RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina State coach Tom O’Brien entered the season with hopes of contending for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship. Instead, his program continued its up-and-down ways of the past six years — which ultimately cost him his job.
The school fired O’Brien on Sunday, ending a tenure that was good enough to reach four bowls yet never could reach the ACC championship game.
Athletic director Debbie Yow made the announcement one day after the Wolfpack finished a 7-5 regular season with a win over Boston College. During a news conference, Yow said she met with O’Brien on Friday to discuss the future of the program, then notified him of her decision Sunday before meeting with the coaching staff and players.
“I told them it’s really fairly simple,” Yow said. “Coach O’Brien and I agree on the goal of becoming a Top 25 program. We just don’t agree on what it takes to do that, how to get there.”
O’Brien went 40-35 after coming to Raleigh from Boston College following the 2006 season. He took the Wolfpack to three bowl games, but won’t coach in a fourth when N.C. State receives its bid next week. Yow said O’Brien’s buyout would be $1.2 million over four years.
“I appreciate the opportunity to have coached at North Carolina State University and I feel that the program is in a better place now than when I started,” O’Brien said in a statement issued by the school.
The 64-year-old O’Brien, who went 75-45 in 10 seasons at B.C. with eight consecutive bowl berths before his departure, said at his December 2006 hiring that it was “N.C. State or bust for me.”
In his statement Sunday, O’Brien said he is looking forward to life after football.
N.C. State says offensive coordinator Dana Bible will be the interim coach for the bowl game. All other assistants are staying to continue bowl preparations.
“He’s proud of the program we’ve built both here and at Boston College,” said Bible, a longtime assistant to O’Brien. “He’s very proud of the way he and we have gone about the business of football. And he’ll let his record stand as it may.”
O’Brien’s teams were just 22-26 in ACC play and finished above .500 in the league just once, going 5-3 in 2010. He was 1-14 in Atlantic Division road games.
Only three ACC teams — No. 13 Florida State (10-2), No. 15 Clemson (10-2) and rival North Carolina (8-4) — had better overall records this season than the Wolfpack, who were 4-4 in the league.
That was good for third in the Atlantic Division behind Florida State and Clemson — exactly where they were picked in the preseason poll.
But consistency was a problem all season.
They opened with a 14-point loss to a Tennessee team that went on to finish 5-7. They blew a late 10-point lead and allowed an ACC-record 566 yards passing in a loss at Miami. They followed their first loss to rival North Carolina in six years by being routed at home 33-6 by a last-place Virginia team that had lost six straight. They also gave up 62 points in a loss at Clemson.
Not even a thrilling upset of then-No. 3 Florida State on Oct. 6 could save O’Brien’s job.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Yow said the school had lost about 1,000 season-ticket holders for football — a loss of $1.4 million — in the past six seasons.
Safety Earl Wolff said Sunday evening that he didn’t think O’Brien deserved to be fired.
“We’ve had a lot of kind of mental breakdowns during the season … so it’s not all on the coaches at all,” he said. “It’s on us players, too.”
O’Brien also faced some questions in the spring of 2011, when he parted ways with three-year starting quarterback Russell Wilson, who was attempting to play both minor league baseball and football at the high FBS level.
Wilson transferred to Wisconsin for his senior season, led the Badgers to the Rose Bowl and wound up winning the starting job with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks as a rookie this year.
O’Brien’s choice certainly appeared justified when Mike Glennon — who took over for Wilson — led the ACC in passing this season, averaging 304 yards.
The school says a national search for O’Brien’s replacement will begin immediately, though Yow said the list of candidates won’t include Vanderbilt coach James Franklin. Franklin was an assistant to former Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen and named coach-in-waiting while Yow was athletic director there, but Yow said she’s “assuming” Franklin wouldn’t be interested in the job.