Tom O’Brien has never gone through a make-or-break season, and he doesn’t think he’s facing one this year at N.C. State.
In fact, he doesn’t even buy into the make-or-break concept.
All that said, the fourth-year Wolfpack football coach understands that a new dynamic is in place that will have an impact on athletics across the board at the school.
“I don’t think there’s ever a make-or-break season,” O’Brien said this week. “But the situation has changed. The chancellor I came here with and the athletic director I came here with are no longer here. Things have changed a lot.
“How that’s going to affect our situation won’t be solved until the chancellor and new AD decide what direction — or if there’s a new direction — they want to go in.
O’Brien is coming off a 5-7 (2-6 ACC) season. In the three seasons since he was hired away from Boston College by recently dismissed AD Lee Fowler, the 61-year-old O’Brien is 16-21 overall, 9-15 in ACC games.
With one of the league’s top quarterbacks in Russell Wilson and a defense that should benefit enormously from the return from linebacker Nate Irving, expectations will be higher when the 2010 schedule begins Sept. 4 against Western Carolina.
By that point, new N.C. State chancellor Randy Woodson almost certainly will have selected Fowler’s successor. Since it’s not unusual for new ADs to revamp departmental personnel, there’s not a coach on a campus whose long-term security is beyond question.
“Certainly you get evaluated differently because it’s not the people who brought you in, who did the research to bring you in,” O’Brien said.
While anything better than 7-5 or 8-4 overall would no doubt be deemed a positive surprise by practically everyone, O’Brien is still trying to deliver an ACC championship.
State last won the title in 1979 — Bo Rein’s final season as coach. Since then, six coaches have tried to bring the ACC trophy back to Raleigh. Only once during that stretch — once ever actually — has a State team won more than nine games in a season.
Chuck Amato’s 2002 team finished 11-3 overall with a Gator Bowl win over Notre Dame, but the Pack’s 5-3 league record was behind three other rivals.
If the next AD is like almost all others, he or she immediately will talk about raising the bar — league titles, top-20 rankings, big bowl bids, high graduation rates, the usual spiel.
It all adds up to more pressure on O’Brien, just as it will shortly thereafter on basketball coach Sidney Lowe and so on down the Wolfpack coaching roster.