April 8, 2008
RALEIGH For all of the impressive things coach Tom O'Brien has done since taking over the N.C. State football program, there is one area where he is not on the level of Chuck Amato: public relations.
Forget for a second the gaffes Amato made during his final months. Remember how Akron had an advantage because it could take non-qualifiers?
When he was building the State program, Amato was a master salesman. Looking back, it's easy for critics to prick pins in all the hype and bluster. But in the early years, it wasn't just Philip Rivers. Amato made N.C. State football relevant, part of the public discourse on basketball-crazy Tobacco Road.
O'Brien may well do that on the field. But before then, there has to be a sales job. Clearly, O'Brien's sales pitch is working with the most important audience recruits. But what about everyone else?
Consider his approach to spring football. O'Brien was available on the first day of practice and then nothing, until a scrimmage on April 5. During a time when nothing was going on with State basketball, in fact when Wolfpack fans would have dearly loved something anything to take their minds off basketball, there was silence from the State practice fields.
How much does this really matter in the grand scheme of things? Perhaps not much, if O'Brien gets results on the field.
But State has a spring game coming up, and with so little self-promotion being done, attendance may suffer as a result. Perhaps nothing is more important in a spring game than the attendance figure. It sends a message out about how much football matters at your school, how much people care. That message often resonates with recruits. Look at the class Nick Saban hauled in at Alabama after the Crimson Tide sold out its spring game in spectacular fashion.
While the N.C. State media relations department always has paled in comparison to the well-oiled PR machines at archrival UNC and elsewhere, this one falls more on the shoulders of O'Brien.
UNC's Butch Davis was much more available during his team's spring drills, although it was doubtful that many UNC fans were really paying attention during the NCAA Tournament.
State can do only so much hyping if the people at the top of the program are keeping it locked down. It's been difficult for even the school-friendly fan websites to put out much information about what's going on during State's spring football, because O'Brien has clamped down so much.
Given that O'Brien usually thinks of every available edge he can get in the recruiting game, this move is a bit puzzling. If State's spring game attendance is paltry, maybe he'll plot a different course in the future.
DEPTH CHART RAISES QUESTIONS
Given that O'Brien isn't keen on much publicity, it should come as no surprise that what he has made public isn't very helpful.
Consider the depth chart or, as O'Brien calls it, the "organizational chart," apparently because a depth chart implies too much certainty that was released at the beginning of spring practice. Let the rolling of the eyes begin.
Former backup safety Robbie Leonard, who is a fifth-year senior and has never been more than a special teams player, is now a first-string outside linebacker? Former walk-on wide receiver Koyal George is a second-string cornerback? Really?
Granted, there are depth issues for State right now, until the vast majority of the 2008 recruiting class reports in the summer. But it's also the standard operating procedure for O'Brien.
One, when in doubt, put an upperclassman at the top of the depth chart.
Two, send messages to players through their initial spots on the depth chart.
Three, avoid as much hype as possible through the depth chart.
Thus, you have the case of redshirt freshman quarterback Russell Wilson.
The Sports Journal told you previously that the State staff was enamored with Wilson's performance on the scout team last fall. But Wilson, the youngest of the Wolfpack's three quarterbacks (rising senior Daniel Evans is missing the spring with a shoulder injury), is listed as No. 3 on the depth chart.
The few reports that have leaked out of State's spring practice indicate that Wilson is spending significant time with the first string, but don't expect O'Brien to elaborate on that. The only information that came out of the Wolfpack's first spring scrimmage was that all three quarterbacks saw equal time under center during the 100 snaps.
Perhaps O'Brien doesn't want Wilson thinking he's earned anything yet. Perhaps he wants to quiet the Jamie Barnette comparisons that are floating around the messageboards.
Whatever the motivation, O'Brien can't keep it a secret for too long. Wilson might very well play with the third string in the spring game, but if he's the best quarterback State has, O'Brien would do well to make that clear before fall practice begins.
TARGET MENTIONS LOWE'S STATUS
Just when you think the current state of Wolfpack basketball can't get any stranger, along comes this tidbit from star point guard recruit John Wall. In an interview with the Raleigh News & Observer, Wall said he'd been hearing that coach Sidney Lowe likely would be fired if Wall didn't sign with State.
"I don't want him to lose his job," Wall said. "But don't put that pressure on me."
First, it's not a ridiculous notion. Unless incoming freshman Julius Mays exceeds expectations right away, State likely will have point guard issues again next year. If Wall (a rising prep senior) doesn't sign with the Pack, then State may very well still be in need of a point guard in Lowe's fourth season. Given the importance of a point guard to Lowe's offense, that could spell trouble.
The most intriguing question Wall's revelation posed was, who exactly told Wall this? It certainly wasn't the N.C. State coaching staff.
The immediate thought would be negative recruiting from rival schools. If so, it's a strange way to do it. Typically, the message would be, "You know Lowe's not going to be around much longer," instead of, "You know if you don't sign with Lowe, he'll be fired."
Rather, it sounds like something an over-involved fan of the Wolfpack might tell Wall, in an attempt to persuade the Raleigh product to stay close to home i.e., "You've got to sign with State or else Coach Lowe will be fired!"
If it is State fans who are telling Wall this, they'd be wise to stop. He made it clear that it's having the opposite effect of the one Pack fans would want.