In the modern landscape of college football, that's an odd combination, even for a coach that's still establishing a program. Especially at a place like NC State, which has poured so much money into facility upgrades over the last decade in order to compete at the highest level. It's hard to explain the enthusiasm for this team if you don't follow the program closely.
But it doesn't take long to see where all the optimism about O'Brien's program originates. It starts with his track record, which was nothing short of outstanding at Boston College. The 60-year-old coach took a small private school and made it a contender in the Big East and later the ACC. He won 75 games at the school before leaving, more than any other coach in the history of the program, and never won less than seven games in his last eight seasons. To top it off, he put together a string of six straight bowl wins – seven if you give him some credit for the team's bowl victory in 2006 just weeks after he left for NC State.
Of course winning in Boston doesn't do you much good if you aren't winning in Raleigh. And while O'Brien's record isn't as good as some might have hoped after two seasons, he's won the right games.
Specifically he's 2-0 against the Pack's biggest rival North Carolina. It started with a 31-27 nail-biter where the Pack jumped out to a huge lead only to fall behind late but win the game on a late touchdown run by Jamelle Eugene. But that performance was not nearly as memorable as the 2008 game to Pack fans, when O'Brien's squad walked into Chapel Hill and spanked the Heels 41-10.
"Winning all those games in state helps," center Ted Larsen said. "As long as he keeps winning those games he's gonna be popular."
Not only has he beaten Carolina, he's beaten up on the entire state. O'Brien is 6-1 against in-state FCS opponents, including unbeaten records versus East Carolina, UNC and Duke. His only blemish is a loss to Wake Forest in 2007. He racked up a 4-0 record against the state last year, prompting him to claim state superiority.
"We're the best football program in the state, without question," O'Brien said following the win over Carolina. "We are the state university and we expect to be here."
That quote was exactly what NC State fans had been wanting to hear from a coach. It was one of the few times that O'Brien has put into words the confidence that he's demonstrated from the day he arrived. While some opponents might have seen it as boastful, it wasn't. It was a statement of fact with a record to back it up.
It's also the closest you'll probably ever see him come to bragging. O'Brien, with his military background, never seems to lose his composure or control of a situation. Cool and confident to be sure, but not cocky.
His style has earned him the respect of his players as well, even though many of them weren't recruited by O'Brien.
"I've been playing football for eight years and I've done a lot of stuff that in your mind doesn't make any sense," Larsen said. "But everything we do with coach O'Brien, with everyone on the staff because it trickles down, everything we do is for a reason."
O'Brien's team have improved as the season progressed, even as the injuries seemed to take some of his most talented players off the field. In his first year the team started 1-5, but finished 4-2. Last year they started 2-6 but finished 4-1. O'Brien believes this year's team should be even better and if history is any indication, a good start would mean a breakout year for the Wolfpack.
"They understand the language, they understand where they are supposed to be, and now they can go much faster," O'Brien said at the ACC Kickoff in July. "And that's the key to winning football games, and we are getting more to that point."
Ultimately, that's the key. O'Brien still has to win games. But its hard to look at what he's done so far and find a reason that suggests he won't turn NC State into a winner.
Austin Johnson will write a weekly column throughout the football season. If you have any thoughts, suggestions or criticisms you can contact him here.