UNC coach Larry Fedora probably didn't mind recruiting against former N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien. ROBERT WILLETT
CHAPEL HILL — Though no one at North Carolina is likely to come out and say it, Sunday was probably a disappointing day inside the Tar Heels’ football offices. Why? Because after six seasons, N.C. State fired coach Tom O’Brien.
This isn’t to say that O’Brien was a poor coach. He leaves N.C. State with a 40-35 record and a 5-1 record against UNC, with the only loss coming in late October after Giovani Bernard’s 74-yard punt return for a touchdown in the final seconds.
O’Brien’s success against the Tar Heels, in fact, likely helped him last as long as he did at N.C. State. And his success in the rivalry will likely endear him to Wolfpack fans who had long grown frustrated with otherwise mediocre results and baffling defeats.
Still, as much as O’Brien’s teams tormented UNC over the years, Tar Heels fans should be sad to see him go. The reason is simple: After six seasons, it was clear that N.C. State wasn’t likely to become a championship-level program under O’Brien.
The Wolfpack during that span never played for an ACC championship, and finished just one season with a winning record in the conference. The victories against UNC were nice for N.C. State fans. But as much as they enjoy bragging rights, those wins didn’t amount to much in the bigger picture.
Take recruiting, for example. Despite N.C. State’s on-the-field success against UNC, the Tar Heels have continued to dominate the Wolfpack in recruiting. Yes, recruiting rankings can be overblown. And no, not every four- and five-star prospect meets expectations.
But the reality is simple enough to grasp: The better a team recruits, the more likely it is that a team wins consistently. And while O’Brien’s teams regularly beat UNC, you could easily argue that the Tar Heels, thanks to stronger recruiting, have been better positioned for more consistent overall success.
O’Brien had been at N.C. State for four full recruiting cycles and not once did he put together a stronger recruiting class than the one at UNC, according to Rivals.com. Not even last year. And think about all the advantages N.C. State should have had over UNC last year:
--For one, the Wolfpack had beaten UNC for five consecutive seasons.
--Second, UNC didn’t learn its NCAA sanctions until March, more than a month after national signing day. That meant that for an entire recruiting cycle, rumors – many of them unfounded – surrounded UNC about how debilitating its sanctions would be. There was talk of a multi-year postseason ban. A television ban. It didn’t matter that some of these things were never going to happen. They were still out there.
--Third, by the time signing day came around in February, O’Brien had been at N.C. State for five seasons, while UNC coach Larry Fedora had barely been on campus for five weeks.
Put all that together, and it’s shocking, in hindsight, that UNC out-recruited N.C. State. But the Heels did. Their class ranked 44th, according to Rivals, while N.C. State’s ranked 53rd. The gap is about the same this year, with UNC’s class 20th, according to Rivals, and N.C. State’s 32nd.
As O’Brien has proven, recruiting rankings aren’t everything. He has taken some lightly-regarded recruits, developed them into good players and beaten teams with far more talent. The latest example of that came in the Wolfpack’s 17-16 victory against Florida State earlier this season.
Still, you could argue that recruiting has never been more important in college football than it is now. Teams have started the recruiting process earlier and earlier, and rarely do college coaches discover hidden gems anymore. Recruiting has become an all-encompassing, non-stop job – as important as any other task that a college football staff handles. Since Fedora became UNC’s head coach, he has repeatedly stressed the importance of keeping the best high school prospects in the state. Like Mack Brown before him, Fedora wants to build his program with the very best players from North Carolina.
O’Brien undoubtedly wanted those players, too, but it became clear he couldn’t often earn commitments from them.
In recent years, during O’Brien’s tenure at N.C. State, UNC hasn’t found it all that difficult to recruit better players than the Wolfpack. Now, though, against whomever athletic director Debbie Yow hires to be O’Brien’s successor, UNC might find it more difficult to recruit against its fiercest rival.