This one will be old school
Returning to face BC as N.C. State coach a challenge for O'Brien
The Sunday morning routine was the same as it had been at Boston College. Come to the office early and dissect the events of the previous day.
But for Tom O'Brien, last Saturday was a milestone: his first game as head football coach at North Carolina State. A new chapter at a new school with new challenges.
O'Brien is a master at moving forward and not dwelling on the past - good or bad - which is why his "I've been better" response to an innocuous "How are you doing?" inquiry was somewhat surprising.
North Carolina State dropped its season opener to Central Florida, 25-23, Saturday night, losing running back Toney Baker for the season with a knee injury. Add to that the assortment of mistakes the Wolfpack made, and O'Brien's response made sense. But the Naval Academy graduate and former Marine always has been able to focus and assess situations.
George Welsh, under whom O'Brien worked at Navy and Virginia for 21 years, once gave the quintessential description of O'Brien's football mind-set: "He can figure out a lot of stuff quicker than just about anyone else I have met."
Focus won't be an issue for O'Brien this week. BC, where O'Brien began his head coaching career 10 years ago, will be the opponent. It is a game O'Brien has circled in his mind since taking the N.C. State job last December, and while he is careful about what he says publicly, he concedes it will be an emotional homecoming, facing players he recruited and developed and watched mature into what very well could be an Atlantic Coast Conference title team.
Fork in the road
It is noontime on a hot summer Carolina afternoon, and O'Brien is hungry. He is still relatively new to the Research Triangle area and asks his secretary to get him MapQuest directions for a restaurant that serves Carolina pulled pork barbecue. As he walks down the back staircase of the state-of-the-art N.C. State football facility, O'Brien goes over the directions in his head.
"Let's go in my sports car," says O'Brien, a smile on his face, sounding like a 17-year-old who has just gotten his first set of wheels and wants to show it off.
O'Brien has absorbed the directions and now is moving through lunchtime traffic. He is talking about his new job, his new red car, his new home, his new life, which at the age of 58 developed quickly over a period of a few weeks last December.
"It was just time," he says, making a series of lefts and rights off the always-under-construction North Carolina interstate highway system. "It was just the right time to make a move."'
O'Brien then pauses, knowing the explanation is more complicated than that. At BC, he brought the football program a sense of stability and a degree of success that was not there in the Dan Henning era, which was tainted by a gambling scandal that could have mushroomed into something much bigger if not for a major housecleaning not only in the football offices but the entire athletic department.
"I did a good job there," says O'Brien, now poking at his sandwich as he also probes the reasons why he is at North Carolina State instead of beginning his second decade with the Eagles. "If you saw the way the program was when we arrived . . ."
He simply shakes his head and laughs.
They meet again
A decade ago, O'Brien had to prove that he could be more than a solid career assistant, which he was for 21 years at Virginia and Navy.
At The Heights, he steadily rebuilt the program, and by the time O'Brien left, he was the winningest football coach in school history, having taken the Eagles to eight straight bowl games - and winning the last seven.
Now he must face the team he said might have been his best when he left it behind. It will be, he says, a business-as-usual trip.
"We will have our hands full with the Eagles," O'Brien said. "Such is life. They are a good team."
When pressed about the emotional aspects of coming back against his former players, O'Brien went into his game-face mode.
"I'm not concerned with that," he said. "I've got enough things to worry about here. We all have our jobs to do. I'm here at North Carolina State. I accepted the challenge.
"That's my focus. I had 10 great years. It's a great place. I just needed a change."
O'Brien's linkage with BC will remain, no matter what he does. His three children - Colleen, Daniel, and Bridget - are all BC graduates, and he still has many friends at the college and in the area. Two of his former assistants - defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani and linebackers coach Bill McGovern - are on the staff of new BC coach Jeff Jagodzinski. Jagodzinski worked for O'Brien for two seasons as offensive coordinator and says he has a cordial relationship with O'Brien.
O'Brien expects to hear jeers as well as cheers Saturday at Alumni Stadium. His former players say they will treat this like any other game, then say their goodbyes.
"I'm going to play the game and then after it's over, I will go over and wish him luck," said BC quarterback Matt Ryan.
And that's the way it will be until all the players O'Brien brought to The Heights are gone and he becomes just another coach who happened to work there.
But for now, the buildup to his return continues.
Anything can happen
Make no mistake: O'Brien wants to win this game as much as any game he has coached in. His North Carolina State players will be aware of that, even though he'll try to keep them focused on the X's and O's.
Jagodzinski says the media will make more of this than the players and coaching staffs do. That might be true once the whistle blows Saturday and it becomes two ACC teams squaring off in a game both desperately need to win.
The Eagles are favored and should be. They are the better team.
But one longtime friend of O'Brien pointed out something that happened in O'Brien's first season at BC.
"BC lost to Temple in the opening game," said the friend, "and then they came back the next week and upset West Virginia."
Just what North Carolina State does remains to be seen, but O'Brien will have the Wolfpack ready to play. And then he will move on to his next challenge.
Mark Blaudschun can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.