Tom O'Brien has won 102 games as a college football coach. In 1997, he inherited a Boston College program that had finished with a losing record in seven of the previous 10 seasons, and after a couple of years running in place, he lead the Eagles to a nearly unprecedented level of success. Beginning with the 1999 season, he helped B.C. to embark on a run of 12 consecutive winning seasons (a streak that will probably come to an end this year). In his final three seasons in Chestnut Hill, his Eagles went 28-9; the year after he left for N.C. State, his recruits went 11-3 with Jeff Jagodzinski at the helm. He has some strong program-building bona fides on his résumé.
This past winter, following his fourth (and most successful) season at N.C. State, O'Brien made a very human, risky decision, and the general perception now is that it is costing his Wolfpack dearly. During the 2008-10 seasons, his team was led by one of the more entertaining quarterbacks in the country. Russell Wilson showed an interesting arm and incredible improvisational ability in this three seasons as starting quarterback, and it resulted in a unique stat line: he threw for 3,563 yards and rushed for 663 more (before sacks) last year.
N.C. State had a solid, if less than elite, offense with Russell Wilson behind center -- they ranked 28th in Off. F/+ in 2008, 19th in 2009 and 33rd in 2010 -- but unfortunately he couldn't play defense. The Wolfpack ranked 78th in Def. F/+ in 2008 and 113th in 2009, leading to a combined record of 11-14 and no bowl games. In 2010, however, there was a breakthrough. N.C. State jumped to 24th in Def. F/+, and despite slight regression on offense, N.C. State's record jumped to 9-4 with a Champs Sports Bowl win over West Virginia. Heading into Wilson's senior season, it was easy to find some general reasons to be excited about the N.C. State program.
And then O'Brien consciously and intentionally pushed Wilson toward the exits.
Wilson spent his offseasons a) playing minor league baseball and b) expressing less than 100 percent commitment about his return to football. From an outsider's perspective, this probably isn't a big deal. If nothing else, he's clearly a good quarterback, and those are hard to come by. Even top-tier programs can be doomed by less-than-ideal situations at quarterback (in recent years, Penn State and LSU immediately spring to mind), and you probably shouldn't let a known, strong quantity walk out the door. He always ended up coming back to football when it mattered, even if he didn't take part in summer conditioning or other team-building opportunities.
But think about this from O'Brien's perspective. He doesn't just pay attention to N.C. State a handful of times per year like we do; he is N.C. State Football, and for a majority of the last year or two, he has spent his days wondering if his quarterback was going to actually be his quarterback. Plus, he had another guy he liked -- Mike Glennon -- on his bench; a junior heading into the 2011 season, Glennon had to be considered a transfer threat if Wilson returned in 2011. If he let Glennon transfer, that meant that he might lose both quarterbacks if Wilson elected to stay with baseball this fall. And make no mistake: Wilson was sending mixed signals in January, publicly questioning whether he was going to return for his senior season. He eventually expressed his desire to return to Raleigh this fall, but O'Brien needed to make a decision that would positively impact both his present and future tense, so he basically refused to name Wilson the 2011 starter. Predictably, Wilson elected to transfer for his final season; he is now posting a ridiculous stat line at Wisconsin.
SBN's own Akula Wolf at Backing The Pack accurately summed up the situation: "Please don't let this end up being a horrible mistake...please don't let this end up being a horrible mistake..."
No matter how brave or logical the decision, O'Brien opened himself up to epic criticism if the Wolfpack struggled this fall ... and now they're struggling. They have lost to both FBS programs they have faced so far, falling behind early and failing to catch up; they lost by seven at Wake Forest (3-9 in 2010), and Thursday night, they got destroyed by Cincinnati (4-8 in 2010) on national television. Glennon threw two picks, committed a fumble and was sacked five times. He isn't really the problem, however; he still completed 64 percent of his passes for 649 yards in the two losses.
N.C. State's primary problems are 1) incredibly slow starts (Wake Forest jumped to a 27-6 lead, Cincy to a ), 2) a defense that has regressed to the point of allowing over six yards per play to both Wake Forest and Cincinnati, and 3) a non-existent running game (running backs Curtis Underwood, Jr., and James Washington combined for just 100 yards in 35 carries in the two losses), but that doesn't necessarily matter. To the public (and probably to a good number of N.C. State fans), O'Brien pushed Wilson out the door, and N.C. State has regressed quite a bit, causation be damned. With context, O'Brien's decision was quite defensible, but you don't always get the option of context when you are losing football games.
As Mike Leach covered in his book, Swing Your Sword, we like it when coaches take chances and win, but if they make risky decisions and lose, we destroy them. If Wilson had returned (leading to Glennon's departure) and N.C. State had still lost to Cincinnati and Wake Forest, O'Brien's seat would not be as hot as it probably currently is (at least until next season, when they took the field without Wilson or Glennon). Now, N.C. State will have a solid, experienced quarterback in 2012, but if they continue to struggle this fall, they might have a new coach leading him.