Mark A. Cunningham
And I'm going to tell you why
It's a new year for NC State football, and already the signs of change are in full abundance. Despite posting a winning season in the last year of his tenure, Tom O'Brien's final year as a head coach was pockmarked with the depression of Wolfpack fans because he wasn't able to do The Thing - make Wolfpack football fun. Wait a minute now, you're probably saying, that certainly isn't the reason TOB was run out of town. It was because he lost silly games! It was because he couldn't recruit! It was because of his dogmatically unadaptable playcalling! It was because his best team massively underachieved and blew the best shot at an ACC championship that the Pack has had since...well, since the LAST time a TOB team blew its shot at the ACC championship! And you'd be right about all of these things. But what all of these things have in common is that one denominator, that one Thing. Tom O'Brien wasn't fun. And fun is what sports are all about.
That may be a funny thing to say in today's age of massively cynical sports coverage. The lines between big money pro sports and the college level slave-farming of the NCAA are so far blurred today that Helen Keller has as much chance of seeing the difference as we do. Both are big, bloated, and interested in only one thing - money. But when you get down to it, the pursuit of that money is what makes sports have to be fun. Teams fight and claw with one another to be the best at something - they try to get flashy TV games on aircraft carriers, they get hideous new uniforms, they attract star players who can dunk from half court, and most of all, they try to win, because winning is fun. And just as winning is fun, without fun, teams simply don't win. If nobody wants to pay to watch you play, nobody wants to come play for you, and you don't win.
That's why I'm happy about Dave Doeren, months before I've seen him put a football team on the field. Simply put, Dave Doeren knows fun. He knows energy, drive, spunk, and all the things that go along with fun. Dave Doeren is the kind of coach I want to watch - and that means he's the kind of coach kids will want to play for.
Take for example the recent debut of the Wolfpack Football Olympics. Rather than use one of the precious few team workouts allotted each spring by the NCAA to actually work out, Doeren instead invited the team to partake in a series of fun competitive exercises such as Tug-of-War. Already I can see Tom O'Brien crossing his arms and employing his classic scowl - waste a workout for FUN? But Doeren did it, and the players lapped it up. Just check out this article from the News and Observer. The word "fun" is used in there more times than in five years under TOB.
Yesterday, spring practice began for real in Raleigh, and again things were different. Instead of laboring in intense silence, music pumped through the practice field speakers, prompting Tony Creecy to note how "different" things were and how the music "got us excited to be there." Music? At a practice? The scowling TOB is now rubbing his chest and tossing back some pills for that heartburn.
Doeren's new slogan of "1Pack1Goal" is a great example of his aggressive, high energy approach to leadership - set goals high, and keep them constantly in the minds of your team. And so far he has maintained this approach. Make football fun, Doeren thinks, and players will gravitate to you. And even better, they will buy in to what you have to sell when it's time to get serious.
Doeren's assistants are also high energy, high fun guys. Ryan Nielsen, a recent hire as the Wolfpack's "recruiting coordinator", is a good example. Within hours of his hiring, Nielsen was tweeting up a storm, all of it high-energy stuff targeted specifically toward the kinds of young men the Pack hopes to bring into the Murphy Center. Soon after the hiring a picture surfaced on Twitter (though I can't find it now for the life of me) in which a handwritten letter from Nielsen to a local wide receiver recruit lay on a table of Wolfpack paraphernalia. The letter was chock full of the sort of stuff that gets good athletes revved up to play - come here, play for us, and make a real difference. Together we can accomplish great things. Believe in us and we will believe in you. That kind of stuff. Nielsen signed it with both his name and his Twitter handle, even further evidence of this staff's ability to relate to the kinds of kids they want to play for them. Tweeting with your players? Tom's heartburn would be terrible at this point - but he has already tossed down his straw hat and stormed from the room in disgust.
Growing up in a University of Arizona household, I primarily watched PAC10 sports in my youth. I was always fascinated with Pete Carroll and USC, not simply because they won (and won with good defense, my favorite part of football even at a young age) but because they won with STYLE. Those guys looked like they were having fun, right up to and including old Pete, who danced around on the sideline just as much as I did on the living room couch at bad calls and sizzling touchdown runs alike. Practices were loaded with music, pranks, and revelry. On one occasion Will Ferrell dove off of a crane at practice to prank the players - on another a rainstorm turned the turf to mud, prompting Carroll and the team to slide the length of the sideline on their bellies like penguins. Never mind that USC's fun ended up getting them in trouble - it was awesome to watch. I see the same energy, the same sense of fun, with Doeren and company - they know how to make sports exciting, and they seem committed to doing it.
Dave Doeren has convinced me with his willingness to adapt. Not only can he use a Twitter and pump popular music through the speakers at practices, but he can also adapt on the football field to the pieces he has. Offensive coordinator Matt Canada persistently avoids answering specific questions on tactics at press conferences - he vaguely calls his offense a spread and insists that "We're going to use our players' strengths to maximize our strengths." When questioned about the quarterback battle between Colorado State transfer Pete Thomas and returning Wolfpack sophomore Manny Stocker, Doeren says that it is still early, and talks about his pistol offense concepts for spreading the ball around. Whatever the Wolfpack runs this season, I'm convinced it will maximize the utility of the pieces Doeren has, something that Tom O'Brien failed to do despite having some pretty good pieces to work with.
But best of all, it will be fun to watch.