- File photo by Al Drago
- Tom O’Brien in 2011
There once was a Duke football coach who had back-to-back winning seasons and then got fired, apparently for not winning quite enough to make his athletic director happy.
That was one Shirley “Red” Wilson, whose accomplishments at Winston-Salem’s Reynolds High and Elon College had been enough to earn him a spot in the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame. Wilson was fired the night after beating UNC at Wallace Wade Stadium to conclude the 1982 and finishing 6-5 for the second straight year. (Incidentally, Duke has had back-to-back winning football seasons exactly one time since.)
Ol’ Red was quite a quote machine in his day – sort of North Carolina’s answer to Yogi Berra – who once said correctly that “If you live long enough, you’re going to get old.”
And having been born in 1955, I might just already be there. AARP has thought so for quite some time.
Anyway, a half-century of observation of American culture has been interesting. Some things get better and some get worse. Values change — usually for the better over the long run although with some fits and starts — and things just don’t stay the same.
Sadly, one value that seems to be losing importance over time is loyalty. And that fact reared its ugly head a couple of times over the last week in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
On Monday the University of Maryland decided to end its 59-year association with the ACC and join the Big Ten. And then today N.C. State announced that it had told football coach Tom O’Brien to hit the road, after a second straight winning season that earned the Wolfpack a third straight bowl berth.
Loyalty be damned.
Maryland, which like most Big Ten schools is the unchallenged college sports power in its home state, had been associated with Clemson, UNC and N.C. State since the founding of the Southern Conference in 1921 and joined those three plus Duke and Wake Forest to start the ACC in 1953.
The Terps have won NCAA championships in both men’s and women’s basketball and claimed one national football championship during the run, and have had heated rivalries with at least the Tar Heels, Blue Devils, Wolfpack and Virginia in several sports for several generations.
They will resume one football rivalry — if you can call a 1-35-1 record against Penn State the makings of a rivalry — and lose at least four good ones on the basketball court along with nearby games against Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh.
Yes, Ohio State and Michigan and Nebraska football teams will eventually come calling at Byrd and whatever additional commercial enterprise’s name is attached to it Stadium soon. But they also get football trips to Iowa and Indiana and Minnesota and Northwestern, while Duke and UNC are just NEVER going to play basketball in the Comcast Center again after next season’s obligatory visits.
Good riddance, Terps. Like with South Carolina’s departure 40-odd years earlier, the conference’s academic reputation will be enhanced by your absence.
And now for the local Team in Red.
I’ve always thought coaches at the collegiate level should be fired for one of two reasons only. They should get the boot either for embarrassing the university in some fashion, or alternately by proving over numerous long years of losing that he or she just wasn’t up to the task.
Neither was true for O’Brien. To be sure, the former Marine officer does not have the gift of mad charisma, and his dry sense of humor may be an acquired taste.
But is he the kind of guy to whom I would entrust a college-aged son for four or five formative years? Absolutely.
While archrival UNC is still recovering from a multi-pronged football scandal that got Coach Butch Davis fired and cost a good Tar Heel team a bowl spot this season, at least to the naked eye O’Brien’s program has been so clean it squeaks. As he said last week, all 16 of the team’s seniors will have completed bachelor’s degree work by the end of this academic year.
And the Wolfpack has done fine between the lines. O’Brien’s record at the school was 40-35, including a couple of thrilling home-field victories over Florida State and five straight over the Tar Heels until the heartbreaking 43-35 loss in Chapel Hill in October. State’s all-time record in football is 551-536-55. That’s 50.7 percent.
If O’Brien got the axe just because of poor punt coverage in the closing seconds at Kenan Stadium and a stinker of a home game against Virginia that followed, then that’s a part of the 21st century that’s for the worse.
But I’m still going to teach my 5-year-old daughter that all other things being equal, loyalty is good.