The time between the end of baseball season and the start of football season is the most boring time of year for the college sports fan. The desire to find literally anything to talk about makes it the perfect time to write about something completely random, like how Tom O’Brien made no sense for six years. So let’s do that.
O’Brien’s tenure might be one of the more interesting ones to try and understand in college football’s recent history, probably because every single second of his six years in Raleigh was an enigmatic guessing game. Nothing about O’Brien ever made sense, except everything, which always went the same way, which was the way you weren’t expecting it to go. Perhaps the best way to describe the former coach is to say that in foresight you were always wrong, but in hindsight, you’re not sure what you were expecting other than exactly what happened.
The man himself was steady. He was rarely emotional, always focused, and never really raddled. He was the kind of guy you knew what to expect from, or at least he seemed that way from a distance. His football team was the polar opposite, often scaling a mountain of unfriendly odds to do crazy things, and just as often stubbing its proverbial toe on a proverbial cakewalk.
When O’Brien came to Raleigh In 2007, NC State understandably stunk. It was one year removed from a dreadful 3-9 campaign and had Harrison Beck taking quarterback snaps. That last part is all you needed to know though.
State slogged past Wofford, but was otherwise a punching bag for almost every other team on the first half of the 2007 schedule, falling to 1-5 after a 17-point loss to Florida State. It ended its losing streak with a win over a crappy ECU team, but State was clearly awful. O’Brien’s first season was going to be a wash and we’d move on to year two. It was then though that we got our first signature TOB moment.
Out of nowhere, O’Brien’s 2-5 Wolfpack came from behind to stun number 15 Virginia. It was the second of four consecutive victories that would even the Pack’s record at 5-5. Suddenly, State was cooking. It had all the momentum in the world and needed just one of Wake Forest or Maryland to make the postseason. State looked poised to earn a decent prize for its first year of a rebuild.
The Pack was promptly outscored 75-18 and finished the year 5-7.
2008 went almost exactly the same way, with State farting its way to a 2-6 record and then breaking out in the back half of the conference schedule. This time it finished the job, getting that sixth win and bowl eligibility. O’Brien’s 08 squad was 3-6 against unranked teams, but it went 3-1 against ranked opponents and again knocked off a top 15 team. The brand was rapidly growing
O’Brien was now 4-2 against ranked teams and 7-12 against unranked teams. His teams were 3-9 in the first half of the season and 8-4 in the back half. Nobody really knew what to make of this. State had flashed some real potential but laid some serious eggs as well. It had a plucky young quarterback named Russell Wilson and a lot of momentum to build on from the end of the 08 season. Could O’Brien grow this team into the one that finished the regular season 4-0 and beat back-to-rank ranked teams, or was that a fluke? Which team was the real NC State?
Turns out it was both. This was the essence of Tom O’Brien. It was always both. NC State was never exclusively good or exclusively bad under his leadership. It was always both. There was never anything that resembled consistency. Sometimes the good State would show up and bash Clemson’s head in. Sometimes the bad State would show up and get dragged by 2-6 Virginia. Oftentimes it was relative to the quality of the competition, but not always. The only thing that could ever be counted on was that NC State could beat anyone, but it was just as likely to knock off top 15 Florida State as it was to lose to ECU (unless ECU was also top 15, in which case it would beat them).
In 09, The Pack beat a Pittsburgh team that would eventually crack the top 10 and it finished the season with a win over a ranked UNC team. It lost every other game against D1 competition except the one against a floundering Maryland team. O’Brien moved to 5-3 against ranked opponents and 11-18 against unranked opponents. The brand was strong.
Perhaps the most Tom O’Brien of Tom O’Brien moments occurred at the end of the 2011 season. State had to win three of its last four to become bowl eligible. Boston College and Maryland were awful and seemed like gimmes. Clemson was excellent and was a surefire loss for a normal team. Basically, State had to beat UNC to have a chance. It did just that, as it always did under TOB. Now an easy win against a garbage Boston College team would put them in prime position to secure a postseason bid.
Obviously, it lost. It lost in dramatically stupid fashion, failing to score on two game-winning drive opportunities that both crossed BC’s 30. The loss all but eliminated NC State from the postseason by forcing the Clemson game into the must-win column. Clemson was 9-1. It was number seven in the country. State beat them by 24 points.
Now back to being an apparent lock for the postseason, O’Brien just needed his team to win a home game against a steaming pile of garbage known as Randy Edsall’s Maryland. As State was a heavy favorite, it did its thing and fell behind by 27 points. Now realizing it was supposed to lose the game, the Pack scored 42 straight and won.
The pattern pretty much remained the same all the way until O’Brien was eventually let go after the 2012 campaign. So frequently did the opposite of what we expected occur, that what we shouldn’t expect just became what we knew was going to happen.
O’Brien’s final record against ranked opponents was 9-5. His record against unranked teams was a perfect .500 (31-31). It was a weird six years for NC State Football. There were a lot of highs and lows, but the end result usually split the middle. His final season ended with a perfectly average record of 4-4 in the ACC. Ultimately, that’s what people remember the most: that NC State was basically exactly mediocre every year under O’Brien (save probably 2010). That’s all they should remember too, because in the end that’s all that matters. When you peel back that thick layer of average though, things get way more interesting.
The man was never a bad coach. I don’t think anybody thinks that. Despite his constantly underwhelming recruiting classes, his teams always managed to have quite a high ceiling, as evidenced by the constant hounding of some of the best opponents he faced. Ultimately though, TOB could just never overcome whatever peculiarity it was that drove this team into so many infuriating losses.
It’s interesting to consider how different things could have been, or how different they might be right now, had O’Brien ever figured out how to stop losing at Wake Forest and Boston College. Who knows what he might have accomplished had he ever gotten over that hump and been able to win the games that he should win. Alas, he never did. The flukiness was a feature, not a bug, and it was a feature Debbie Yow knew she could not hold onto. Ultimately, it had to be done or he would have cranked out 7-5 seasons forever. Thus the end of the Tom O’Brien era arrived.
Here are some wacky stats that show just weird all of this was.
- TOB’s winning percentage against ranked FBS teams: 64.3%
- TOB’s winning percentage against unranked FBS teams: 42.6%
- TOB was 7-2 in home games against Wake Forest, Boston College, and Maryland. He was 1-8 in road games against those teams.
- TOB had fewer road wins against the ACC Atlantic than he had road wins against UNC, despite having five times as many opportunities.
- TOB was 2-0 when facing a ranked FSU team. He was 0-4 when facing an unranked FSU team.
- TOB only faced two teams that were ranked in the top 10 during his time in Raleigh. He defeated both of them.
- In 2012, TOB’s Wolfpack defeated number three and eventual ACC Champion Florida State and lost to 2-6 Virginia by 27 IN THE SAME SEASON.