Patience, like an NFL quarterback, a good coordinator who will stay, or a consistent holding call, is an incredibly rare resource in college football. The sport is as cutthroat as it gets. Coaches are graded on a bell curve and no matter where you fall on that curve, somebody somewhere always wants to fire you. Dave Doeren has become a case study on the concept of patience in a space where it’s consistently at a premium. The ninth-year NC State head coach didn’t have any kind of breakthrough in Raleigh until his fifth year. He was 9-23 in the ACC heading into that season. Many coaches don’t get a fifth year if there is nothing concrete to show for the first four, and Doeren almost got eaten by the same machine that chewed up so many guys with similar results.
But if you were present and close to the program in 2016, you could smell it. You couldn’t taste it or touch it after another 3-5 season in the ACC, but it was wafting in the air (I was thinking about ribs when I wrote this). State went 6-6 that year but was about four plays away from being 10-2. Despite the insistence on vomiting all over itself the whole season, State was competitive, more competitive than it had been the years prior, and it was doing it almost exclusively with underclassmen and juniors who had unspectacular recruiting rankings. Growth isn’t always reflected in the record. You have to look a little deeper sometimes.
Doeren lost a home game to Miami to fall to 5-6 on the season, which seemed to prompt a do-or-die game at heavily-favored UNC a week later. It was a common thought at the time that Doeren would be fired if he lost that game, something he later revealed that he himself was pretty sure of.
We’ll never know for sure what would have happened had he lost, but thankfully Debbie Yow was not as quick on the trigger as many others in her profession. Since that point, Dave Doeren is 41-23 overall as a head coach. He has posted three nine-win seasons in the last five years. Prior to 2017, NC State has two nine-win seasons total since college football standardized the 12 game schedule.
NC State is 25-17 (24-10 if you remove the huge outlier that is 2019) in the ACC since 2017 having posted four years of over .500 play in five tries. The last time a stretch like that occurred was 1988-92. In fact, you have to go back to 1994 just to find four total winning conference records prior to 2017. Let me restate that. Between 1994 and 2016, NC State had four winning records in the ACC. Between 2017 and 2021, NC State has four winning records in the ACC.
NC State is traditionally mediocre but it’s been bad more often than it’s been good. This is really the first time in 25 years that it’s sustained any amount of above .500 play in the league, and it’s not just hitting above .500. Doeren has a conference winning percentage of at least .700 in three of the last five seasons. The last time it had a winning percentage at that level in just one season, just one of them, was 1994. 1994! Mike O’Cain, Tom O’Brien, and Chuck Amato combined for one of these seasons in 20 years. Not even the Philip Rivers teams got there. Doeren has three in five years and holds the three best conference records since 2000 all by himself.
Here is NC State’s ACC winning percentage in bar chart form since 2000.
And here they are sorted by record with Doeren in the red, O’Brien in the orange, and Amato in the blue.
This is what actually sustained elevation of the program looks like. Doeren has moved slowly at State but he’s been moving in the right direction since he got here. He himself has evolved as a coach too. We talk a lot about player development but rarely consider coach development. Doeren had only been a head coach for two years prior to coming to Raleigh. He’s really developed a lot as a program leader since then and being patient with that has earned the team two second-place finishes in the Atlantic and a fifth overall in division-less 2020, when NC State was the second-highest finishing Atlantic team. NC State had never finished higher than third in the Atlantic prior to 2017.
Here is every Atlantic Division finish for NC State.
NC State Atlantic Division Finishes
Only Clemson and Miami have better conference records over the last five years. In fact, Clemson and NC State are the only schools in the league with four +.500 records in-conference in the last five seasons. 14 schools. The only two are NC State and Clemson. It’s pretty incredible to be able to say that about a stretch that has a 1-7 season sandwiched in the middle of it. So while State hasn’t paid that success off yet with any significant hardware, its staying power positions it better to do so in the coming years than most of the league
I wrote this back in 2017 after State’s 38-31 loss to Clemson proved to be the deciding game in the Atlantic race. Doeren missed his first opportunity to claim an ACC Championship, but it wasn’t going to be his last because he wasn’t trying to align the stars. There was a foundation being built, which is distinct from a lot of other ACC teams that scored 10-win seasons, NY6 bowl bids, or division championships over the same timeframe. UNC went 11-1 in 2015 and played in the ACC Championship. Its next three seasons produced a combined record of 13-23 and the coach got fired. Syracuse won 10 games in 2018. It has yet to be bowl eligible since then. Louisville ascended all the way to the top five when it struck gold with Lamar Jackson. Its record since he left is 20-28. Miami went 11-1 in 2017. It’s 28-23 since then. Virginia went 9-3 and played in the Orange Bowl in 2019. It’s 11-11 overall since.
These are all teams that have achieved something at some point in Doeren’s tenure that NC State is trying to achieve, but they have failed horribly at sustaining it. NC State has done pretty well at sustaining itself in the upper echelon of the conference while other teams have bounced in and out, and that’s where it finds itself better positioned for the coming years than a lot of its competition.
Everything can obviously change in an instant in college football, but State’s current path is one that will continue affording it opportunities to chase some hardware. You should appreciate the size of the step that’s been taken to make that possible and the amount of history that’s been overcome along the way. Celebrating non-championship seasons is not about accepting your place in the league, not even close. It’s about understanding the amount of work required to get to where Doeren has NC State right now, which is a place it hasn’t inhabited in decades.
It’s one of the best teams in the ACC and arguably the second most consistent. A lot of that is thanks to the patience and confidence of the administration, without which we may right now be trying to fire the guy who replaced Doeren after 2016. Doeren is already one the most successful coaches to ever coach here and he could end up as the best we’ve ever had. No one knows how the story will end, but the one thing that’s clear is that it was worth the wait to get here and it will be worth the wait to see where it goes next.