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Top 10 List: Why O'brien Left Boston College

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

By David Glen

January 9, 2007

In some ways, college football coaches are different from most college football fans. The coaches' paychecks are bigger, usually much bigger. They typically have agents and financial analysts and other advisors at their disposal. Their career transitions are made in the public eye and draw lots of headlines.

In other ways, those same coaches are just like everyone else. Most will listen to someone who's offering significantly more money, but they probably won't uproot their families for a lateral move or a small raise. They think about their children, and they ask their wives for input. (A favorite saying in the South: "If momma ain't happy, ain't nobody happy.") Like most others, they also take into consideration benefits, timing, work environment, lifestyle, geography, even weather.

New N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien, the winningest coach in the history of Boston College football, addressed some of those factors during his first two press conferences in Raleigh. Here's a longer list, including some things that probably would be considered inappropriate for the coach to include in his public comments.

1. Money. The average Division I-A head football coach made about $950,000 last year, excluding bonuses. In the six BCS conferences, that number jumped to $1.4 million.

Boston College paid O'Brien $733,626, far below market value for a major conference coach with eight straight winning seasons. The actual compensation number, bolstered by private money from BC trustee Greg Barber, was around $1 million per year.

That put O'Brien in the same neighborhood as Georgia Tech's Chan Gailey ($1,009,191), N.C. State's Chuck Amato ($995,000) and Wake Forest's Jim Grobe ($987,843), whose accomplishments at their schools prior to 2006 paled in comparison to those of O'Brien at BC. The only two ACC head coaches who made significantly less money than O'Brien last year were North Carolina's John Bunting ($650,000) and Duke's Ted Roof (estimated $500,000).

At N.C. State, O'Brien landed a seven-year deal worth at least $1.15 million — and, with various incentives, as much as $1.8 million — per year.

The coach will earn an extra $100,000 if he leads the Wolfpack to the ACC championship game. Winning the conference title, or reaching a Bowl Championship Series game via an at-large bid, will earn him another $200,000. There also are incentives for non-BCS bowls ($50,000), top-20 finishes (ranging from $200,000 for the top five to $50,000 for the top 20), 6-2 or better ACC records ($50,000 for each conference victory over five in a single season), and 55 percent or better graduation rates ($50,000).

"Both sides were excited about the idea of aiming high and structuring the contract that way," N.C. State athletic director Lee Fowler said. "The base is very competitive in today's market, and if we do really well in a particular year, (O'Brien) is going to paid really well, too."

The bottom line is that State offered O'Brien a raise of 15-80 percent, and the financial difference is even greater when the cost-of-living factor (Boston versus Raleigh) is taken into consideration. It won't take anything special for the coach to earn $1.25 million per year in Raleigh, or 25 percent more than he made at the end of his deal in Beantown. That kind of money and upgrade will get most folks' attention, in all walks of life.

2. Work Environment. Everyone likes to be appreciated, and that was not always the case for O'Brien at Boston College, despite his impressive 10-year track record (75-45, eight straight bowls, six straight postseason victories, consistently great graduation rates, etc.) with the Eagles.

"Someone wanted him gone," Barber told the Boston Globe. "I'd have to say that BC, somewhere in the administration, someone was ambivalent about whether he stayed or whether he left. They made no effort to extend his contract. They made no effort to change his compensation, and that was supposed to come after the season? Now it's too late."

A significant segment of the BC fan base, apparently believing that O'Brien had taken the program as far as he could take it, cheered when he left for State. More importantly, according to numerous sources, some in the BC administration had upset O'Brien by asking him why he couldn't "win the big game," a reference to the Eagles' crushing, late-season losses over the last three seasons — Syracuse in 2004, North Carolina in 2005, Wake Forest in 2006 — that prevented them from landing a BCS bid (2004), an ACC championship (2005) and an invitation to the league title game (2006).

"It's one thing to hear (criticism) from the fans. That comes with the territory, at every school," a source close to O'Brien said. "When you start hearing the same thing — why can't you win the big one? — from your own bosses, who should know better, you really start to wonder if you're at the right place. I can't speak for Tom, but my impression is that was a huge factor."

O'Brien believed that his track record, which included an average of almost nine wins over the last five seasons, an unquestioned respect for BC's genuine commitment to academics, and a strong tradition of developing disciplined, high-character players, deserved more respect.

"A lot of people asked why the ACC office didn't get involved here, because there hadn't been (a direct, in-conference move by a football coach in 50 years), and that kind of thing is generally frowned upon," one ACC athletic director said. "The reality is, there was no reason for the ACC office to get involved. When nobody is complaining, there's no reason to get involved.

"Boston College, for whatever reason, was happy with the change and a chance to start over under a new coach. N.C. State was happy to find a proven, established head coach. And Tom O'Brien ultimately made the decision to leave, so he's obviously happy. When everybody's happy, there's no need to interfere."

The athletic director added that, even if the conference had wanted to get involved in the O'Brien situation, it would have been only in the form of behind-the-scenes pressure, not in the enforcement of any official or unofficial rules. In fact, according to most legal experts, any attempt to enforce a unilateral, league-sponsored ban on in-conference coaching moves would be considered a major violation of federal antitrust legislation.

3. Fan Base/Stadium. This was one topic O'Brien could safely address at his press conference. In fact, he brought up the subject himself, in response to a general question about whether or not his jump from BC to State could be considered a "lateral move" in the college football world.

As a rule of thumb, large state universities such as N.C. State have more alumni and thus more populous fan bases than small, private schools such as Boston College.

When the Eagles have a home sellout in football, 44,500 people fill Alumni Stadium. Against Buffalo this fall, in a nasty storm, only 14,682 showed up. Even during a 3-9 season, Wolfpack fans mostly filled Carter-Finley Stadium, with crowds ranging from roughly 54,000 to 58,000 at seven home games, whether the opponent was Akron or Florida State.

The N.C. State fans also have made a lot of noise in recent years, sometimes even approaching a level normally the domain of traditional football powers such as Clemson, Florida State and Virginia Tech.

"Just to walk into (Carter-Finley Stadium), and the enthusiasm in the stadium here, is incredible," O'Brien said. "I've taken teams to State College and beaten Penn State there in front of 100,000 people. I've taken a team to Notre Dame when they were No. 4 in the country and came out in the green jerseys. The excitement that fateful night I was here in September (for the BC-NCSU game) was as good as any place I've ever been."

4. Academic Flexibility. Honest coaches will tell you: Generally speaking, higher academic standards make it harder to win, and lower academic standards make it easier to win.

According to research by the ACC Sports Journal / ACCSports.com, Duke, Boston College, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech had by far the most difficult admissions standards for football prospects in recent years among the 12 ACC schools.

N.C. State, meanwhile, repeatedly ranked in the bottom third of the conference under Chuck Amato, whose Florida State-inspired blueprint did not place a high priority on academics. Throughout Amato's tenure in Raleigh, the same Wolfpack sources who often boasted about basketball coach Herb Sendek's sincere commitment to academics repeatedly declined comment when asked about the same topic on the football side.

O'Brien isn't expected to ask the Wolfpack for the same level of academic flexibility, but he certainly will face fewer restrictions than he did at BC. This is only one factor (just look at Wake and Georgia Tech this season) in program-building, obviously, but it's an important factor.

5. Recruiting Base. The Sports Journal has written many times about the bad demographics involved with trying to build a successful Division I-A football program in North Carolina, but the problem is even worse in the greater New England area that surrounds Boston.

On average, the six-state region of Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont — taken as a whole — doesn't produce as many Division I-A football signees as North Carolina does by itself.

"I want to start in North Carolina," O'Brien said. "I think that's most important, that we start at home and then work our way from Raleigh north, south, east and west as best we can. That will be the priority, and then we will work our way north and work our way south. We are not going to drive past a kid in North Carolina just because there is a kid out in Tennessee or somewhere."

Players, parents and coaches often talk about a six-hour driving radius around a college campus, because a very high percentage of football prospects want to stay close enough to home that their family and friends can travel to see them play, and that radius doesn't do Boston College any favors. The school has the Atlantic Ocean to the east, and mostly Maine and Canada to the north. Parts of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, two excellent football states, are within reach for the Eagles, but overall it's not a strong, built-in recruiting base, which is one reason why BC typically has attempted to recruit nationally.

A six-hour driving radius around the N.C. State campus includes all of North Carolina (which produces about 60 Division I-A signees per year); all of Virginia (50 per year, excluding two major prep schools), including the talent-rich Tidewater area; the entire Maryland-D.C. region (40 per year); all of South Carolina (40 per year); and parts of gridiron-crazy Georgia (150 per year), a state that ranks a solid fourth nationally in average I-A signees, behind only California, Texas and Florida.

There are more out-of-state poachers in the Mid-Atlantic than there are in the Northeast, but far more quality players are there for the taking.

6. Postseason Respect. One of the biggest complaints about O'Brien among Boston College fans was that he didn't take the Eagles to any big bowl games, which is sort of like Billy Joel blaming Christie Brinkley whenever the pair failed to win the Most Beautiful Couple award.

News flash: The identity of your coach has almost nothing to do with your bowl slot. First, you have to win games, which O'Brien certainly did at BC, with records of 9-4, 8-5, 9-3, 9-3 and 9-3 over the past five seasons. Then, you need to convince bowl officials that you'll (a) bring a lot of your school's fans to the game, (b) inspire others to purchase tickets and sponsorships, and/or (c) provide an entertaining product for television. Factor (a) is the most important of these latter three, by far.

To put it bluntly, the Eagles' mediocre bowl invitations — Insight, Aloha, Music City, Motor City, San Francisco, Continental Tire, MPC Computers and Meineke Car Care — under O'Brien had far more to do with the BC fan base than they did with his teams' on-field performances. At N.C. State, if O'Brien goes 9-3, he won't be going to Boise, and he knows it.

7. Circus/Shark Factor. NFL coaching legend Bill Walsh used to tell his disciples never to stay in the same place for more than 10 years. Why? Because relationships grow stale. Because, when the coach remains the same, most fans eventually will begin to criticize the same exact accomplishments they celebrated in the early years.

That's what happened to O'Brien at Boston College from 1997-2006.

Some college coaches call this the "circus factor." Why does the circus move from town to town, rather than staying in one place? Because when you keep moving, you can be a novelty week after week, year after year, and it will take much longer for people to grow tired of your act. Put another way: Like some sharks, if you stop moving for too long, you'll probably end up dead.

"I think 10 years is a pretty good amount of time," O'Brien said. "I don't know how many guys have been head coaches for 10 years and are still there. I mean, you can name (Bobby) Bowden, (Joe) Paterno and (Frank) Beamer. I know when I was hired, there were 21 jobs open that year, and only three guys are left. That is Pat Hill (Fresno State), Joe Tiller (Purdue) and Glen Mason (recently fired at Minnesota). I would have been the (third) guy going into the 11th year."

O'Brien also told the story of the first time he interviewed for a head coaching job, after the 1989 season, when he was in the midst of his 15-year tenure (1982-96) as an assistant under George Welsh at Virginia. O'Brien said he remembers speaking with Maine athletic director Kevin White (now at Notre Dame) as well as university president Dale Lick, who presented an interesting view of the nature of education — and perhaps athletics, too.

"The president said, I think one of the rules of thumb of education is that it takes five years to implement your program, but you shouldn't stay longer than 10 because then it is time for a change to bring somebody else in," O'Brien said. "It had more to do with the tenure at the same spot. If I was going to make a move (from BC), it was going to happen sooner rather than later, and when this opportunity arose, it seemed like a perfect fit for me to do it."

8. Timing. At 58 years old, in a profession where few college coaches work into their 70s, O'Brien said he was looking for one more challenge.

"Timing," O'Brien said, "is everything."

He looked seriously at the Georgia Tech job (Chan Gailey) after the 2001 season, and at Washington (Ty Willingham) after the 2004 season, and he inquired about the North Carolina vacancy (Butch Davis) in November. All three schools had O'Brien on their short lists but ultimately went in other directions.

When the N.C. State opportunity came along, O'Brien had the additional advantage of an empty nest, and thus none of the complications associated with pulling children out of school or moving an extended family. His son Daniel and daughter Bridget both graduated from Boston College in 2005.

"If I was going to ever make a move, it was going to have to be in the next couple of years," O'Brien said. "This is it. It's N.C. State or bust for me."

"His goal and our goal," Fowler said, "is for him to finish his career here."

9. Retirement. Anyone who has ever been to Florida knows that a huge number of Americans gravitate toward the South as they get closer to retirement age. In the case of O'Brien, he and his family have enjoyed a beach house in Charleston, S.C., for many years.

Charleston is a relatively short, pleasant drive from Raleigh, and by most accounts a wonderful place to retire. O'Brien was there with his wife in late December, a dead period in recruiting, and that's where he watched on TV as his former team beat Navy in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

10. Weather. The average temperature in Boston is below 50 degrees for half the year and sub-freezing for about three months of the year. The average annual snowfall in nearby Worcester, Mass., is 67.7 inches.

In contrast, the average temperature in Raleigh is over 70 degrees for one-third of the year and over 60 for about seven months of the year. The average annual snowfall in Raleigh is about seven inches.

O'Brien certainly appreciates the differentials, especially after all that time in Charlottesville, which has a climate similar to that in Raleigh. O'Brien's wife, Jennifer, originally is from San Diego, so she understands, as well. There are great beach houses near Boston, too, but it's tough to get the boat away from the dock when everything is frozen.

"The opportunity to get back down to the South," O'Brien said, "was just too great an opportunity for us to pass up."

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