RALEIGH — Tom O'Brien has led N.C. State to three straight bowl games, and four in five seasons, but it wasn't enough to save his job. O'Brien will not return for a seventh season, the school announced on Sunday.
O'Brien compiled a 40-35 record in six seasons with a 22-26 mark in the ACC. O'Brien's contract runs through Dec. 2015 and he will be paid at least $1.2 million over the next three years.
The Wolfpack completed a 7-5 regular season on Saturday with a home win over Boston College and will play in a bowl game with offensive coordinator Dana Bible as the interim coach.
This will be the sixth coaching hire, including both major revenue sports, for N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow, who was hired in July 2010.
The search for O'Brien's replacement will begin immediately. Vanderbilt's James Franklin is expected to be Yow's top target. Yow once hired Franklin to succeed Ralph Friedgen at Maryland but that plan was scrapped when Yow left Maryland in 2010 and Friedgen was fired a year later.
Franklin landed at Vanderbilt, where he has won 14 games in two seasons and led the Commodores to two straight bowl games. It's possible, Vanderbilt and N.C. State could meet in the Music City Bowl in Nashville on Dec. 31.
The Wolfpack has gone 24-14 since the start of the 2010 season with three straight bowl trips and two consecutive bowl wins heading into this postseason. As O'Brien has noted, that's one of the most successful three-year stretches in school history. Also, O'Brien is one of two coaches in school history to beat North Carolina five straight times.
But inconsistency prevented O'Brien from winning more. Before the 2012 season started, O'Brien described the team's propensity to go up and down as "a roller coaster ride" and he had hoped to change that in 2012. Even with a veteran quarterback, veteran offensive line and an experienced defense, it didn't change.
"I appreciate the opportunity to have coached at North Carolina State University and I feel that the program is in a better place now than when I started," O'Brien said in a statement released by the school. "I'm proud of the young men that I have coached here, for their accomplishments on the field and in the classroom. Wolfpack football is as sound academically as it’s ever been with a [single year] APR of 990 to be reported this spring. I appreciate all of my coaches and wish them the best and I look forward to life after football."
Both O'Brien and the veteran players expected more than a 7-5 record this season. A 14-point loss to a Tennessee team, which finished 1-7 in the SEC, got the season off to an ominous start.
The Wolfpack responded with three straight wins but lost its ACC opener at Miami on Sept. 29 after a poor defensive performance. After winning consecutive ACC games in the final minute, including a 17-16 upset of No. 3 Florida State on Oct. 6, N.C. State dropped its first game in six years to UNC.
The Tar Heels beat the Wolfpack in dramatic fashion in Chapel Hill on Oct. 27, a 43-35 win decided by a punt return for a touchdown by UNC's Gio Bernard with 13 seconds left in the game.
After coming back from 18 points down in the first quarter, N.C. State had led the Tar Heels by 10 points in the fourth quarter but couldn't close the game out.
The Wolfpack let one loss turn into two when it dropped a 33-6 home game to Virginia the week after the Carolina loss. Virginia finished the season with a 2-6 ACC record.
For every big win over Florida State this season, or a top 10 Clemson team in 2011, O'Brien's N.C. State teams had a propensity to drop an ACC game it should have won, like the Virginia game this year and the Boston College game last year.
A noted disciplinarian, O'Brien, 64, ran a clean program in Raleigh. During O'Brien's six-year tenure, a third of the ACC schools ran into trouble with the NCAA, including UNC, which was banned from the postseason this year for multiple violations under former coach Butch Davis.