The nation's most embattled coaches.
Three seasons ago, Tom O'Brien surprised more than a few people by jumping abruptly from Boston College to N.C. State. At best, it looked like a lateral move: O'Brien went from an up-and-coming squad riding a six-year bowl winning streak to a division rival coming off three straight finishes of ninth place or worse in the ACC.
But if the switch was a lateral move for O'Brien, it's starting to look like it might have been for the Wolfpack as well. NCSU's final three seasons under Chuck Amato featured one winning season and one bowl win; their first three under O'Brien have tallied zero of either. Particularly in a fluctuating division devoid of any true powerhouse teams, that's not going to cut it, and the pressure is on O'Brien in year four to demonstrate some kind of progress.
Why he was hired. After 15 successful seasons as an offensive coordinator in George Welsh's successful rebuilding effort at Virginia, O'Brien took over a Boston College program reeling from a point-shaving scandal and led the Eagles to a bowl game in his third season. By the time he was lured away to Raleigh, O'Brien had strung together eight straight winning seasons and six straight bowl victories, and his teams had developed a reputation for stepping up in big games: His final season at B.C. featured victories over three ranked teams (Clemson, Virginia Tech, and Maryland), as well as a BYU outfit that finished 11-2.
The "Uh-oh" Moment. The Wolfpack had finished disastrously at 3-9 in Amato's final year. O'Brien improved on that slightly with a 5-7 mark in his first year, followed by a 6-7 finish that featured a November rally and a bowl game (a Papajohns.com Bowl loss to Rutgers) in his second. Year Three, 2009, was poised to be another important step forward, particularly with reigning All-ACC quarterback Russell Wilson leading the way.
A hideous 7-3 loss to South Carolina on opening night crushed those dreams of a breakout campaign pretty quickly. At one point, Wilson was yanked for redshirt freshman backup Mike Glennon, and finished 12-of-23 for a mere 74 yards -- which ended up being more than half of the Wolfpack's eventual total. Just as Wilson began to get his head screwed on straight later in the season, the defense imploded, allowing 41 points per game over the course of a 1-6 stretch that included a 49-28 loss to Duke and a 52-20 loss to O'Brien's former team in Chestnut Hill. A 20-point home loss to Clemson on Nov. 14 officially eighty-sixed the Wolfpack from bowl consideration.
Embarrassing attempt to right the ship. A former Marine, O'Brien is known as a pretty reticent guy (let's call a spade a spade here: He's boring. I defy you to find an interesting photo of the man.) and not a source of particularly outrageous sound bites. Two weeks after last season's blowout loss to Boston College, though -- and two days before a 45-42 loss to FSU -- O'Brien appeared to throw his players under the bus in a defense of defensive coordinator Mike Archer that had more than a few Wolfpack fans scratching their heads:
"Mike's been part of this before," O'Brien said ... "He built a heck of a defense at Kentucky before he came here, a place where they had a long tradition of not going to bowl games, and winning. He came to us as one of the top defensive coordinators in the country at turning the football over. You know, sometimes it's not the coach, sometimes it's the arrows in his quiver that need to improve."
That "heck of a defense" to which O'Brien referred at Kentucky finished 103rd, 105th and 118th in total defense in Archer's final three seasons in Lexington. A month ago, O'Brien decided to bolster the struggling D by hiring blitz-happy Jon Tenuta -- whose final season as Notre Dame's D-coordinator saw the Irish defense sagging from 39th in the nation to 86th -- as linebackers coach.
Can this marriage be saved? "Akula Wolf" of N.C. State blog Backing the Pack says that for now, at least, the Wolfpack fan base is willing to give O'Brien the benefit of the doubt:
For a few reasons, I don't think Tom O'Brien's job is in jeopardy this year. When he got here, I think most folks understood that this rebuilding project was going to take several years. Chuck Amato's recruiting declined significantly towards the end of his tenure, and his last season made it clear that he'd left his successor a lot of work. O'Brien's strong track record at Boston College offers reassurance, and it doesn't hurt that he's 3-for-3 against North Carolina. He's also dealt with an absurd amount of injuries -- not quite a "get out of jail free" card, but pretty close.
But that stuff only goes so far. He's lost traction, no question. Last season was the first that came with strong expectations, and it was a miserable failure. Most of the blame landed at the feet of defensive coordinator Mike Archer; our obvious and painful shortcomings on that side of the ball made him an easy scapegoat. It's not hard to see the majority of that heat shifting to the man in charge after another mediocre season.
Akula says 2011 will be "the make-or-break year" for O'Brien, but Yet Another N.C. State Sports Blog says it might be make-or-break time already:
It's time to see some tangible, meaningful wins beyond merely beating Carolina every year. If -- after three years with Russell Wilson at QB and plenty of time to build depth across the roster -- O'Brien can't muster at least seven wins and a bowl appearance, the drums of war will start beating pretty loudly. There are positions on the field that look good, like quarterback and the offensive line, but others that are still razor thin, like the secondary. And given that defense was what held this team back from reaching its potential last season, another sub-par defensive unit could scuttle 2010 and perhaps O'Brien's job.
Approximate heat of seat. The manifold cover of a Dodge Viper V10 engine -- not hot enough to be lethal right away, but not a place you'd like to be sitting, either. After a season opener against Western Carolina, there really aren't any gimme wins on the Pack's schedule in 2010; if they fall short of a bowl game again, O'Brien can always unload Archer and buy himself another year, but an offseason marked by such coaching upheaval is hardly the best way for TOB to establish positive momentum heading into a critical 2011.
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Previously: Ron Zook, Illinois.