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First O'brien Season A Covert Operation

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

September 11, 2007

RALEIGH – It would have been laughable, if you didn't know the context.

On a message board at a popular N.C. State fan site, a poster started a thread with this question: Is it possible that coach Tom O'Brien was putting out false stats from the Wolfpack's preseason scrimmage games?

The post was likely grounded in the hope that maybe, just maybe, State's quarterbacks hadn't looked as bad as their preseason stats suggested. But it also said something about the credibility erosion O'Brien already has suffered just a few months into his new job.

It's ironic, really. Ask anyone about what makes O'Brien an effective recruiter, or why he's good at running a disciplined program, and "honesty" is one of the first words that is brought up. While O'Brien might not have a ton of charm, he makes up for it by letting people know where they stand and then backing up his words with actions.

Unless, it appears, he's dealing with the press and the topic is injuries.

The apparent split in O'Brien's personality, previously discussed by media members who followed him at Boston College, first occurred during his N.C. State tenure at the ACC media days this summer.

At the time, rumors were rampant that star tight end Anthony Hill had suffered a serious knee injury. As soon as O'Brien sat down for his session with print reporters, he was asked if there was an update on Hill's status. No, was the reply. Then O'Brien was asked specifically if Hill was injured. "No" was again the reply. According to O'Brien, redshirt freshman tight end Rashad Phillips was the only Wolfpack player expected to miss the start of training camp.

Two days later, State issued a release stating that Hill had torn his ACL a few weeks earlier and was lost for the season.

There was a plausible explanation for this. Though Hill had twisted his knee earlier, by the time the preseason media day was held, he was walking around normally and wasn't sure if anything major had happened. The damage to his ACL wasn't discovered until an exploratory procedure that Wednesday.

Still, why not say, "Anthony twisted his knee a few weeks ago, and we're still waiting to find out if it's serious or not," when asked if Hill was injured? Or, heck, why not just a "no comment" reply?

O'Brien showed more curious judgment during preseason practice. When a reporter spotted quarterback Daniel Evans walking around with a wrap on his throwing shoulder, he asked O'Brien about it.

"I know he's got it on," O'Brien said, "but I don't know why he's wearing it."

Then, perhaps realizing how preposterous that sounded – the head coach not knowing why his quarterback was walking around with the shoulder of his throwing arm wrapped? – or that he was on the verge of another lie, O'Brien offered a more forthright non-answer.

"I do (know)," O'Brien said, "but I'm not going to answer your question."

Fair enough.

By the time the season rolled around, a theme had developed. On Monday before the Central Florida game, defensive tackle DeMario Pressley was listed as questionable because of an injured elbow. But on the accompanying depth chart, Pressley was nowhere to be found. Why, O'Brien was asked, the discrepancy?

"Right now, I think he's out," O'Brien said. "He thinks he might have a chance to play. So he's questionable. So we'll see."

By Friday, Pressley had been upgraded to probable. By Saturday, he was in for 38 snaps against Central Florida.

Did Pressley make an ultra-quick recovery? Was O'Brien just wrong in his initial assessment? Or was the coach deliberately overselling the injury of one of his most valuable defensive players?

Actually, the most pressing question is this one: Why does O'Brien feel the need to use such subterfuge when it comes to injuries?

One theory was that O'Brien simply was trying his best to keep Central Florida coach George O'Leary from deciphering what was really going on in Raleigh in the days leading up to the season-opening game. Another was that O'Brien, after playing fifth or sixth fiddle in media coverage in pro-centric Boston, simply is unaccustomed to the attention that each of his public pronouncements gets in college-crazy North Carolina.


The most plausible explanation is that it's a bit of O'Brien's military (he's a Navy graduate and a former Marine) and football backgrounds springing forth.

O'Brien obviously feels that information about the health of his players should be given out only on a need-to-know basis, and that the media doesn't need to know. Heck, in the preseason, he repeatedly avoided all detailed answers about players, beyond praising his (obviously) deep tailback rotation.

Those philosophies would work well at the Pentagon, or with former Virginia coach George Welsh and current New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, two men O'Brien has mentioned as important football influences. Common rule of thumb: The less information you share, the better.

In the past at N.C. State, reporters had come down on the field to talk to coaches and players after closed preseason scrimmages. This season they were told to wait at the Murphy Football Center instead. Presumably, that would lessen their chances of spotting an injured player limping off the field.

Of course, it's one thing to guard information, and it's another thing to put out misinformation. That, too, could be a military thing. Consider this explanation from a poster on that same thread about scrimmage stats.

"Misleading the enemy is not the same as lying to your family, friends, employer, etc. It is not a moral issue."

In other words, if O'Brien has to tell a white lie to serve the purpose of his mission – having his team more prepared than its opponent – then so be it.

That's just fine with State fans right now. During the honeymoon period that O'Brien currently is enjoying, his vague, misleading or even dishonest comments on injuries will be seen by many as sound strategy.

But it also should be remembered that when O'Brien's predecessor, Chuck Amato, clashed with the press, it initially was seen by most fans as feistiness on Amato's part, and it was considered a good thing. Eventually, when things went south for Amato, his combativeness was seen as an arrogant refusal to admit that things needed to change.

In the same way, it's not a big deal that Wolfpack fans or media members might not believe O'Brien's injury announcements right now.

But if State's struggles continue, after ugly defeats against Central Florida and Boston College to begin his tenure in Raleigh, they also might not believe him as he tries to convince them that things will get better under his regime.