RALEIGH — Promising her players a new, more aggressive football coach who will deliver “Alabama” type results in recruiting and on the field, N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow fired head coach Tom O’Brien Sunday.
O’Brien compiled a 40-35 record in six seasons, with a 22-26 mark in the ACC, and led the Wolfpack to bowl games in three straight years and four times in the past five years. He was also only the second coach in school history to beat North Carolina five straight times.
Yow, who has made seven coaching changes in the athletic department since she was hired in July 2010, wants more.
“I have an unrelenting belief,” Yow said, “that N.C. State can do something special.”
Where Yow will turn for O’Brien’s replacement is unclear. She said Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, whom she referred to as a “good friend,” would not be in contention. Clemson assistant Chad Morris, Cincinnati coach Butch Jones and Louisiana Tech’s Sonny Dykes could be considered three of the top options.
It will cost N.C. State $1.2 million over the next four years to buy out O’Brien’s contract. There’s also the matter of paying a consulting firm, Parker Executive Search, to help find O’Brien’s replacement and the three assistant coaches who are under contract for the 2013 season.
Yow said the decision to fire O’Brien was worth the cost, in part because of lagging season-ticket sales but also because of a disagreement over the future of the program.
Yow puts a premium on the value of recruiting and said the program needed a more “aggressive” recruiter to achieve her stated goal of reaching the Top 25. Only once, at No. 25 in 2010, did one of O’Brien’s teams finish that high in the final national rankings.
“I have a great deal of respect for people who are aggressive, assertive recruiters,” Yow said. “I believe in this day and age, it is required.”
O’Brien could not be reached for comment on Sunday. In a statement released by the school, O’Brien said he felt “that the program is in a better place now than when I started” and he was “proud of the young men that I have coached here, for their accomplishments on the field and in the classroom.”
Yow set the recruiting standard high in her brief meeting with the players on Sunday. Senior center Cam Wentz said Yow referred to a new coach who would bring in “Alabama type talent.” Alabama has won two of the past three national titles and is annually among the national leaders in recruiting rankings.
O’Brien, 64, loathed the “star rating” system that drives today’s recruiting circuit. His recruiting classes routinely ranked in the bottom half of the ACC, and off the national radar, but he was able to develop the low-end recruits into top-end ACC talent.
The Wolfpack has gone 24-14 since the start of the 2010 season with two wins over Florida State, including when the Seminoles were ranked No. 3 in the country earlier this season, and one over a Top 10 Clemson team last season.
But for every big win, there was a disappointing loss, like the 33-6 home blowout against Virginia on Nov. 3, which likely cost O’Brien his job.
The Cavaliers finished the season 2-6 in the ACC and entered that game on a six-game losing streak.
Before the 2012 season started, O’Brien described his 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, he couldn’t.
“This was supposed to be our year,” Wentz said. “We could have been a lot better than we were. In hindsight, if it had gone another way, we might be in a different situation right now.”
The inability to turn what O’Brien described as his “most experienced and deepest team” into nothing more than a 7-5 record, ultimately sunk the veteran coach, Yow said.
Yow also said the school has lost more than 1,000 season-ticket holders in the past six years, which has cost the athletic department $1.4 million.
Dana Bible, O’Brien’s offensive coordinator for the past six years at N.C. State and for a total of 14 years, will be the interim coach for N.C. State’s bowl game.
Bible said O’Brien took the news in stride on Sunday.
“It’s difficult, there’s no question about it,” Bible said. “We’ve won a lot of games together. Personally it’s tough and it’s tough on coach.”
A noted disciplinarian, O’Brien ran a clean program in Raleigh, one of the criteria for the next coach, Yow said.
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.
The search to find O’Brien’s replacement began Sunday night, Yow said. With other coaching changes going on around the country, Yow said time was of the essence.
“I just felt the timing is right to do this,” Yow said.