When Tom O’Brien sat down to chat with media last week, he focused mostly on the future, on how he wanted to help Virginia football return to its glory days under Hall of Fame coach George Welsh.
His goal to get the Cavaliers back into the postseason and be a sounding board to coach Mike London, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, and the rest of the staff, was well documented here last weekend. What O’Brien wanted to address briefly, was the past, primarily his six seasons at North Carolina State.
Under his direction, the Wolfpack went to four bowl games in five years and posted consistency even though his last two teams were decimated by untimely injuries. Yet, State AD Debbie Yow, who wrecked the Maryland football program before migrating to Raleigh, decided to fire O’Brien after this past season’s 7-6 record (4-4 ACC, 5-1 at home).
While O’Brien’s achievements at State need no defending, he was candid about his time there when asked about how it all ended in Raleigh. A writer asked the former head coach if he was angry, frustrated over State’s decision.
“I didn’t have any anger,” O’Brien said. “When I was hired at N.C. State, I was hired to do a job. I went there with the goals of being champions in the classroom, champions in the community, and champions on the field. That’s always been my goal.”
No wonder London wanted O’Brien on his staff. Their goals are on the same path.
What O’Brien left out of his statement was that when he arrived at State, he took over a program in shambles. The Wolfpack had suffered through three consecutive losing seasons and was coming off a three-win campaign. Academics were a mess and there seemed to be trouble everywhere, particularly in the community.
OB, as his colleagues call him, cleaned all that up and then some.
N.C. State’s 2012 APR (Academic Progress Rate) score was projected at 990, which meant the football program’s numbers climbed from 920 to 990 and graduated all its seniors. It was such a job well done that O’Brien received letters from faculty on how their perspective of athletics at the school had drastically changed for the good under his leadership.
That success shouldn’t have come as any surprise. When O’Brien left a 10-year stint at Boston College, that football program ranked in the top three in academic success. Upon arrival to State, he discovered the Wolfpack program was bottom three, but now has risen to the top three.
“I did what I was supposed to do there,” O’Brien said.
The community? He started the Kay Yow spring football game to raise money for cancer ($100,000) and honor the late N.C. State women’s basketball coach (sister of Debbie Yow, incidentally). O’Brien worked hard to get the spring game on TV. The ex-marine also worked with the U.S. Marine Corps in its Toys for Tots program at Christmas each year, raising more than $200,000 for toys for kids.
Another missing ingredient in Raleigh was that its football alumni had stopped coming back. O’Brien brought them in with open arms and many have called to thank him since his departure.
Turning around the program was been equated to turning an aircraft carrier around in a stormy sea.
“It was tough,” OB said. “I had to get rid of 30 guys the first three years I was there.”
He equated that to being down 10 scholarships a year over three years, “like putting yourself on the Death Penalty,” the coach pointed out.
“But it had to be done to turn the program around, to do what I was asked to do,” he said.
The last three seasons, State won 24 games.
“If you look at the injuries on defense a year ago and what we went through on offense this year (State was forced to start six different offensive lines in 10 games and was down to its fourth-string tailback by the end), and we still win seven games … that was a heck of a coaching job,” O’Brien said.
Go ahead and pat yourself on the back, OB. Well deserved. Outsiders would say he’s more deserving of that pat on the back than a kick in the pants by an AD who clearly doesn’t understand football.
During his time at State, the Wolfpack enjoyed the third-largest crowd in school history in the last three years, went 4-1 against Top 25 teams and was 5-1 against arch-rival North Carolina.
“I don’t know who else is 4-1 against Top 25 teams,” O’Brien said.
Certainly no one in the ACC.
“In my time there, there were 10 other [ACC] teams that played Carolina and [collectively], they were 15-73 (against the Tar Heels),” boasted O’Brien, who was 5-1, and nearly 6-0 had it not been for a last-minute punt return for a touchdown this past season.
In the week after the pink slip, coaches from around the league, around the country, called and told O’Brien he had nothing to be ashamed of, that he did a terrific job in Raleigh. Over the past couple of years, fans from UNC, Duke and Wake Forest would stop him and tell him how much they respected what he did and the kind of program he ran at State.
“They said they had a newfound respect for State,” O’Brien said.
Others noticed as well. Last December, a Forbes magazine article studying major college football programs in the country, wrote that the three programs that got the most bang for the bucks was Kansas State, Stanford, and N.C. State, in relation to money invested into the football program.
It should be pointed out that during the latter part of his BC tenure and his time at N.C. State, O’Brien helped develop quarterbacks Matt Ryan (Atlanta Falcons), Russell Wilson (Seattle Seahawks), and Mike Glennon, who is projected by some to be the first quarterback taken in this April’s NFL Draft.
“So, I don’t have any regrets, I don’t feel bad,” O’Brien said. “We did everything right. It’s a better program today than when I got there. It’s their university and they can make whatever choice they want to make, but if you look at how I’ve been part of building programs, it you look at years seven-through-10 at Boston College, we won a lot of football games.”
BC won 36 games in his last four seasons, including four bowl victories, tied for first place in the Big East, tied for first place in the ACC Atlantic Division and tied for second in the ACC Atlantic his final season there.
“And, we were ready [to do the same at State],” O’Brien said. “All we had to do was get a little bit healthy and we would have been there.”
Instead, some Wolfpack fans were howling that State didn’t win the division after knocking off previously unbeaten Florida State this season.
Wahoo fans believe that the Wolfpack’s loss is the Cavaliers’ gain.