If you're an NC State fan that wants no part of an article written in favor of Wolfpack athletic director Lee Fowler then be forewarned- you probably won't like what follows. We're going to do the unthinkable and actually give him some credit.
After executing a basketball search that could accurately and fairly be labeled as a debacle, Fowler likely wasn't very excited about the prospects of having to find a new football coach. However, the AD showed early on that he had learned from previous mistakes and took the Wolfpack search underground. Whereas every move during the basketball search seemed to hit the internet within minutes, the plans to replace former head coach Chuck Amato had the feel of a covert operation. Sources were tight-lipped and likely for good reason, most didn't have a clue where Fowler was headed.
Even before Amato was released officially, two names seemed to make the rounds as possible replacements more than any other. Paul Johnson from Navy and LSU offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher garnered the lion's share of attention and both were legitimate candidates. An interview was scheduled for Fisher on Tuesday of this week in Nashville, Tn but was abruptly cancelled. Sources indicated to Pack Pride that Johnson was contacted this past Sunday but apparently, the Wolfpack never talked to him again. According to reports, Johnson delivered an ultimatum on Wednesday- you've got 24 hours to make a move or I'm off the list. As it turned out, he never made the list.
Enter Tom O'Brien. Pack Pride first heard his name last week as one of a list of coaches that had contacted NC State and expressed interest in the head coaching position. To be completely honest, at the time it simply had the feel of a woefully underpaid coach likely leveraging for a better contract. As a result, O'Brien was discounted and not thought of again until Wednesday morning.
Wednesday morning broke with an email in the inbox saying from a very credible source that Tom O'Brien would be the next head coach at NC State. By 9:00am, Pack Pride had talked with four separate sources that indicated O'Brien had emerged as the front runner for the head coaching position. From there, the freight train of information on the Boston College coach steam-rolled to an announcement Wednesday night that he had been offered and accepted the head spot at NC State- which brings us to Fowler.
Throughout the short-lived head coaching search, there were two main candidates for NC State fans- Paul Johnson and everyone else. With Johnson, many Pack fans saw an ultra-successful coach with a limitless ceiling. If he had that kind of success at Navy and Georgia Southern then just imagine what he could do with NC State-type talent. Never factored into the equation was the part about Johnson having to coach against ACC-type talent. There would be no Massachusetts, Temple, Duke, Eastern Michigan, and Army to feed on. That had to weigh into Fowler's decision.
Then there was the question about recruiting. This was likely the biggest wild card of all when considering a future coach. Recruiting players to NC State is a completely different animal than recruiting players to Georgia Southern or Navy. Instead of facing down Army or Temple for a player, you're in a heated battle with Tennessee or Virginia Tech or Florida State. That's a huge jump for a coaching staff and major question mark for an athletic's director whose very future may rest on his coaching hire.
Somewhere between making contact with Paul Johnson on Sunday and the cancellation of Jimbo Fisher's interview on Tuesday, talks got serious between Fowler and Tom O'Brien. While details of any deal are unknown, what is known is that Fowler offered the job to just one candidate and he nailed it. Some may say that Fowler made the "safe" choice. What Fowler made was the "smart" choice. Look back over the history of NC State football and you won't find a single coach that came to Raleigh with a more impressive resume. Instead of a former assistant coach or coach from a smaller division college, the Pack landed an experienced lead man with a proven and impressive win-loss record against top competition, the ability to maintain a stable staff, a spotless academic track record and the knowledge of what it takes on the recruiting trail to compete with the Florida State's and Miami's of the league.
Many State fans frowned on the O'Brien hire because of a perceived ceiling of success that he would bring from Boston College. He "only" wins nine games a year. That notion is just as silly as the thought that there would be no limit to the potential success of Paul Johnson. When did nine wins a year not become a great year for NC State? Did we at Pack Pride miss something? When was the last time NC State won nine games during three consecutive seasons? How about never in the history of the school.
In hindsight, it is apparent Lee Fowler was much the wiser for what transpired during his first search. He kept the details quiet and nearly everyone in the dark until the day the news of O'Brien's hiring occurred. Every source we've talked to who is closely connected with football has raved about the hire. As the popular saying goes, ‘past performance doesn't guarantee future results', but we can't help but feel that Fowler's hiring of O'Brien was a homerun for the future of Wolfpack football and for that, you have to give the beleaguered AD all the credit.