Benchmark Tom O’Brien: The Race to Perceived Success

First, something for the liberal-arts lovers:

“All our knowledge has its roots in our perception.”  -Leonardo da Vinci.

I wonder if da Vinci ever tried quantifying perception?  Every college program has coaching dynasties that we view, or perceive, as “good programs”.  To back this up, we have all of the records, stats, and bowl trophies to prove who was and wasn’t a great asset to our athletic programs.  That’s all well and good for sitting around remembering “the good ole days” or how “ole Lou could really coach”, but what I want to know is if there is some way to look at the results of our past coaches, apply a little common sense, and derive from coaches that we “know” were great coaches what it will take for Tom O’Brien (or any current coach) to be considered successful.  To do this, I had to look at NC State’s past coaches, eliminate those that were either failures or were only at NC State for “fill in” duty (like Al Michaels after Earle Edwards in the early 1970’s), and create a “composite score” for each coach that allows for a common basis for comparison.

LOGIC. First I had to determine what NC State fans really care about.  After a lot of soul searching, and after requesting spiritual assistance from the wolves in-front of the Murphy Center via burnt ram offering, I determined that three things significantly factor into our perception of a season’s success: overall record, ACC record, and likelihood of a bowl bid.  The only potentially controversial assumption made here is that we can ignore the effects of bowl expansion.  My only basis for this is because not making any bowl, generally speaking, seems to be taken significantly worse amongst the NC State faithful than making a “lesser” bowl.  Regardless, I think the outcomes of this analysis are pretty accurate.

Figure 1 shows the comparison of NC State’s coaches across the board.  The overall and ACC winning percentages are self-explanatory.  The “Likelihood of Bowl” basically determines how often a coach made a bowl game given the length of his tenure (in years) at NC State.  The perceived success is simply an average of all three of these percentages.

Figure 1 - Coach Comparison Since ACC Inception

The assumption is that all three of these factors weigh on a fan’s perceived success equally.  For example, if a coach does poorly amongst out of conference (OOC) opponents, but seems to compete extremely well with ACC opponents, NC State fans are likely to be similarly as pleased, in general, as if a coach had a “decent” overall record, consistently beat OOC teams (including BCS teams) but lost a couple ACC games.  A coach is likely to also get a slide on his overall record if he makes a bowl almost every year.  There are always exceptions to this rule (i.e., bowl expansion being the biggest one), but IMO, this trend seems to hold true.

Looking at Figure 1, we can pull out who would be viewed as probably the most successful coaches.  Again, this is just a general broad-brush of each coach’s careers, not an analysis of why each coach did well.  Just to be fair, I ran the spreadsheet eliminating the “fru-fru bowls” (Meineke Bowl and MicronPC Bowl) and adding 1 “bowl bid” for seasons where NC State finished atop the ACC. According to this analysis, NC State’s most beloved coaches,and composite scores, would be the following:

  1. Lou Holtz – 0.748*
  2. Dick Sheridan – 0.615
  3. Bo Rein – 0.501*
  4. Chuck Amato – 0.488*
  5. Mike O’Cain** – 0.323*

*Composite scores are different from those in Figure 1 (Perceived Success) due to the subtraction of ‘lesser bowls’ and addition of ACC champion status.

**It’s worth mentioning Early Edwards would have a composite score of 0.442 giving the addition of ACC “championship seasons” to the bowl count.

This is all well and good, but what good does it do us to mathematically compare coaches without coming up with some useful model to project with?  Well, I’m glad you asked.

Tom O’Brien, after his third season, was 0.432 overall and 0.375 in ACC play.  Not too hot.  The only permanent coach worse than that was Tom Reed (0.273/0.190 ACC) who also came into NC State as a “successful” coach at his former post (32-19-2 at Miami-Ohio).  Not a fair comparison of TOB to Reed, but the numbers ‘are what they are’.

So what does Tom O’Brien have to do to achieve the winning percentages of his predecessors?  First an assumption: I assume Tom O’Brien will be allowed to coach for 5 years.  I looked at what other coaches’ overall results, first 5 years, and “worst” 5 years looked like and compared them to what Tom’s current record is now as well as what his record will need to be in the next two years to achieve any sort of comparable success to past coaches.  Possible game totals assume a bowl will be attended, giving O’Brien the chance for another win each season.

(The “Games” column(s) represents the total number of games played overall and in the ACC for the corresponding row’s time period.  The ‘Coach %’ in this column refers to O’Brien’s winning percentages.  The remaining data corresponds to the number of wins O’Brien did or will need to achieve to attain the winning percentages in the top row.  The winning percentage in red is the win percentage O’Brien will need to achieve to match the record of each table’s coach in each columns’ time period.)

This analysis takes the burden of making “fru-fru bowls” off of O’Brien to compete with Amato.  In order to accurately compete with Amato’s overall record, he would have to have win three quarters of his overall schedule, but only a little over half of his ACC games.  This required winning percentage for O’Brien pin-points one of the biggest issues with Amato: O’Brien’s predecessor had a problem competing in the ACC. The easy solution for O’Brien is to beat his ACC opponents and this already begins to set himself above his immediate predecessor.

Sheridan is lacking an analysis for the worst 5 years since his first 5 years were his worst.  Imagine that; a coach who actually doesn’t suffer performance as he becomes more experienced in the Wolfpack head coaching role.  It’s been a while since we’ve seen that.

Note that below, both Bo Rein and Lou Holtz failed to serve more than 3 seasons.  This means that all we can compare O’Brien against are their career results at NC State for Overall and ACC winning percentages.

Comparing Tom O’Brien’s required performance to the worst 5-year period under any give coach produces Figure 2.

Figure 2 - Tom O'Brien's Required Win Percentages to Match Predecessor's Worst Records

In the words of Tom O’Brien’s big buddy, Mike Archer, “It is what it is.”  Tom basically can either fall in the category of the Amato’s and O’Cain’s or he can strive to sit with the Sheridan’s, Rein’s, and Holtz’s… well, sort of.  Some of these levels of achievement O’Brien simply can’t achieve in this first 5 years, despite the fact that only the worst 5 years from each of these coaches was considered.

O’Brien is looking at moving from a sub-50% team overall and in the ACC and transforming it to an over 80% team in order to be considered one of our “good” coaches.  I’m willing to give any man worth his salt the benefit of the doubt, and we would be remiss to say Tom O’Brien isn’t a good man with a good career and a solid head on his shoulders.  Hell, those are a few of the reasons why I liked O’Brien so much when he came to State in the first place!  Unfortunately, when you are playing the game of football, fans don’t care nearly as much about how honorable you are compared to how much you win.  Well… unless you are so dishonorable that you allow your players to receive completed homework from former nanny’s and associate with NFL agents in violation of NCAA regulations…

…but that’s another story.

Tom, it’s very simple: start winning. You are behind in the polls and you are looking at a hard climb ahead of you.  At this point you can either (a) admit that the expectations are simply to hard to meet or (b) make some hard decisions, get this train back on track, and start putting up some points, or as our particular problem would be, prevent the other team from posting a score.  Going into this pre-season, I have run the gambit of dejected to curious to excited and back to dejected.  I don’t know what to expect out of O’Brien this season, but I am sure am rooting for him to be closer to that 80% success mark than the 40-45% mark we have been seeing.

[UPDATE: For a short period, there was some errant data concerning TOB’s required achievement to match O’Cain and Amato’s ACC records.  This has been corrected.]

About NCStatePride

***ABOUT THE AUTHOR: NCStatePride has been writing for since 2010 and is a 2009 graduate of the College of Engineering.

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36 Responses to Benchmark Tom O’Brien: The Race to Perceived Success

  1. hoop 09/01/2010 at 7:00 AM #

    Start winning indeed.

    This could so easily have happened last year with some close games.

    Regardless, I’d have to say TOB has made the changes he needs to make in order to win. We have a new Linebacker coach who will be “influencing” defensive coordination of a more mature defense. And a former cornerback who will be running the ball. Not to mention a much more healthy team. Watching how the season unfolds will sure be exciting.

  2. anonimus 09/01/2010 at 7:04 AM #

    Awesome post! Been starving for some good Pack sports analysis. The “My Blue Hell” series has been fantastic but I needed to get out of the tarry blue lagoon and into the warmth and comfort of the redwood den.

  3. coach13 09/01/2010 at 7:07 AM #

    I didn’t take statistics when I was at State, but apparently you did and did well. What is it you do for a living?

    TOB needs to step outta character to have success this year. No more conservatism. If he is banking on the offense to cary this team, then by God turn them loose.

    I am optimistic the defense will be mediocre which, if the offense scores a bunch, will hopefully be good enough to propel this team to the 80% win mark.

  4. Statefan1998 09/01/2010 at 7:07 AM #

    What is crazy about this season, is that times I can justify in my mind a 9-3 record, but other times a 3-9 record. I think he will get a year five, barring anything less then 4-8, maybe 5-7 does not cut it. I was telling a Carolina fan just yesterday that three years ago both programs felt great about both programs, after this year both could possibly be looking for head coaches. I think Butch is more likely to be gone and TOB is very unlikely, but it could happen.

  5. 89BSBA 09/01/2010 at 8:18 AM #

    ” rooting for him to be closer to that 80% success mark ”

    75% is right at 10-3 or 9-3.
    67% = 8-4
    58% = 7-5

    I’m not holding out much hope for 80%, but 70-75% seems doable.

    In which, the following 2-3 years are the “money” years.

  6. Plz2BStateFan 09/01/2010 at 8:33 AM #

    My only comment is from the conclusion section.

    You say

    “At this point you can either (a) admit that the expectations are simply to hard to meet or (b) make some hard decisions, get this train back on track, and start putting up some points, or as our particular problem would be, prevent the other team from posting a score. ”

    This seems to imply that if he were to only make some hard decisions, that he would get back on track. As if a couple decisions somehow improve the entire football team immediatly.

    The only one I can think of is possibly Archer. And I am only 75% convinced he is a bad DC. This year will fill in the rest….except that Tenuta could be carrying a lot of the load.

    Other than that, the answer is alway win. Just win

  7. NCStatePride 09/01/2010 at 8:43 AM #

    ^Yeah, you definitely read things into something that wasn’t there. I wasn’t implying anything other than what I said: that he needs to make decisions that need to be made (which it appears he’s starting to do), get the train back on track (via winning “the big games”), and putting some points on the board (which could really be stated better by saying “stop the other team from posting so many points”). It was a general comment, not a prescription for TOB’s success.

  8. Plz2BStateFan 09/01/2010 at 8:50 AM #

    I do like the analysis.

    Especially the part about how much he needs to win to overcome previous coaches.

    It seems he would need to win 80% in order leap ahead of other coaches in term of perception. But, if he managed to start winning 80%, the impact would go well beyond just being better than Amato or O’Cain. He would start to be considered one of the great coaches in NC State history. At least he would while its actually happening. In 2040 it might not look like that.

    How many times have we ever won 80% of our games?

    NCStatePride: Twice under Earl Edwards in 1957 (7-1) and 1967 (9-2) and once under Lou Holtz in 1974 (9-2). FYI, we were ACC champs in 1957, finished with a ranking of 17th in 1967, and finished with a ranking of 9th/11th in 1974.

  9. packplantpath 09/01/2010 at 9:14 AM #

    Since 1940, we have won 80% or more of our games twice.

  10. packplantpath 09/01/2010 at 9:15 AM #

    Pride beat me to it. Gotta round up for the 74 to count.

  11. acc 10k 09/01/2010 at 9:30 AM #

    Good compilation of stats here, and though it wasn’t stated explicitly, good demonstration that when you get a certain distance behind a standard, it becomes impossible to catch up within a constrained time period. (Ex: The Pirates will not have a winning record this year, even if they are unbeaten in September.)
    But you can also go too far with this. People are throwing around numbers like 75-80%. To win even two-thirds (66.7%) of our next 27 games, we’d need to go 8-5, 9-4, and win the opener in 2012. (26 isn’t divisible by 3, so I added a game.)
    8-5 either means a likely winning record in the ACC and losing a bowl, or breaking even in the ACC and winning a bowl. I’m currently hoping for 11+ wins this season, but really, most of us would take either of those 8 win scenarios right now. 9-4 means (a) unbeaten OOC, 5-3 ACC, lose a pretty good bowl; (b) 3-1 OOC, 6-2 ACC, lose a really good bowl; (c) 3-1 OOC, 5-3 ACC, win a non-trivial bowl. Again, something most of us in the light of day would take in a heartbeat for 2011, given where we are now.
    And the 2012 season opener is vs. Tennessee in Atlanta. So while the numbers might not say it, I would say winning two-thirds of the next 27 games would put TOB clearly ahead of everyone except Holtz and Sheridan. Win two-thirds of your games for a decade, and you will have a couple of ACC championship berths and 10-win seasons. If NCSU actually did that, we’d probably be grumbling about not being able to win the big one and get over the hump, but that’s a huge step up from the last 18 years.

  12. bradleyb123 09/01/2010 at 9:41 AM #

    At the risk of making excuses for TOB, something else that is probably difficult to factor in is the extraordinary amount of injuries to his starters and backups. I’m not sure how that could be included, but I know in my heart that we’d have had a better record in at least two of TOB’s three seasons (probably winning records, even if just 7-6) if we hadn’t had SO MANY injuries.

    I know all coaches have injuries to deal with, but I don’t believe any of our other coaches had to endure what TOB has had to endure in this regard. But it’s hard to quantify that, or know for sure how healthier teams would have affected the outcomes of games. And even if we could, to be fair, we’d probably also have to factor in the injury count of our opponents. It gets too hairy to measure very quickly!

  13. Pack Mentality 09/01/2010 at 9:42 AM #

    I don’t want to act like the one game is the “only thing I care about” as some ignorant fans of other teams may say. But he is 3-0. IF he goes 4-0 this year how many coaches have ever done that? And you know the team I’m talking about.

    Very good post. I’m with you…just start winning.

  14. ryebread 09/01/2010 at 10:09 AM #

    No offense bradley, but injuries are just an excuse. If we give TOB the injury excuse, do we give MOC the “played in a 30+ year old stadium with no renovations” excuse? Heck, TOB is behind MOC in results and MOC was a pretty sorry head coach.

    I also think that injuries are somewhat in a coach’s control due to his choices in a strength and conditioning program. This is a physical game. All teams have injuries. If we have a significantly higher number of them year over year, then we’re obviously doing something wrong. We had a similar issue (IMHO) during the HWSNBN era with stress fractures and ankles. We never had them under JimmyV, Les and haven’t had them under SL. It’s hard to ignore that.

    I was a student when we had MOC and Les coaching. Both were nice guys, but were in over their heads and ultimately didn’t produce. I wanted them to, defended them, but new they weren’t getting it done. During my time at NC State, we hired HWSNBN and Chuck. Both were clear steps up, and while I was excited about their hires, I knew they ultimately weren’t the right long term solution. I defended them and made excuses for them as well.

    Now I’m older and the results are just that — the results. It is admittedly very important to judge them in light of the restrictions on inputs (it’s very hard to outperform UNC in basketball if we have 1/3 the recruiting budget and 1/2 the overall budget), but with respect to football, the inputs for Amato and TOB have been very similar. The results for TOB are lagging though and that’s clearly something that has to improve.

  15. packplantpath 09/01/2010 at 10:24 AM #

    “If we have a significantly higher number of them year over year, then we’re obviously doing something wrong.”

    Not really. It is very possible you are right, but there is a good amount of luck to this. Somebody does always win the lottery. If the injury bug keeps biting, I agree, eventually you have to assume you are doing something wrong. I don’t know that 2 years is a trend though.

    I’m not even convinced that injuries are a bigger problem than player attrition right now. It could be, but I’ve seen no numbers for it. How many former or projected starters are now gone due to academic or behavioral issues? We saw the same thing after Mac Brown left UNC, I think. Recruiting marginally qualified athletes can come back and bite you very hard if large numbers of them either can’t cut it academically or off the field.

    What’s troubling to me is that TOB’s recruits seem equally likely to not matriculate as Chucks. I stress seem there too, I could be wrong.

  16. packplantpath 09/01/2010 at 10:26 AM #

    I’m also concerned about the revisionism pertaining to chuck’s record. He had a winning record against 3? ACC teams in his term. Duke, Wake, FSU? If not for one season and one player, he would be regarded as a complete failure.

  17. NCStatePride 09/01/2010 at 10:35 AM #

    ^If not for one season and one record, Tom O’Brien would likely be the worst football coach in NC State history.

  18. packplantpath 09/01/2010 at 10:57 AM #

    All of TOB’s success to date comes on the back of one player as well, but he is nowhere close record wise to Tom 3-9 Reed. I wasn’t old enough to know what was going on then, but that record stinks.

    Plus, if not for one season, everybody would think TOB has us on the right track. If you don’t believe it, look at the posts from 1 year ago. Hope is a fickle and irrational thing and we quickly forget that for his first 2 years, TOB did fairly well except in a few gams. One season is not a trend. Chucks decline was well documented and was trending pretty clearly. We will know soon enough about TOB’s future.

  19. Sam92 09/01/2010 at 11:18 AM #

    i like this analysis, mainly because it confirms my own opinions — during my lifetime, the only two coaches i would really call “good” are lou holtz and dick sheridan, who came out as your #1 and #2. all the rest pretty much stink.

    personally, i am not satisfied with mediocrity – if TOB can not bring us a winning record this year, i will call for his ouster, but that’s not all- if he does win 7 games this year, i’ll still insist that he win 8 or 9 in his year 5, but that’s just me – i would not be happy with a football program that vacillates between 5-8 wins every season

  20. choppack1 09/01/2010 at 11:18 AM #

    There’s an old saying in coaching:

    You’re only as good as your last season.

    And that’s exactly what has happened to TOB. He’s been at NC State 3 seasons, he’s had 1 season when where he didn’t meet or exceed reasonable expectations.

    I look at things a little differently. I like the fact that TOB clearly moved the program forward from where it was the season before he got here. But there can be no denying that last year he took a huge step back.

    I don’t think most Wolfpacker’s care if TOB wins 75 to 80% of his games the next 2 years. I DO think most Wolfpackers care about how well we do in the ACC, if we get bowl bids and if we perform well in those games.

    I don’t think 2 consecutive years of 3-5 in the ACC and 3-1 OOC will inspire anyone who is understandibly on the fence about the TOB era (and I think at that point, it’s about any reasonable NC State fan) – to feel good about the future and potential of the program under his leadership.

    NCStatePride – I don’t think you can take away the best season unless you take away the worst…and if you do – you’re looking at an improvement from the season before w/ the same QB who was so shellshocked at the end of the season he was virtually useless. Going 3-5 in the ACC, beating UNC and ECU w/ that QB at the helm was absolutely miraculous stuff – especially considering the start he had to the season.

    I agree w/ your overall premise – TOB needs to have a good season to make folks excited about Wolfpack football again. I’d go as far as to say that another season like last one – and he might NOT be getting a 5th. And quite frankly, he wouldn’t deserve it.

  21. NCStatePride 09/01/2010 at 11:20 AM #

    Response to PackPlantPath: No, but two seasons is more of a trend than one. Plus, even if you want to say “his second season was not-too-bad”, you are forgetting the footnotes associated with that year. We were basically forced into winning every single game after our bye-week in order to contend for a bowl. If TOB hadn’t of had a bye-week, I’m not convinced he would have pulled it off (I think he lacks a strong ability to be flexible). If you are going to put all the post-it notes on TOB’s losing seasons and give excuses why he lost, I think we should acknowledge the post-it notes on his wins.

    TOB’s only winning season, we lost to unranked USC, Boston College, Florida State, and Maryland and ranked Clemson and South Florida. After his October-November break, he got a chance to ease back into things with Duke (4-8) before heading into some admittingly decent competition (8,8,7 win teams). TOB’s season in 2008 catered to a coach that has difficulty adjusting and needs the time-out to accomplish anything.

    By the way, I still think his “great player” won him many of his games. Of our wins, ECU was in OT and Wake Forest was by 4 points. Three of our five victories in 2009 were within 1 TD. In Russell Wilson’s above-and-beyond case, I think it wouldn’t be a stretch to speculate that if these games came within one TD, without the amazing capabilities of RW, who it would be unreasonable to assume every coach will get a RW, we very likely would have lost those games.

    I guess what I’m getting at is that Tom’s only successes are every bit as suspect as Amato’s if you are going to claim “Amato only looks good from one season and one player”. Right now, the only reason the TOB ship is still floating is due to one season and one player.

  22. packplantpath 09/01/2010 at 11:39 AM #

    Apparently I need to repeat the first line of my last post.

    “All of TOB’s success to date comes on the back of one player as well, but he is nowhere close record wise to Tom 3-9 Reed. I wasn’t old enough to know what was going on then, but that record stinks.”

    My point is, TOB hasn’t been here long enough to have a trend. For me, the only way my doubts about TOB are salved this season is a 8-4 record. 6-6, 7-5 and he has my support for another season, but I will remain skeptical. 5-7, well, god help us, I suspect he will get his 5th year, but all excitement will be drained.

    BTW, where am I putting post-it notes or excuses on his losing seasons? I don’t think anything I’m saying can be construed as such. I think there are quite a few very valid excuses, but I don’t think I brought them up.

  23. choppack1 09/01/2010 at 11:42 AM #

    Can we agree that is not a good analysis point to include close wins, close losses, injuries, “one player away” conjecture when analyzing data over a period of time?

    I can’t think of a coach at NC State not named Les Robinson who wouldn’t have accomplished some special things if he had gotten a couple of breaks here or there, NOR can I think of a coach who if you took away a player or two (not named Dick Sheridan or Jim Valvano), his entire career would have been a Les Robinson-esque failure.

    It’s not fair to selectively take away successes if you don’t take away failures w/ the same caveat.

    Bottom line – TOB needs to win this year AND next year to restore some semblance of excitement to our program.

  24. packplantpath 09/01/2010 at 11:50 AM #

    “I guess what I’m getting at is that Tom’s only successes are every bit as suspect as Amato’s if you are going to claim “Amato only looks good from one season and one player”. ”

    I completely disagree there. For Chuck, we know that that season was an anomaly. How do we know that? It got worse from there. How else? Where is Chuck a head coach now?

    TOB hasn’t had any success here to be suspect of as far as I know. You could argue his record at BC, but it doesn’t work to expect it to continue when he takes over a different team that is not only bad, but historically bad. Especially in 3 seasons.

    My point is, that single season stands out in many state fans minds as defining the Amato era and very often I see state fans memorializing the days of Amato. That is what we remember about Amato, we forget that once Rivers left, we couldn’t score 3 offensive touchdowns in a game.

  25. NCStatePride 09/01/2010 at 11:58 AM #

    Choppack1: Completely, 110% agree. The entire point of this analysis, and what we hear a lot of the Wolfpack Nation say, is basically ‘excuses be damned, the numbers are what they are and we want you to win more’.

    The only reason I was picking apart TOB’s successes is not to say his success is somehow more suspect than his defeats. Rather, it’s just to combat all of the “O’Brien needs more slack because…” by proving that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander: if you are going to selectively eliminate bad loses and seasons because they were somehow “excusable”, I think you have to acknowledge how many victories more than likely would have gone the other way had it not been for one or two special factors (like a special player). On that note, I think we are seeing eye-to-eye, choppack1.

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