The Coaching Search: Tom O’Brien

Written July 8th, 2011 by Eric

We’ve gone through a few names in our coaching search here at the BBC.  Now it’s time for another name that’s flying under the radar a bit.  Of course, by under the radar, I mean that he’s not being mentioned at all.  That doesn’t mean he can’t still be a legitimate name for the job.

Special thanks to a friend of the BBC who recommended this feature on O’Brien.

Tom O'Brien has a bright future at NC State

Most of you are probably looking at the title of this post and saying to yourself “who?”.  Well, that’s probably your own fault because a few year’s ago O’Brien was one of the top names in college football.  You may most clearly remember him as the guy who jumped ship from successful ACC member Boston College to full-meltdown-mode ACC member NC State.

Oh…That guy!

Tom O’Brien was born in the great state of Ohio, in the city generally forgotten by the rest of the state – Cincinnati.  He attended High School at St. Xavier, playing at Defensive End.

He matriculated from the Naval Academy in 1970 after 5 years.  While there he played ball for the Middies for all 5 seasons (I believe he took a redshirt, though I can’t prove it), including his final 3 as a defensive starter.  Unfortunately, Navy was terrible at that time, going overall 5-26 while O’Brien was a starter.  The defense also gave up more than 300 points per season while their offense struggled to break 100.

After his playing days at Navy, O’Brien began his service to the US Marine Corps which lasted a total of 9 years.  By the end, he had attained the rank of Major while serving at Quantico and in tours in California and Japan.  During that time, O’Brien was able to begin his coaching career, starting out as an assistant with the Navy’s plebe team.

In 1975 he was hired as an assistant for the Navy’s Varsity team under George Welsh.  He started out coaching the offensive line and tight ends for seven years for the Middies.  During that time, Navy found some success with 5 winning seasons and 5 wins over Army (and 1 tie) along with 3 bowl games.  You may remember his last bowl game with Navy in 1981, a 31-28 loss in the Liberty Bowl to one Ohio State.

After that season, George Welsh moved to the University of Virginia.  UVA had suffered 12 losing seasons since 1968 at that point and were desperate for a switch.  After a 1-10 season in 1981, they brought in Welsh to turn things around.  Welsh dragged O’Brien with him to continue in the role of offensive line coach.  The following season, Virginia went 2-9 including losses to James Madison and Navy.

But things turned around quickly.  The following year Virginia succeeded in producing a winning season, only their second since 1968.  The following year was even better, despite an opening 55-0 loss to eventual 7-4 Clemson, Virginia rattled off an 8-2-2 season.  That year saw the Cavaliers make their first bowl game, the Peach Bowl to face the Purdue Boilermakers – a game they won 27-24.

O’Brien eventually became the Offensive Coordinator for Welsh in 1991, a position he held for 6 years.  During the course of his 15 year run at Virginia, the Cavaliers posted 10 winning seasons and a share of 2 conference titles and Virginia’s first 9 bowl games.  They ended up going 4-5 in those bowls.

In 1996, Boston College – coming off two consecutive losing seasons – began a staff  search that ended in O’Brien’s first job at a head coaching position.  His first two seasons were not markedly fantastic successes, with Boston College managing to only go 4-7 in both seasons, including 3-4 in the Big East.  His career really began to get off the ground in his third season, posting a winning record and an invite to the Insight Bowl.  Unfortunately, his team got crushed by Colorado 62-28.

It certainly wasn’t a sign of things to come though.  Over the next seven seasons at Boston College, O’Brien lead them to seven bowl invites, though none was a BCS bowl.  All seven bowl games were victories for the Eagles, though the last of the seven was not coached by O’Brien himself.  O’Brien had already moved on to another job – replacing Chuck Amato at NC State.

After a couple disappointing seasons with the Wolfpack, a 3-9 record in 2006 was simply not enough to maintain Amato’s job.  He was dispatched and a coaching search was quickly begun before the 2006 bowl season.  To the surprise of many, O’Brien – widely considered an excellent head coach on the path to success at Boston College – accepted the job.

This moved was viewed at best as a sideways career move.  He remained in the same conference, though accepted a team on the decline.  He had no obvious connections to NC State, and generally had everything to play for at BC.

One suspected reason for O’Brien’s switch was the lack of fan support in Boston, a city dominated by it’s professional sports teams.  Boston College had been regularly passed over for more prestigious bowl bids due to the travel base of the school.  That apparently didn’t sit well with the hard working O’Brien, who wanted his team’s rewarded for their efforts.

His first three years at NC State were rocky at best.  2007 and 2009 ended in losing seasons for the Wolfpack, though 2008 did see them make a bowl game – O’Brien’s first bowl game loss since 1999.  This last season was much more spectacular as the Wolfpack picked up a 9 win season, including a crushing victory over West Virginia in the Champs Sports Bowl.  Clearly things are on the up.

Except for his star quarterback.  There’s been a lot of smoke and mirrors regarding the transfer of Russell Wilson to Wisconsin.  Wilson was widely viewed as one of the best quarterbacks in the ACC, if not the best quarterback, and just missed being named the ACC offensive player of the year.  It is believed in some circles that O’Brien was unhappy with Wilson’s desire to play baseball, believing that Wilson wasn’t putting enough time into his football commitment.

One way or another, many believe that O’Brien made a serious error in this situation.  Either way, O’Brien will have junior quarterback Mike Glennon, the #3 rated quarterback in the 2008 recruiting class, leading the way this year.

I will save my usual analysis of O’Brien’s chances for the bullet points at the end.  I won’t lie, he’s a successful coach and has some very endearing qualities to him, though he doesn’t have quite the shine that many Buckeye fans might expect.

Playing Career

Defensive End, US Naval Academy, (1966-1970)


  • Offensive Line/Tight Ends Coach: Navy 1975-1981
  • Offensive Line Coach: Virginia 1982-1990
  • Offensive Coordinator: Virginia 1991-1996
  • Head Coach: Boston College 1997-2006
  • Head Coach: North Carolina State 2007-present

Why O’Brien could be the next coach of the Buckeyes:

  • He’s been raised in Ohio, and has at least experienced something of the Ohio State/Michigan football rivalry.
  • His experiences in the Marines, along with his extensive career, give him a wide variety of things to teach young players – not just football related.
  • His teams at Boston College regularly topped the charts of the graduation rates, including a 100% graduation rate in 2004.
  • He has plentiful coaching experience spanning more than three decades, including a decade and a half of Division 1 head coaching experience at BCS conference schools.
  • He has demonstrated a consistent winning philosophy.  While not 100% successful (no undefeated seasons or BCS bowl invites) that could be more a measure of the schools he was at than his coaching ability by itself.
  • His streak of 6 straight bowl wins (seven straight, since he set BC up to win the last one) is extraordinarily impressive.  Few college coaches have been able to achieve records like that in bowl games.
  • He seems interested in coaching at a school with a loyal fanbase with a strong travel record.  Ohio State more than exceeds those requirements.
  • He has defeated NC State’s chief rival – North Carolina – all 4 seasons as a head coach, despite North Carolina’s success the last several seasons.

Why O’Brien wont be the next coach of the Buckeyes:

  • He has absolutely no personal experience with, nor passion for, the Ohio State/Michigan rivalry.  He’s never been a coach, nor a player, at either of those programs.
  • He went 1-1 against Michigan as a player, and 0-3 as an assistant coach at Navy.
  • In his last 4 seasons at NC State he’s gone only 25-25.  His career at Boston College ended at 75-45 overall.  While those are good records for a coach, they’re not as good as OSU fans might expect for a future coach, especially from a Big East/ACC coach.
  • He has never played or coached for a National Championship, nor has he ever coached a team to a BCS bowl (or postseason playoff for the sub-Division 1 coaches).
  • While he’s not old, he’s certainly getting up there in age.  It seems like the Buckeyes would prefer a coach who’s under the age of 60 (possibly even under 50).  They’re looking for a long term guy, not someone who might be interested in retiring in the near future.


  1. SteveNo Gravatar
    July 8th, 2011 at 11:32 pm

    O’Brien — pretty darn good coach, and a great guy


    EricNo Gravatar
    July 9th, 2011 at 12:10 am

    He’s pretty solid. I remember being very surprised at his switch from Boston College, though at the time I didn’t realize he had issues with the BC fanbase.

    Admittedly, I very much doubt he’ll end up at Ohio State, but he has enough nice qualities that I wouldn’t hate it if he did.

    Unfortunately, I think he would end up being the next “9-3 Earle”, and I don’t think there’s a Buckeye fan who would be big on living through that era again.


  2. TruthBKnown ReturnsNo Gravatar
    July 12th, 2011 at 11:26 am

    TOB is a good man and a solid coach. I hope he stays here with my Wolfpack. If you want a disciplinarian, and a coach that will run a clean program, TOB is your man. But leave him where he is, please!

    When he arrived at NC State, there was talk that he would probably retire within about 10 years, and did we really want a guy we’d likely have to replace so soon. That was four years ago, so tOSU would have to ask themselves that same question now.

    I have to wonder would he want yet another rebuilding job (even at tOSU). Because he would most likely use his foot to introduce many of your current players to the curb. He did the same at NC State. He’s on the verge of seeing the fruits of his rebuilding efforts. Even with depleted rosters in his early years, the reason for many of our losses was the LARGE number of injuries, some to key players like QB. I believe if the injury count had been kept lower, we’d have been to bowls probably all four years. (All we’d have needed was one more win to get to six wins anyway…) And last year, with more depth, and few injuries, TOB’s program had a good year, winning nine games.

    Maybe I should be tearing him down to help convince you to look elsewhere. But I really couldn’t be more pleased with TOB’s work at NC State. I just hope he stays until he decides to retire.


    EricNo Gravatar
    July 13th, 2011 at 12:02 am

    Thanks for joining us and sharing your thoughts TBK!

    To be honest, I don’t think you have anything to worry about. As you point out, O’Brien is definitely nearing the end of his career and seems to be quite happy with what he’s built at NC State – not to mention the fan support you guys are clearly giving him!

    Best of luck this upcoming season. I suspect Glennon is going to do a fantastic job for you guys and give you a lot to root for.


  3. geneNo Gravatar
    July 13th, 2011 at 8:40 pm

    “I didn’t realize he had issues with the BC fanbase.”

    BC fans also had issues with him. BC fans want to get to the “next level” of D-1 schools and do better than 8-3 or 9-2 seasons. They wanted conference titles and BCS bowl invitations.

    He couldn’t get them over the hump. He choked in big games and his OC Dana Bible was very predictable and vanilla in play calling, which the fans surmised led to the losses.


  4. JimNo Gravatar
    July 22nd, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    Another often overlooked reason why TOB may have left BC is the AD, Gene DeFilipo. This is the same AD that fired TOB’s replacement for interviewing for a NFL job. Can only imagine it isn’t a fun work environment to have that type of guy second guessing every decision you make.

    Also, on Russell Wilson (RW), TOB had a choice: take RW for one year or Glennon for two. Glennon is a RS Junior and graduated this spring. He would have transferred if RW were the starting QB again this year. No one seems to be mentioning that and helps put TOB’s decision in context.


    EricNo Gravatar
    July 22nd, 2011 at 12:34 pm

    That’s a great point about the Russell Wilson decision. Thanks for sharing that with us Jim.


  5. SeanNo Gravatar
    July 28th, 2011 at 11:02 am

    FYI on TO’s lateral move. NC State’s program was indeed in disarray when he took over the job, however the facilities and fan base were better than BC, and the school was dedicated to putting a winning program together. Those things came together to make for an attractive destination I believe (and the weather is better). Also NC State was only a couple years removed from being a top 10 team (River’s Snr Season, although they didn’t finish that high) and a season where they had the #1 defense in the country (year with Mario williams), so the school probably shouldn’t have been considered to be the complete laughing stock they were thought of as toward the end of Amato’s reign.


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