Cheap Seats Football Retrospective: Part IV, 2007-Present

1999 NC State Football Helmet

A nerve-racking goal-line stand preserved the 31-27 victory on November 10, 2007

This is Part IV of a five-part series that is by no means intended to be authoritative. Rather, it’s nothing more than an incomplete, inconclusive, sometimes erroneous, while always biased retrospective of recent State football history. Part of this was based on nothing more than my attempt to answer the question so many of us are left asking year after year: How did we get here?

Part I: The 90s
Part II: Chuck
Part III: 17

Part IV: TOB
2000 HelmetChuck Amato deserves much of the credit for the current state of Carter-Finley, the renewed pride and excitement for football, and for fueling our aspirations of national prominence. The latter actually proved to be his eventual downfall: by raising our expectations he built a monster that he couldn’t control. Once it was clear he was vastly incapable of delivering on his far-reaching rhetoric, he began a systematic alienation of his fan base and, apparently, the Big Money. He’d always been a talker, but by 2006 he was no longer able to talk his way into extending his welcome.

It was painfully evident that what we needed after the 2006 season was a steady presence, a proven success, to redirect the sputtering program.

Uncommon for Lee Fowler, Tom O’Brien’s hiring was quick, smooth and definitive. He arrived at State with little fanfare (largely due to the simultaneous hiring of Nick Saban by Alabama), although his hiring did generate an appropriately quiet buzz nationally – most pundits agreed that he was an excellent hire for a program that needed, above all, stability. He proved a refreshing presence with his steady, focused approach to both coaching and relating to the monster that is the N.C. State fan base (especially LRM). He showed an immediate panache for fitting in, which around these parts is sometimes as simple as doing a Bojangle’s commercial.

The irony with O’Brien is that in 2009, he seems, if not the perfect fit, at least a most excellent fit; but back in 2000 that wouldn’t have been the case. Without the initial surge under Amato and then the subsequent freefall after Philip left, most of us would hardly appreciate the fact that O’Brien was a steal. Back in 2000, we needed a coach with Amato’s outward passion – O’Brien simply lacks that inherent swagger, tending instead towards silent bravado – but in 2009, O’Brien seems (at least so far) to be exactly the leader we need to build a solid foundation and then focus on long-term prominence, which is something that has escaped the State fan for generations.

A legacy of George Welsh (regarded by most as the model of winning consistency in college football), O’Brien came to State after establishing his own staple consistency. In 1996, he took over a Boston College program that was mired in scandal and within two years shaped it into a perennial eight-game winner, winning nine games during four of his final five seasons in Chestnut Hill. For perspective: State has only four nine-win seasons over the past twenty years, two of which were under Dick Sheridan in 1991 & 1992 (the others were 1994, under O’Cain; and 2002, under Amato). He spent 10 years at Boston College and led the Eagles to eight consecutive bowl games, winning each of the final six.

O’Brien proved successful at Boston College despite a morosely apathetic fan base and facilities far inferior to those in Raleigh even before the current renovations. He’d coached in Raleigh as an assistant at Virginia, but his only trip to Carter-Finley as head coach of Boston College was in October 2006 – an aside: if Daniel Evans hadn’t thrown that Hail Mary that night, we would have all been spared a lot of heartburn from three years of the Anti-Philip — but even in that losing effort, he was left impressed with State fans’ enthusiasm. He announced during his initial press conference after being hired that he had decided that night if he ever left Boston College, it was “N.C. State or bust.”

Now, I’m certainly not an O’Brien biographer, but by all indications, his reputation for consistency is borne of pragmatism. Not dissimilar to when he went to Boston College, he came to State with the implicit understanding that the short-term would be difficult. Beyond the obvious issues in 2006 – poor discipline, which had led to excessive, unnecessary penalties; poor execution, which had led to excessive turnovers; and poor attitudes, which had resulted in erratic, uninspiring play – he inherited a mess of a program. Beyond the staggering lack of fundamentals needed for success, injuries and depth issues were epidemic. Moreover, he would have to rebuild a paper-thin offensive line while simultaneously developing a new offensive system, all without even a remotely serviceable quarterback.

He lost his coaching debut to Central Florida 25-23 (at home), and his comments after the game indicated a certain delight in the fact his team had lost: it would reinforce his point that this group would buy into his system and his philosophy; otherwise they’d suffer the indignity of losing. It took a 1-5 start for the message to apparently get across, but over the final six games, State was 4-2, largely because the offense reduced its turnovers by half and Nate Irving emerged as an overwhelming presence on defense. After an uninspired performance in a season-ending home loss to Maryland, O’Brien’s first team finished 5-7. The theme that first season wasn’t much different than the previous two decades: we lost a game we shouldn’t have lost (Central Florida) and won a game we shouldn’t have won (at Miami); however, the glaring exception was the gut-wrenching November 10 goal-line stand in the final seconds to secure the 31-27 victory over Carolina in Raleigh.

The realists among us tempered our expectations for 2008. The options at quarterback were Daniel “Pick Six” Evans and Harrison “Just Heave It” Beck, and then some relative-unknown named Russell Wilson. Going into the season opener in Columbia, O’Brien named Wilson the starter; the announcement seemed to draw neither praise nor condemnation, simply because in the five seasons Anno Philip, we’d been conditioned to expect very little from the position. After two decades of, at the very least, serviceable quarterbacks, Davis, Stone, Evans, Beck and Burke had all been washouts. The problems were decision-making and accuracy: this quintet combined for a total of only 54 touchdowns with 82 interceptions from 2004-2008. The single-worst combined performance was in the loss at home against Clemson in 2007 (also known as the day Carter-Finley ran out of water), when Evans, Beck and Burke each somehow managed to throw an interception (I’ll stand firm that this has to be a record among BCS teams).

So I’ll admit, last August I wasn’t exactly high on Wilson, but he was a better option than Evans or Beck, which wasn’t really saying much.

And in that ESPN Thursday Night opener against the Gamecocks, he was hardly impressive. Before he was knocked out of the game with a concussion, he was a mere one-of-five for 12 yards passing. More damning for O’Brien was the second consecutive shutout – and blowout – loss: the 2007 season had ended with a 37-0 loss to Maryland in Raleigh and then the 2008 season began with a 34-0 loss at South Carolina. The following week, State defeated William & Mary in a game closer than it should’ve been. Then the next week at Death Valley, we failed to score an offensive touchdown for the third consecutive game against a Division I-A opponent in a 27-9 loss to Clemson; Wilson was again unimpressive, with an interception and only 10-of-21 passing. The realistic and reasonable – nay, rational – among us were delaying our hopes for any sustained success until O’Brien could get some experience on the line to protect the Glennon kid in a couple years. But as September grinded past, some of us weren’t sure we were ready to give O’Brien the time we all knew he realistically needed.

When East Carolina came to Raleigh on September 20, State completed one part of the recurring theme with a fourth-quarter rally for a 30-24 overtime win – we won a game we shouldn’t have won. Wilson’s legacy began with a three-touchdown performance on 21-of-31 passing for 210 yards, and his freshman campaign ended after he threw 17 consecutive touchdowns without an interception the rest of the season. By the Thanksgiving weekend regular season finale against Miami, we were firmly entrenched in a love affair of Wilson’s arm, mobility and decision-making, which spurred his improbable run to both the ACC Rookie of the Year and First Team All ACC.

On Wilson’s back, State rattled off four consecutive wins against Duke, Wake, Carolina, and then Miami to salvage a 6-6 record and slip into the Bowl in Birmingham as the ACC’s tenth bowl team. Even though State collapsed – sans Wilson – in the second half of that game, leaving O’Brien with a losing record of 6-7 on the season, he finally broke the trend of the past two decades by not losing any games we shouldn’t have lost and winning a game – or in this case, two – we probably shouldn’t have won (at Carolina, Wake). Now, it’s no doubt arguable we lost games we had a chance to win (Boston College, Florida State, Maryland, Rutgers), but none of these were games we went into as the favorite. But most importantly, O’Brien moved to 2-0 against Butch Davis and Carolina after a 41-10 rout in Chapel Hill on November 22, which turned out to be just another game for us.

If the two stick around, O’Brien will forever be compared to his rival, Butch Davis. It’s an argument I’m neither prepared to make nor defend this early in their tenures, but early returns suggest that while Davis will probably always out-recruit O’Brien, and probably win some games against State simply because of the talent-level, O’Brien will usually out-coach Davis, and win some games against Carolina he shouldn’t, just like in 2008.

Now, I’m not quite ready to anoint O’Brien as The One (let’s start with a winning season first), but as long as he keeps beating Carolina, I’ll certainly leave that option open.

About LRM

Charter member of the Lunatic Fringe and a fan, loyal to a fault.

Fans Flashback NCS Football Tom O'Brien

67 Responses to Cheap Seats Football Retrospective: Part IV, 2007-Present

  1. oldflyingfarmer 08/05/2009 at 6:18 AM #

    Priority #1 is to beat Carolina. Everything else comes second.

  2. MatSci94 08/05/2009 at 7:32 AM #

    The other irony with TOB is our beating BC on a last second touchdown in Chuck’s last year. As the BC community was/had soured on TOB (“we never go to good bowls”, “doesn’t win the big game”) he saw firsthad how excited and passionate (and loud) State fans were, even with a team that was underperforming.

  3. choppack1 08/05/2009 at 7:55 AM #

    “So I’ll admit, last August I wasn’t exactly high on Wilson, but he was a better option than Evans or Beck, which wasn’t really saying much. ”

    The only thing I was worried about was that Wilson’s #s weren’t great in the scrimmages and not that great in the spring game. However, even the USC game, we were starting to move the ball when he got hurt.

    I had heard that we were redoing our offense for RW – a sign I took as encouraging.

    Regarding the two games vs. UNC – it should be noted that 2 years ago, we beat them just as bad as we did last year. The main difference was that we DE throwing 2 pick 6s. UNC also scored on a flea flicker. Unfortunately, though, I believe it was this game where the team lost its entire confidence in DE’s ability to execute the game plan – and Evans lost confidence in himself.

    Just another note of clarification. If you read TOBs comments – its apparent that if RW wasn’t going to start last year, he was going to go w/ Glennon. What I really wonder is just how close he came to burning Glennon’s redshirt last year.

  4. SouthernWolf 08/05/2009 at 8:12 AM #

    -My guess is that all of TOB’s desire to play Mike Glennon last year ended in the first quarter of the ‘SC game when our OL proved that it could not hope to block a mediocre pass rush. (Which TOB probably already suspected which was why Mike Glennon did not win the job in the first place)

    That 2007 game vs Clemson was easily one of the worst games I have ever gone to. Not only did we look like high school JV’s (especially our secondary) but it was hot. I don’t remember what the heat index was but at the time I remember thinking it was close to 100. The game started at like 3:30 in the afternoon which is about when the daily highs are reached. I was in the student section facing the sun and realized that I had forgotten my hat… big mistake. I remember every time TOB pulled a quarterback in that game, a big cheer went up from the stands. I think Burke actually completed 100% of his passes in that game. Two to our guys and one to the clemson secondary.

  5. bradleyb123 08/05/2009 at 9:30 AM #

    Once again, kudos to LRM for another great read!

    But I have a question about this quote:

    ^^^ “early returns suggest that while Davis will probably always out-recruit O’Brien”

    I’m not arguing against this necessarily, but I’d like to know what led you to this conclusion. I was under the impression that Butch had only out-recruited TOB in one recruiting year. They’ve both done an excellent job of recruiting. But even if Butch holds a slight lead at this point, what leads you to say Butch will “always” out-recruit O’Brien?

    And whatever the classes are ranked, I don’t really care that much anyway. I believe TOB is better at finding the right fits for his team, and if that happens to be a highly-rated Robert Crisp, so be it. But it could just as easily be a 2- or 3-star recruit, or an unrated recruit with no stars at all.

    LRM Note: This was a statement based on both the fact that he built one monster program at Miami and also on the general perception that the media has towards Davis.

  6. 61Packer 08/05/2009 at 10:19 AM #

    “Uncommon for Lee Fowler, Tom O’Brien’s hiring was quick, smooth and definitive.”

    This article implies to me that Fowler was the one responsible for TOB’s hiring. Others who post on here don’t seem to think LF had anything to do with it and in fact was told to stay out of the process.

    Which is true?

    LRM Note: Truth is, I have zero inside knowledge of State athletics, and that’s the reason I call my columns “Cheap Seats.” So I base my opinions on that.

  7. Sam92 08/05/2009 at 10:28 AM #

    kudos on the nice article. i’m still optimistic about this season, even though losing nate irving is a heavy blow. even with a couple of injuries already, i think we can win 8 games, 9 if we pull off a win against the cocks

  8. choppack1 08/05/2009 at 10:32 AM #

    61 packer – regardless of who was responsible or who worked out the details – the hiring process that resulted in TOB being named head man is uncommon for any AD we’ve had since Les Robinson was hired.

  9. BJD95 08/05/2009 at 10:44 AM #

    IIRC, Wendell Murphy was actually quoted in the media stating that Fowler’s job during the brief search/TOB hire was to stay out of the way.

    I have ZERO doubt that Fowler was completely marginalized in the courtship and hiring of Tom O’Brien. The deal fell into place quickly after TOB’s people reached out to NC State evidencing interest.

  10. MatSci94 08/05/2009 at 10:58 AM #

    from the archives at

    “(The NCSU football search) was done professionally, and it was done quietly. The consultant did the work, Lee (Fowler) kept it quiet, and no one was tracking my airplane on the internet.”

  11. whitefang 08/05/2009 at 11:29 AM #

    Good stuff on State and RW again today on the Sporting News Today online mag.

  12. peteavio 08/05/2009 at 12:13 PM #

    A TOB image that sticks in my head is from a previous season, before one of our televised games. Raycom showed the team getting off the bus, getting ready to go into the stadium.

    Coaches on the sidewalk, players filing in front of the bus, chit chatting. TOB is quiet and just pacing a bit, players slowly quiet down. Once the team is silent and paying attention (TOB has not said a word), he quietly says “Let’s go” and the team obediently followed.

    Showed a lot of mutual respect and what type of leader TOB is.

  13. RickJ 08/05/2009 at 12:21 PM #

    The most surprising thing to me regarding TOB and his staff has been their targeted success in junior college recruiting. I don’t believe this was something they did at BC. They got off to a slow start in their transition class when they brought in JC TE R. J. Armstrong and punter Jeff Ruiz. They struck gold the next year with three defensive starters – Leroy Burgess, Clem Johnson and Shea McKeen. Nathan Mageo came in with the most recent class. Next year’s class will include Roy Mangram and Tobias Palmer, the first players these coaches actually placed in junior college.

    This is just another example that TOB and his staff just know what they are doing, have a plan and can be flexible when necessary.

  14. GAWolf 08/05/2009 at 12:52 PM #

    I cannot wait to see what Wilson’s “sophomore” campaign looks like. There are so many slumps in sports after a person comes out of the gate hot. The interview after the first day of practice on WRAL.COM is a fantastic example of this kid’s drive and determination to be a winner. He’s just a fine young man, and while he exudes confidence that he can be successful at the highest levels, he’s not arrogant about it.

    Truthfully, I think his attitude and poise and quiet confidence are similar to that of Tiger Woods. I’m not a huge Woods fan and I think he can be a pure a$$hole while on the course, but he’s not out there thumping his chest calling himself the best in the world. And we all know he’s the best in the world. He just let’s his performance do the talking, and Wilson just so much reminds me of him. Even the cadence with which they answer questions is extremely similar. He gives thoughtful answers. Yet he does not speak with high or low emotion regardless of the question or the circumstance. Philip Rivers, for instance, is a tightly-wound ball of emotion. That’s his style, and he makes no bones about it. It was endearing to us State fans in Rivers, but opposing players, fans and maybe coaches didn’t like him. It’s just nice to see a successful QB here who no one can possibly hate. Wilson is the poster-child for great All-American kid.

    Truthfully, that fiery emotion and foot on the pedal attitude is probably what still leads Rivers to make passes he shouldn’t and go for broke into double and triple coverage. I said last year that as far as making good decisions goes, Wilson was already better at that NOW than Philip is NOW. As in I’m not comparing them as college players, but as they stand today. Going back to my golf/Woods analogy, Woods takes only calculated risks on the course. It’s the rare day when he hurts himself Tin-Cup-Style. He plays hard, smart, competitively, confidently, and quietly (unless you’re a photographer who forgot to turn off your flash). He just goes out and quietly beats the hell out of those who go up against him. I think Wilson is that same sort of player. He’s going to win. He’s going to find a way to win.

    Here’s to Wilson avoiding the Sophomore Jinx… and I certainly believe he has the tools and attitude and supporting cast to do so.

  15. GAWolf 08/05/2009 at 1:03 PM #

    The most apparent example of TOB and staff being flexible is the modifications made to the offense to take full advantage of RW’s athletic ability.

    Didn’t someone say they went out west to get help on a modified spread from a team that already ran it?

  16. packgrad2000 08/05/2009 at 1:05 PM #

    @bradleyb: Butch recruited a National Championship team at Miami, and has pretty much recruited well everywhere he’s been. That’s easily his strength as a coach, getting those 4 & 5 star recruits. It’s not to say TOB is a bad recruiter, in fact I think 2 positions in particular he recruits really well on are QB and OL, certainly way better than Amato anyway.

  17. charger17 08/05/2009 at 1:08 PM #

    So with only Part V to go (excellent read, BTW) and the analysis of the rest of the Atlantic Division completed – I thought I read we weren’t going to even bother with BC and Maryland – I would love to read anyone’s thoughts on intelligent predictions. If you continue the growth of the TOB era, we are in line for at least seven wins this year. Where do they come from? Don’t want to distract from this peice, like I said, I’d love to see others thoughts on this subject. I predict we need to be 6-1 at the bye week in order to feel good about seven wins.

  18. GAWolf 08/05/2009 at 1:29 PM #

    Packgrad: Butch also did that PRE-RIVALS-GENERATION and few people truly cherry picked the south Florida land o’ plenty. I promise you Butch has been rudely awakened by how much more difficult it is to recruit that type of talent to Chapel Hill while having to beat off other coaches. Not to mention, the ACC is allegedly much tighter with restrictions that I would *assume* he had to deal with in Coral Gables. For what it’s worth, I see Butch taking the Amato approach and that just cannot fair well for him in the long run. However, if his approach is to use UNC as a stepping stone then he could care less about the long run. Despite his public overtures denying that to be the case, my money is on him leaving within the next 3 to 5 years at the latest. Then again, his cancer situation could keep him close by due to the fantastic medical community around Durham and Chapel Hill. (Just thinking aloud here.)

  19. bradleyb123 08/05/2009 at 1:34 PM #

    packgrad2000, good points. Butch does have a reputation for recruiting, so I can see why some would always expect him to out-recruit TOB.

    But TOB has held his own so far, except for one year I think. And he’s off to a good start for 2010. I think with a little more success on the field, TOB’s recruiting could really take off. I’m not so sure Butch will always out-recruit him, especially if Carolina takes a step backward this year as I think they might.

    TOB’s recruiting class rankings are probably hurt a little by the fact that he evaluates players regardless of their star-rankings and sometimes recruits them anyway. He doesn’t care so much about their rankings. So even when Butch has a higher ranked recruiting class, he doesn’t necessarily have the better recruits. But on paper, he does.

  20. packalum44 08/05/2009 at 1:39 PM #

    TOB and staff are good at what they do. Not just one facet of it…but all of it. They recruit, coach, manage, etc… Not only are they good at it, but they’re better than their competitors (i.e. other coaches).

  21. GAWolf 08/05/2009 at 1:44 PM #

    TOB also had to focus on positions that typically don’t get the stars and rankings. Our lines were DEPLETED. Literally. Once we shore up the line play and the talent there, that should help us with our on-field performance considerably. That, in turn, should help us win and get more national attention. That will then allow this staff to go after more highly touted skill position players… or so one would think.

  22. packalum44 08/05/2009 at 1:47 PM #

    ^ All big cities have good medical fuhcilities…I think he’d stick around b/c he’s older and doesn’t want/need high expectations in a tougher conference (i.e. the SEC). I don’t see him leaving the SE. The beaches down there are just too nice!

  23. choppack1 08/05/2009 at 2:05 PM #

    “As in I’m not comparing them as college players, but as they stand today. Going back to my golf/Woods analogy, Woods takes only calculated risks on the course. ”

    You must have missed the British Open.

  24. PackMan97 08/05/2009 at 2:11 PM #

    GAWolf, to be fair to Rivers, Wilson has the ability of being able to make plays with his feet when the pass isn’t there. We’ve seen the injuries that can lead to. It’s just a different kind of “forcing it”.

  25. GAWolf 08/05/2009 at 2:58 PM #

    Chop: I did miss the pre-cut Open days this year. I just assumed he was all over the place and thus in trouble. I followed him on Thursday and Frida at The Open at Carnoustie (we sat at 18 and watched Vanderval or whatever his name is literally Tin-Cup it up on the last day) and Woods hit driver only once that I recall in 36 holes. He didn’t win, but I don’t recall him taking himself out of it with over-zealous play either. I admittedly did not watch him at all this year. So you are very correct.

    I’m talking turnovers and not cuncussions. Rivers still throws 3 or 4 balls a game that make me go “doh!” when it’s in flight. I don’t recall a single ball the Wilson threw last year that caused me to do the same. I don’t remember his one pic, but I think it might have been a tip. Anyone?

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