The North Carolina State football team is at a crossroads not unlike some others in college football this season.
The Wolfpack is dealing with a coaching change, as Tom O’Brien was fired after six seasons and replaced by Dave Doeren of Northern Illinois, but with a bowl game still to play.
But Doeren, whose Huskies are making history themselves, won’t coach anyone this month. He is in Raleigh laying down the foundation for his new program while an assistant runs the show as NIU becomes the first Mid-American Conference school to play in a BCS bowl. The Huskies face Florida State in the Orange Bowl.
So what will be N.C. State’s disposition?
Some teams mope into their bowl games after coaches are fired, especially when the players feel it was unjustified – after all, they are in a bowl – and they struggle structuring themselves to play a football game. Others, however, use the coach’s termination as fuel and play for the former head man. Taking some blame for the firing, they pledge to make amends.
Mum has been the word out of the Wolfpack’s camp over the last week. But the initial reaction is that the Music City Bowl in Nashville against Vanderbilt is an opportunity for one final act of unity by a team that didn’t meet is stated expectations.
N.C. State finished 7-5 overall and just 4-4 in the ACC, and it could have been substantially worse. The Wolfpack had some extremely narrow victories – at Connecticut, at Maryland, at home over FSU – but also its share of losses it felt it should have won, such as at Miami and North Carolina. Some of that still weighs on the players’ minds.
“We’ve had a lot of mental breakdowns during the season when it comes to things like maybe coverage, maybe missed assignments and stuff like that,” senior safety Earl Wolff said. “So that’s not all on the coaches at all, it’s on the players, too.”
Offensive coordinator Dana Bible is the interim coach for the bowl game, a responsibility he accepted out of respect for O’Brien, whom he had worked with for 14 years. Bible must direct a team with three senior starters on the offensive line and another at tight end, a talented wide receiver/kick returner, and a senior quarterback in Mike Glennon, who may be one of the top signal callers drafted in April.
The defense will lose several seniors in addition to cornerback David Amerson, a junior cornerback who has already announced he’s heading to the NFL. Bible has to figure out a way to channel his emotions into energy that can infuse the departing players so they can lead the rest of the squad.
With so much uncertainty about what lays ahead for the program and each of its returning players, this game has to be about the moment. And it would only be human nature for Bible to make this also about O’Brien.
“Fourteen seasons with Coach O’Brien, and it’s difficult,” Bible said the day O’Brien was let go. “There is no question about it. The way we put it, we’ve won a lot of games together, and obviously we’ve grown from being two coaches.
“The truth of the matter is it was always more than that. We’re both from the same town, we’re both from the same high school. We’ve known each other for an awful long time.”
Well, there you go. This is personal, very personal. And that’s why properly directing the emotion of this game probably will determine whether or not the Wolfpack is competitive with the 8-4 (5-3 SEC) Commodores. The early returns should have Wolfpack fans optimistic.
“We have a blueprint and we know how to do it,” Bible said. “They’ve been trained and they know the way for the last six years. We’ll follow that plan, get ourselves ready for the game and do our best to be successful.”
Wolff echoed those words and said the players need to take it upon themselves. Vandy finished the regular season with a 55-21 thumping of Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, N.C., and is a very worthy opponent, especially since they will be playing just several miles from campus.
But Wolff says this is about the red and white – and its former leader.
“We’re just trying to keep everybody together and keep that bond we still have as a team and try not to let it affect us because we still have one game left and we’re going to try and win it for Coach O’Brien,” Wolff said.
That is the overwhelming sentiment in Raleigh right now, and why not?
Change is coming for everyone, so why not try to feel normal one last time.