NC State athletic director Lee Fowler must have felt like he had won the lottery upon learning that Boston College head coach Tom O'Brien had serious interest in filling the vacant Wolfpack football head coaching position. While candidates like Navy's Paul Johnson, LSU's Jimbo Fisher and Tennessee Titan offensive coordinator Norm Chow met some of the requirements for the Pack's head spot, each brought a certain amount of uncertainty as well. With O'Brien, there were no question marks. In 31 years of coaching, he has proven to possess all the qualities that made Fowler's pick an easy one.
In a profession that often resembles pieces jumping on a checker board, O'Brien has been the exception. With more than three decades of coaching under his belt, O'Brien will be making just his fourth stop when he leads the Pack into Carter-Finley Stadium in 2007. After seven seasons with the Naval Academy, O'Brien moved on to Virginia where he coached for 15 years. He earned a head coaching spot with Boston College in 1997 and spent the next ten years establishing the Eagles as one of the nation's most consistent programs. O'Brien's loyalty extended well beyond just his current employer and he has earned a stellar reputation for retaining his assistant coaches. Of the nine assistants under O'Brien in 2006 at Boston College, seven had been with the Eagles for eight or more years. The other two, Jim Bridge and Keith Willis had been with O'Brien for four and six years, respectively. Time and again, staff stability has proven to be one of the key facets behind any successful college football program and in this area, O'Brien has earned an A+.
Integrity and Leadership
O'Brien took over a Boston College program in 1997 that had been rocked by a gambling scandal in the mid-1990's. With a foundation of discipline established during a tour in the Marine Corps, O'Brien quickly turned the Eagles around both on and off the football field. He has had relatively few problems with players with off-the-field issues and his ability to get players to excel in the classroom has been phenomenal. When the NCAA recently released their graduation rates for football players entering college from 1996-2000, Boston College boasted the nation's No. 2 graduation rate of 96%. In 2004, O'Brien received the AFCA's academic achievement award for graduating 100% of his players. His no-nonsense approach to responsible behavior by his players, discipline and accountability in the classroom are qualities that will help to distinguish the Wolfpack football program in the years to come.
Recruiting and Talent Evaluation
One key question answered when Tom O'Brien was hired was recruiting. He is a veteran of the ACC and is very familiar with the level of talent needed to compete within the conference. At Boston College, O'Brien recruited from a somewhat limited pool of talent that often led him to Catholic-based high schools. Because of BC's geographical location, landing players from the south, an area generally rich in skill players, proved difficult. Only 11 of Boston College's current roster hail from an area south of Virginia. Despite the limitations, O'Brien's recruiting classes ranked right around No. 30 nationally over the last six years- a number almost identical to NC State's, although most Pack fans would generally consider the Wolfpack's recruiting to have been superior during that time.
O'Brien has also been lauded for his ability to identify talent well before his peers and to mine hidden gems when others look elsewhere. Recruiting analyst Tom Lemming told the Raleigh News and Observer in a recent article, "I had them rated the No. 1 talent evaluating staff in the country last year," Lemming said. "There is limited talent in the Northeast, and Boston College's academic standards are high, but they were able to quickly evaluate talent, start recruiting and sign kids."
Lemming added in a Q&A on CSTV.com, "He (O'Brien) greatly enhances N.C. State. He's a smart X's and O's guy and an underrated recruiter, and a good person. Boston College isn't one of the Super 16 schools but as far as early evaluations with kids, they're a bulldog. He landed the most recruited linebacker in the country at the time and who's now Boston College's star, Brian Toal."
Recruiting under Tom O'Brien will not be flashy. He will sell the virtues mentioned previously in this article as well as the positives of NC State. His style will likely be closer to Jim Grobe than Butch Davis. State will still go after that five-star all-american but only if he fits into the Tom O'Brien system.
The formula for success under Tom O'Brien has been built largely through stability, integrity, leadership, recruiting and talent evaluation. Independently, each means very little to the average fan without wins. This is probably the most exciting part of the O'Brien equation. Serving as the offensive coordinator at Virginia from 1991-1996, the Cavs won 47 games during that span. In the previous six years Virginia won 42 games and during the six years after his departure, Virginia won 43 games.
At Boston College, O'Brien spent the first two years turning the Eagles' program around. BC had averaged just five wins during the three years before his arrival. After consecutive 4-7 seasons in 1997 and 1998, O'Brien has been a model of consistency since and will go down as the winningest head coach in Boston College history. His eight year total of 67 wins from 1999-2006, is, by far, the greatest stretch ever for the Eagles. The next closest eight year span only netted 57 wins. During that time, BC earned invitations to eight straight bowl games and six consecutive bowl victories. The next longest streak was three bowl invites and collectively, the Eagles had won only five other bowl games in the last 65 years.
Since 2001, O'Brien has notched wins over West Virginia (twice), Notre Dame (four times), Georgia, Penn State (twice), Virginia Tech (twice), Clemson (twice) and Florida State. Yet, many Boston College fans didn't seem to mind when O'Brien bolted for NC State. They complained that he was never able to win the big game that could've landed the Eagles in a bigger bowl game. Inexplicably, these same fans take no responsibility for the fact that they themselves were the reason BC was never attractive to the more prestigious bowls. In 2006 alone, two teams (Maryland and Clemson) with records worse than Boston College, received invitations to more highly-regarded bowl games. This is directly attributable to the fact that BC's fans do not travel well to bowl games.
A big part of Tom O'Brien's decision to take the head coaching position at NC State was clearly fan support. While the Pack struggled to a 3-9 mark in 2006, NC State rated No. 25 in the nation in capacity of stadium filled for each game. Conversely, boasting an impressive 9-3 record, Boston College didn't even break the top 50. Their average attendance of 38,843 ranked them behind teams like Connecticut and Rutgers and was only marginally better than schools like Navy, Air Force and Wake Forest. Despite this obstacle, O'Brien was able to establish Boston College as an early contender in the newly-formed ACC. In two years of the new 12-team format, only Virginia Tech has won more games (21) than Boston College (18).
All of the pieces would appear to be in place for O'Brien to transition that success to NC State. It may not happen overnight. The Wolfpack has a murderous schedule in 2007 and only Clemson and UNC return fewer starters. However, the Wolfpack's new head man has demonstrated the attributes, qualities and proven track record of success that should have NC State football back on track sooner versus later. When you combine that with a rabid fan base and almost limitless resources with which to work, it's difficult not to get excited about the future of the O'Brien era at NC State.