Thoughts On The TOB Era As It Comes To A Close
Tom O'Brien has been relieved of his coaching duties, bringing to an end his six-year tenure as NC State's football coach.
At the time, when he was hired, our friends from newly-added conference member Boston College told us we were hiring away from them a milquetoast, mediocre coach incapable of winning the big one when it counted.
And in a lot of respects, they were right. Never one for flash (in contrast to his predecessor Amato), Tom was always very stoic on the sidelines and quiet on the recruiting trail. His signature pose–arms folded, scowling–even became a thing on the internet, which was about the closest you'd ever come to seeing O'Brien gaining internet street cred.
And yes, when the chips were down and State had a chance to play for a conference title, O'Brien's Wolfpack faltered against a very beatable Maryland team in 2010. He never won the Big One.
But when BC fans told us about all the bad things we could expect with TOB as our head coach, they glossed over a few positives from his time in Chestnut Hill.
For one, he ran a clean, tight ship that never ran afoul of the NCAA. He was hired at BC at a time when they were trying to heal the wounds of a rather nasty gambling scandal. Not only did the former Marine steady the ship, he turned the Eagles into a consistent winner by building things from the ground up the right way without a hint of scandal. He did the same at State after the unraveling of the Amato and the mass defections during the coaching change.
But the other key hallmark of the TOB tenure at BC that he brought to State was a desire and focus on beating his school's rival. Since 1975, Boston College and Notre Dame have played regularly in a series dubbed "The Holy War." Prior to his hiring in '97, BC had only won two of the eight previous matchups. But in his third game of the fabled series, O'Brien's Eagles notched his first Holy War victory, starting a string of five wins in six tries against the Fighting Irish from 99-04. That includes two wins against ranked Notre Dame teams where BC entered the game unranked.
So it's no surprise that O'Brien–who loved recalling his times as a plebe at Navy, walking the halls greeting his fellow plebes with a "Go Navy, beat Army"–found a way to embrace the rivalry with the Tar Heels. And beyond simply embracing it, he turned that game into a mid-season "season-within-a-season," a game emphasized beyond simply another conference foe. He got how important that game was to the fanbase, and put an appropriate amount of focus on it.
As such, the Wolfpack excelled against their rivals under O'Brien. Even in the midst of subpar years, the Pack always found a way to best the Heels. Sometimes by large margins (41-10), sometimes through baffling means (the two-yard hailmary), and sometimes through sheer dominance (13-0)…O'Brien's Pack always found a way to beat the Heels. Even when Carolina–much like the Notre Dame teams he bested at BC–had more talent on both sides of the ball.
But like his time at BC proved, one win against your rival is not enough to satiate the fanbase. When the head-scratching losses came, coupled with some controversial personnel decisions (read: Russell Wilson), the fans at State began to grumble. Big wins against Florida State in 2010 and '12 showed the promise of what this team was capable of when everything clicked. It just didn't click at all against some lesser teams, which ultimately became his undoing. When the inconsistency continued and the string of wins over UNC finally came to an end…well, that was all she wrote.
Regardless of your thoughts on this move–whether the timing is right or if the move is justified at all–all State fans should be pleased at where NC State football is now relative to where it was when he took over in 2006. It's in a better place.
Now the question is can it become something even bigger and better.