Tom O’Brien might have been his own worst opponent this season.
After all, he is the one who raised expectations this past summer by claiming that this was his deepest and most experienced team of his six-year tenure in Raleigh.
That team just finished 4-4 in the ACC with two glaring blemishes -- an ugly 33-6 homecoming loss to a struggling Virginia team, and a loss to in-state rival North Carolina.
If the ceiling for the best and brightest under O’Brien is seven wins and a mediocre bowl game, athletic director Debbie Yow made the right call on Sunday in her decision to fire him. The fact that O’Brien -- and not embattled Boston College coach Frank Spaziani -- was the first ACC coach to be fired after the end of the regular season was surprising, but it wasn’t entirely unexpected considering the Wolfpack fell well below even O’Brien’s expectations this year.
Heading into this season, it looked as though NC State had enough pieces in place to be a dark-horse contender in the Atlantic Division race. The media picked the team to finish third in the division behind Florida State and Clemson, and with good reason. The Pack returned one of the ACC’s most accomplished quarterbacks in Mike Glennon, and four of five starters returned on the offensive line. NC State’s secondary was billed by many as one of the best in the ACC, if not the country.
A loss to Tennessee in the season opener quickly exposed NC State’s weaknesses, though, and a loss to Miami had the Pack playing from behind in the ACC race from the start -- a trend under O’Brien.
Injuries to the offensive line were a factor in NC State’s struggles, but Wolfpack fans have grown weary of hearing about them. A plethora of injuries to key starters early in O’Brien’s career in Raleigh contributed to three straight losing seasons, but in his sixth season, the staff should have been able to recruit enough depth and talent to overcome such obstacles.
O’Brien is a good, well-respected coach among his peers. He and his staff fared well with the talent they had to work with. The problem is the talent they had to work with. NC State has not been known for its recruitment of elite athletes under O’Brien’s staff, and that is a philosophy that differs from Yow’s.
O’Brien proved he could win big with the talent he brought in. He just couldn’t do it consistently enough to be a factor in the ACC race.
For the second straight season, NC State shocked the ACC with an upset of one of the conference’s best teams. Last year it was No. 7-ranked Clemson. This year it was No. 3-ranked Florida State. But the program’s inability to translate those upsets into meaningful postseason play finally caught up with O’Brien. His slow starts and strong finishes had become trademarks of the program under his watch, but the end results amounted to just three winning seasons in six years, two bowl wins and a 22-26 record in the ACC.
It wasn’t until this season at Maryland that O’Brien finally notched his first road win against an Atlantic Division opponent, improving his overall record in division road games to 1-14. Overall, he was 11-19 against Atlantic Division opponents.
NC State lost three of its final five games this year, beating only ACC bottom dwellers Wake Forest and Boston College in the month of November.
O’Brien is the one who set the bar higher this year.
It wasn’t the first time the program fell below expectations under his watch, but it was the last.