Back when we were happily in the market for a new football coach (at long last for me, as I was maybe the very first person off the Amato train – having told several people after the Maryland game during PR’s senior year that the Amato experiment was going to end very badly), I got wind that Tom O’Brien had contacted NC State. Amazingly, a successful head coach (perhaps the only one in the country with a worse AD than ours at the time) wanted to come here. And he didn’t even want much money. It seemed too good to be true.
Soon after, I penned an article (in consultation with Jeff, who was on the road) under the formal SFN moniker, making the case for hiring Tom O’Brien ahead of Paul Johnson. I believed it at the time. I believe it now. Even after the “turd in the punch bowl” that was the 2009 season, I believed it was the right call at the time it was made. In 2010, I think we are seeing that decision pay off – and it could take the form of our first ACC title in over thirty freaking years.
But wait, some of you might be thinking. Paul Johnson already won the ACC at Georgia Tech! Doesn’t that mean that he was the right guy all along? In short, I believe the answer is clearly “no.” Whatever Chan Gailey’s failures were and are as a coach (he’s head man for the NFL’s only winless team at the moment), he recruited pretty damned well. As most coaches will do in a fertile state for recruiting, with only one 1-A competitor in-state. The Jackets certainly had talent on defense, and on the offensive line. Which might mean that Paul Johnson was the perfect hire for Georgia Tech.
Whatever successes Chuck Amato had as a recruiter (handful of premium front seven defenders, great speed/athleticism), he more or less completely ignored the OL, except for the walking disaster that was the Derek Morris experiment. Certainly what he left for his successor would, to put it mildly, not be the makings of instant success for the triple option offense. Even if Paul Johnson coached the Amato remnants up to the best of his ability (and even if you believe his coaching ability exceeds that of Tom O’Brien), that ragtag bunch wasn’t going to win 8 or 9 games. And can you honestly claim that without early success, he would have been able to successfully recruit a far more challenging home base, with every competitor pointing out that Johnson’s scheme won’t get you to the NFL? Hell, even after GREAT early success at Tech, Johnson is hardly setting the world on fire recruiting-wise. And his 2010 Yellow Jackets might not even attain bowl eligibility.
On the other hand, you can see in 2010 the path to a guy like O’Brien winning the ACC. The league is down, creating opportunity. There’s no 800-pound, Top 10-caliber gorilla to overwhelm us with talent. In his fourth season, Tom O’Brien has his first typical TOB offensive line. It’s solid, and serves as the foundation for our success. It’s also a predictable and reliable element, one that allows us to hang in games even when we get really bad QB play. Beyond OL, we do have a playmaking QB, solid WRs and DL, and are getting good LB play. It’s the recipe for the kind of team that an excellent leader-type coach can scavenge a league title with during a down year. And that perfect storm has arrived perhaps a few years ahead of schedule. But Tom O’Brien is ready. And he’s convinced his players that they are ready, too.
Go back to the LB play for a moment. One positive we originally cited is the remarkable stability and loyalty of Tom O’Brien’s coaching staff – a welcome change from the musical chairs we played under the increasingly unstable and egomaniacal Chuck Amato. Last year, that looked like it could be a hindrance, as Mike Archer was inexplicably retained as defensive coordinator. But on balance, this has been a good thing. And when a staff position opened up, O’Brien used his connections and respect within the profession to bring in exactly what NC State needed – LB coach (and some say de facto defensive coordinator) Jon Tenuta. Even before Nate Irving got his sea legs back, State’s LB corps impressed from Day One. All of a sudden, Audie Cole looked fast. Audie Cole!! At times, it has seemed like 3 Terrell Mannings are on the field at the same time. And thus, the defense is just good enough to make a title run.
Originally, I felt like we blew our chance when we inexplicably lost an early 17-0 lead, and ultimately the game, at home against Virginia Tech. Certainly, it would be nice to have that game back – we would have some margin for error as we close with three road games in November. But really, who’s to say we would have had the character to survive a brutal second quarter against Florida State, without having the Hokies punch us in the mouth? What’s happened has happened. There’s no going back. There’s also no denying that NC State controls its own destiny, and here’s what’s on the highway for our group of vultures:
1) A Clemson team in disarray (with a very green head coach), with their one offensive playmaker out with an injury – plus a QB controversy to boot.
2) The worst Wake Forest team in the Jim Grobe era, perhaps even worse than most of Jim Caldwell’s putrid squads.
3) A UNC program draped in controversy, and riddled with injuries. A UNC team that damned near lost to William & Mary last week. A UNC program that has never beaten Tom O’Brien.
4) A Maryland team with a good record that is universally regarded as a complete fraud.
That’s it, folks. And I would posit that there is no man better suited to leading our vultures to scavenge that buffet than Tom O’Brien. No, he’s not the flashiest guy. No, he’s not the best recruiter. But I have never been convinced that a recruiter type can ever succeed here. There’s just not enough in the natural recruiting area to be a dominant program, physically. And a recruiter type that can also coach is going to likely be priced out of Raleigh before ever reaching the mountaintop (speaking of PJ, he was significantly more expensive than TOB at the hire date – and almost immediately demanded more money from GT). So, I like the idea of a coach in the Dick Sheridan mold. And I always maintained that Dick Sheridan was likely Tom O’Brien’s floor (that’s what he accomplished at BC), not his ceiling.
We will see if Tom O’Brien shows us his true ceiling this November. I will close this long and rambling post with some lyrics from the awesome Rage Against the Machine:
It has to start somewhere.
It has to start sometime.
What better place than here?
What better time than now?
All. Hell. Can’t stop us now!
Here’s a video link. Tell me that wouldn’t be some bad-assed entrance music.