston College this Saturday, and baring disasters at North Carolina (the Tar Heels should beat Maryland) and at Duke (the Blue Devils should lose to Miami), the Wolfpack’s 4-4 conference record will be no better than 6th in the ACC. A loss and State will drop to 7th. That’s encouraging, huh?
To his credit, though false glory at that, this will be the 4th time the Pack will play in a post-season bowl game under O’Brien, if he’s still coach when the game is played. The regular season overall record could be 7-5 or, heaven forbid with a loss to BC, 6-6, and still make it to a bowl game. The ACC has agreements with more bowls than eligible teams, good eligible teams, so State, at 6-6, or hopefully 7-5, with two of those wins against The Citadel and South Alabama (WOW!), the Wolfpack gets to play a 13th game. That’s great for the players but the lousy record is squarely on O’Brien’s shoulders.
In the 2010 and 2011 seasons, State’s had its best overall season records under O’Brien at 9-4 and 8-5 but was disappointing in the ACC. The Pack had wins in those seasons against Western Carolina, Liberty, South Alabama, and Central Michigan (Oooh, Ahhh!), and losses to East Carolina, Maryland, Wake Forest and Boston College. The Wolfpack should never lose to those four. Another way to look at those seasons is that State won its 9th and 8th games in the bowl game.
And, here’s a stat that’s been well publicized: Until this season, no Tom O’Brien-coached Wolfpack football team had won on the road at an ACC divisional opponent. And, this season, according to O’Brien, NC State was supposed to have the best talent, experience and depth of any of his teams. This season, while very entertaining much of the time and exciting in many ways, some good and some bad, is far from what it should have been. If this year’s team is what the best talent, experience, and depth are supposed to look like, then O’Brien is living in a football fantasy world. Okay, blame it on injuries, but then blame it on lack of depth at those positions. Then blame it on recruiting and that leads to…you know.
And, there’s this: After State’s 33-6 loss to Virginia, a lop-sided embarrassing affair at home, O’Brien basically said he ignores what fans and media say about his program. It’s okay to disregard the media (including me) but not the fans (including me). One day, if he sticks to that mentality, the fans will ignore him. Many already have; more will sooner than later especially if he keeps the program on the course he has it on right now. Who wants to sit through another 33-6 loss to Virginia, at home?
Now, for the business of all of this, Debbie Yow, the Director of Athletics at NC State University who just received a contract extension and a boost in supplemental pay and who gets more if State goes to a bowl game, has a decision to make about O’Brien’s future at State which could be to dismiss him, or to extend his contract, or no decision at all. The outcome of the finale against his former team, Boston College, should have no bearing whatsoever on his future as the leader of the State football program, but a loss could sway Yow to move in one direction. A win doesn’t matter one way or the other. The record, as outlined, is stark reality. A 7-5 might look okay, but remember the record includes wins against South Alabama and The Citadel and uncalled for losses at Miami and North Carolina and a home loss to Virginia. All that said, Yow’s decision is complicated for three reasons.
First Reason: For several weeks, NC State fans wanting a better program are being told that the Wolfpack is not a destination program for any of the top-billed football coaches in the nation. We’ve been told that no one is clamoring for the job, that the best the Wolfpack could do is a mid-level coach who wants to move up, sort of like what North Carolina did last year or what Willis Casey, as NC State athletics director, did when he picked Lou Holtz to start with the 1972 team and in selecting Bo Rein to take the spot when Holtz left after the 1975 season. I have no problem loading, losing and reloading head coaches as long as the right choice is made each time. So, if Yow decides to dismiss O’Brien, the experts tell us she better have someone in mind, and in her pocket and ready to move to State. But who cares about the experts. Obviously, she doesn’t.
To her credit, Yow, who is pushing the entire athletics program to higher levels of success, hired ESPN analyst Mark Gottfried to lead the State basketball program. Maybe he wasn’t the top choice, and maybe there wasn’t a top-billing college basketball coach jumping at the chance to compete with Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski, but the choice, right now, looks genius compared to the previous AD’s selection of Sidney Lowe who was more about NBA style of play with a bunch of stars and less about a cohesive college team with a bunch of stars. While last year was a start, Gottfried has a way to go to prove his team can win at a higher level, but he and his solid staff of assistants are doing an unbelievable job of recruiting, the first building block of success of any program, especially one that wants to get to the mountain-top and to stay there, and getting his players, for the most part, to play as a team. So, there may not be a replacement immediately at hand if O’Brien goes, but there’s one out there who will do better.
Second reason—and this is very important and has a major impact: In six seasons, O’Brien has compiled a 5-1 record against what Wolfpackers see as our biggest rival, North Carolina. It’s a wonderful record, but, as much as I’ve seriously said over the years that being 1-11 is okay as long as that one win is against UNC, five wins in six seasons against UNC can go unnoticed when the overall season record and the overall ACC record are as awful as O’Brien has accumulated. Now, I’ll turn around that statement.
If the Wolfpack can go 11-1 in the regular season and 7-1 in the conference and that one loss comes against the Tar Heels every year, then I’ll fully support the coach. I’d be disappointed, tossing lots of curse words at him for not beating North Carolina, but I’d support him. As much as I enjoyed five straight wins against the Tar Heels, all I ask is that we have a chance to beat UNC every year and not lose with bone-head coaching like we saw late in the game at Chapel Hill this year. There were those three incomplete pass plays with five minutes remaining when running plays would have at least knocked off either two and a half minutes or all of UNC’s timeouts, and, in a waning minutes, there were the three running plays to take time off the clock (but UNC used its timeouts to stop the clock) and the punt directly to a Heisman candidate (after the fact) who returned it for the winning score.
And, the third complicated reason for Yow is all about UNC. If those guys were not so deep in doo-doo with their academic scandal and other mischievous stuff that’s growing daily and which had a thread to the Chancellor who resigned, and since it appears the NC State athletics program in general and the football and basketball programs, especially on the academic side, are clean, and since O’Brien seems to run a clean program, it’s just too damn hard to dismiss him. These days, clean programs get you contract renewal even with average results. At times, O’Brien has been slow to punish those who have been accused of doing bad stuff while at other times he has been quick to dismiss players who screwed up. Having a clean program is an excuse to retain him. On the other hand, a clean program is a must for whoever is the head coach at NC State, especially with the bad name UNC is currently giving to the entire University of North Carolina system.
The bottom line is that Tom O’Brien, in my humble (and who really cares) opinion, cannot take the Wolfpack to the next level. He knows how to beat the non-conference sisters of the poor, but in the ACC neighborhood, he’s not so good. If his goal is to win the “state” title first and then the ACC division title and then the ACC title and then the National title, he’s shooting too low. NC State’s football program should always be at a level when wins against North Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest, East Carolina and another other teams in this state are automatic not a struggle. In other ACC games, the Wolfpack program should be superior to Virginia, Miami, Boston College, Syracuse and Maryland (oops, the Terps are going to the Big 10), on equal footing with Clemson, Georgia Tech, and Pittsburgh, and get a win every other year or so against Florida State. A record of 11-1 or 10-2 on a regular basis should not be out of the question. It should be part of the equation.
NC State football has the resources with Carter-Finley Stadium, the Murphy Center, the practice fields, other facilities (maybe an indoor practice facility is a must to add) and fan support. Academically, NC State has something for everyone who qualifies for admission. It’s doubtful that Yow or any NC State athletics director would hold back money from the program that brings in the biggest part of the athletics budget revenue. And, the fans whole-heartedly support the program, the team. There will not be a full house this Saturday against Boston College, but Wolfpack fans are as loyal as any. And, with next season soon being billed as somewhat of a rebuilding season—especially because of inexperience at quarterback, the most important position, and the need to build an offensive line that can generate a better ground game—fans will buy more season tickets than this year.
The question I pose to Yow and all Wolfpack fans is: Do we deserve better than the last six years? Do we deserve, in 2013 and beyond, a football coach who is better than Herb Sendek was as basketball coach or as Dick Sheridan was as football coach. The standard should be higher than bar set by those two; we deserve better than those bars. With O’Brien, (and the records shows it) unfortunately, we aren’t close; we're below the success of Sendek and Sheridan. Our only hope is that if O’Brien survives, if Yow can’t muster the money to pay off the remaining years on his contract, that O’Brien will get serious about coaching and prove me wrong.
On the other hand, in the bigger life scheme, NC State football success and failure and Tom O'Brien keeping or losing his job is not really that important. It’s not war in the Middle East. It’s not poverty throughout the United States. It’s not the enormous job of educating children ages 4-18. It’s not taking care of hurricane victims. It’s not Hostess going out of business and eliminating 18,000 jobs, not to mention Twinkies. It’s not going to help me make one more sale in my job. It’s just college football where its lack of success touches only a few jobs. So why worry about it? Not me, hah hah! I have enough worries of my own that do not include NC State football success and failure. Life will go on. It’s just something about which to write, and I do enjoy writing.