July 31, 2007
RALEIGH Coach Tom O'Brien, receiver Darrell Blackman and defensive tackle DeMario Pressley represented N.C. State at the annual ACC Kickoff media outing in Pinehurst, N.C.
Blackman and Pressley were flooded with questions about O'Brien and how his style compared to that of Chuck Amato, who was fired after State went 3-9 in 2006 and finished the season on a six-game losing streak.
The players were recruited by Amato and were loyal to Amato, and throughout the media session they were careful not to say anything disrespectful about their former coach.
But some of their comments, as well-intended as they were, still spoke volumes about why it had become imperative for athletic director Lee Fowler to make the change and head in a different direction by hiring O'Brien.
Perhaps nothing the players said was earth-shattering, but some of their words reinforced what most had come to perceive that the program was spiraling downward on and off the field, and that Amato's style and priorities were a big reason for it.
"The transition with the coaches wasn't really that hard," Blackman said. "We just went from a coach that emphasized finishing and practicing fast and using different types of words like practice fast and finish hard, to now it's a coach who emphasizes things like technique, and try to instill his guys on working hard. We're working on technique and things like that that help us get things down pat. There's a lot of learning going on."
Sounds like substance over style, with an emphasis on starting with the basics, with O'Brien. Sounds like that never was the case with Amato.
One of Blackman's more innocent comments came when he was asked how and why State fell to such depths after Amato had built the program up during the Philip Rivers era.
Blackman committed to State originally in 2003, when State had gone 11-3 the previous season. He wound up going to prep school for a year to get his grades in order, and State went 8-5 that year. But that dipped to 5-6 in Blackman's freshman year, and State has gone 15-19 over the past three seasons.
"I really don't know how to explain what went wrong and what happened, but I think things just ran a little short, and I think it was just time for a change," Blackman said. "The offense we did with a quarterback like Philip Rivers, who could go back and read everything just like that, because he basically knew the offense better than the coaches, and they didn't really have to coach and teach him anything because he knew what was going on. He knew where the receivers were going to be and how to read the defense.
"We tried to run that same system with quarterbacks that were more running quarterbacks like Marcus Stone back there and things like that, and he was trying to get out in the open field, and we were still in the Philip Rivers era trying to sit back there. We needed to change the offense to move the ball like we wanted to. But that was just not meant to be."
It's really telling when a player says that a quarterback knew the offense better than the coaches, especially since Rivers was tutored by Norm Chow as a freshman and then a long succession of offensive coordinators followed. And it's really telling that Blackman, at least, felt that the following staffs never adjusted properly to the talent they had recruited.
Pressley had similar comments, starting with his recollections of the first team meeting that O'Brien held after he was named coach. It wasn't anything close to the team meetings the Wolfpack had under Amato.
"Coach Amato was more of a rah-rah type coach," Pressley said. "Coach O'Brien is quiet, like he just wants you to get the job done. We noticed that during the first meeting, the day he was hired. He was just so quiet. The meeting was like at three, and we all came in 2:55, 2:58, and he was there waiting on us, like we were late or something. That's how he is.
"Obviously, he's punctual, and that's how he wants us to be. He wants us to be more responsible, first for our life after football. I mean, you just look at him. His back is straight, he stands tall. When he talks to you, he looks right at you and he means business. I mean, it's there. The presence, it's there.
"That first meeting, he came in and he didn't say much. He said, We're going to win games, I'm not going to take all that crap, and you better go to class.' And we all said, Oh my God.' It's like, he has come in and given us a new aspect. It's like, OK, we can't let this guy down. We don't have any time for crap, because he will not play that game."
The game O'Brien will play, Pressley said, is about eliminating mistakes and taking pride but not getting down when mistakes happen. Apparently, not all of that happened, at least not in that order, under Amato.
"Coach O'Brien is really trying to get us to get rid of all the mental mistakes and just learn how to play football without getting down on yourself," Pressley said. "Plus, he gives us the motto that we are letting more than just him down if we mess up, we're letting the whole team down.
"Coach Amato, he would run you into the ground. Coach O'Brien, he can still run you into the ground, but he lets you know you just let your teammates down. He's more about that."
BASKETBALL: SUMMER LOWE-DOWN
Basketball coach Sidney Lowe held his mid-summer basketball press conference and talked at length about how pleased he was with the depth and versatility he will have in replacing departed Engin Atsur at point guard.
That's obviously the big question mark for the team entering next season. With transfers Farnold Degand and Marques Johnson, plus freshman Javier Gonzalez, Lowe feels that he has the combination of size (Johnson), speed (Degand) and true point guard skills (Gonzalez) to get by reasonably well, knowing that all three players will improve with experience.
But Lowe intimated that he already is preparing for the possibility that incoming freshman center J.J. Hickson could be NBA-bound early if he continues to progress at a rapid pace.
"He has the skills right now," Lowe said, "that NBA players at various stages don't have."
And what does Lowe like most about Hickson?
"His work ethic," Lowe said. "His work ethic. This young man, he goes at it. He's skilled. Face-up shooter, good footwork, and he hates to lose. You'll enjoy him. He's got a focus about him that's just not like anything you see in a freshman. He's serious about his game."