RALEIGH, N.C. — In the end, perhaps it was Tom O’Brien’s own words that cost him his job at North Carolina State.
O’Brien was fired Sunday after guiding the Wolfpack football program for six seasons, but he didn’t deliver what athletic director Debbie Yow expected, nor did he meet his own expectations.
The move came one day after the Wolfpack finished a 7-5 regular season with a win over Boston College. The inability of the program to get over the hump and O’Brien’s approach were crucial components in Yow’s decision.
“Coach O‘Brien and I agree on the goal of becoming a Top-25 program, we just don’t agree on what it takes to get there,” Yow said Sunday evening at Carter-Finley Stadium.
O’Brien, the former head man at Boston College, leaves N.C. State after compiling a 40-35 overall record, though he was only 32-35 vs. FBS teams, and 22-26 against ACC competition. In fact, N.C. State won just one road game within the Atlantic Division during O’Brien’s tenure, and that was after Maryland missed a short field goal earlier this season with just seconds remaining.
And he compiled this resume with either Russell Wilson or Mike Glennon under center during those six campaigns. Wilson currently starts for the Seattle Seahawks and Glennon is expected to be one of the top quarterbacks taken in next April’s NFL Draft.
Based on those facts alone, Yow made the right decision. Mediocrity in a struggling conference doesn’t signify success, thus O’Brien wasn’t successful.
It also didn’t help that N.C. State got off to awful starts each season under O’Brien, and for every upset of a highly rated team, there were two perplexing losses to inferior clubs.
Then consider his words, and Yow’s decision was a slam dunk.
O’Brien, 64, said in August this was his best team. It is loaded with experienced players, Glennon under center, a veteran offensive line sculpted to O’Brien’s liking, and a secondary that took its lumps a few years ago with an eye on the future. O’Brien said it had become one of the best in the nation, led by junior David Amerson, who led FBS with 13 interceptions a year ago. Yet, it resembled that bunch from 2010 much more often than it should have.
Yow attended but didn’t stick around for all of last week’s 62-48 loss at Clemson in which the defense was shredded for 745 yards.
Did O’Brien’s words before the season began play a role in Yow’s decision?
“Yes, of course it did,” Yow responded. “He’s the subject matter expert, not me.”
Also consider that O’Brien, who won 75 games in 10 seasons at B.C. before taking the N.C. State job, kept barking about this group reaching 10 victories, even right up to the week of the Virginia game at home Nov. 3. His players backed up their coach’s statements by dropping a 33-6 decision to a Cavaliers team that entered the contest on a six-game losing streak.
Yow met with O’Brien last Friday and they discussed the program and its direction. She woke up at 3:30 a.m. Sunday unable to sleep and said she made the decision later in the morning. Yow notified O’Brien early in the afternoon and told the team at 3 p.m.
It’s likely, however, that Yow knew some time ago she would eventually make this decision because O’Brien’s ceiling was just too low and she has had something else in mind when it came to the program’s leadership. There was a running joke in the media after N.C. State upset Florida State earlier this season suggesting that the two unhappiest people in the ACC were commissioner John Swofford and Yow, as it would possibly postpone her desired regime change.
O’Brien may argue that his 24-14 record since the start of the 2010 season tells a different story than the numbers lumped together. It’s one of the most successful three-year stints in N.C. State history, as the coach pointed out several times last week. But because N.C. State, which has just one 10-win season in program history, has been no better than mediocre doesn’t mean that’s the fair barometer for success in 2102 and beyond. Yow certainly doesn’t see it that way.
In addition, N.C. State hasn’t been able to use that success combined with North Carolina’s two-plus years of NCAA issues and embarrassments to enhance recruiting — the Tar Heels annually crush the ‘Pack on the trail. And with UNC beginning to hum, O’Brien’s ceiling had become more pronounced.
O’Brien cleaned up a mess left over by former coach Chuck Amato and ran the program with class. There’s plenty he can be proud of and Wolfpack fans should appreciate that he gave them some great moments, including a 5-1 mark over rival North Carolina.
But in the end, O’Brien’s best just wasn’t good enough. Heck, he laid it out there himself, and Yow made him accountable for those words.
Firings are never fun, but this one was entirely justified.