(Written By Tom Shanahan)
On the list of hard-ass, obdurate coaches who infamously won’t budge from their position at their own expense, Tom O’Brien just climbed a few more notches toward the top. He might have even passed Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler.
The jump was a result of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson leading his team to the Super Bowl. Thanks to O’Brien, Wilson will be identified to millions throughout two weeks of Super Bowl hype as a former Wisconsin quarterback rather than one from North Carolina State, where he played the first three years of his college career for O’Brien.
And if you haven’t noticed by now, a better ambassador for your school and football program you will not find than Russell Wilson.
O’Brien, you might recall, was North Carolina State’s head coach when he chased off Wilson to Wisconsin before the 2011 season. At Wisconsin, Wilson led the otherwise quarterback-deficient Badgers to the Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl berth.
Meanwhile, O’Brien is a former North Carolina State head coach who is now an anonymous assistant at Virginia.
O’Brien’s stubborn faux paux might be enough to elevate him a few notches on the above mentioned dubious list ahead of Ohio State’s Hayes and Michigan’s Schembechler. As all Big Ten alums ages 40 and above are painfully aware, Bo and Woody refused to adapt their Neanderthal offenses to modern times while compiling a combined 1970s Rose Bowl record of 1-9 (Woody was 1-4, Bo 0-5). Thus was born the popular national sport of Big Ten bashing.
To recap O’Brien’s stubbornness, the position from which he would not budge in the spring of 2011 had to do with his demand Wilson participate in spring football versus Wilson’s desire to play the second year of his minor league baseball contract in the Colorado Rockies’ organization.
Wilson already was a three-year quarterback starter, so he had a good grasp on the offense entering his senior year. He also had graduated in less than four years, so he had set an example for his teammates.
He had played the summer of 2010 in the Rockies’ minor league organization as a draft pick. He had already shown he could play minor league baseball and return to football in time for fall camp to lead North Carolina State to a bowl game in the 2010 season (a 9-4 record with a 23-7 upset of then-No. 22 West Virginia in the Champs Sports Bowl).
At the heart of Wilson’s pursuit of a professional sports career was honoring his father, Harrison Wilson, a lawyer who had died at age 55 in 2010 from complications due to diabetes. He had played at Dartmouth and was one of the last cuts of the San Diego Chargers as a wide receiver in 1980.
Despite Wilson’s two-sport pursuit, there was no doubt of his dedication to football and a chance to play in the NFL. Wilson said of the NFL after his father’s death: “It was my Dad’s dream that I can in a way fulfill. But it’s also my dream.”
O’Brien’s stubbornness, most likely, stemmed from his military background. He could have stood in for Clint Eastwood’s character in the 1986 movie, “Heartbreak Ridge.” The 1971 Naval Academy graduate was a Marine Corps Major before retiring to a coaching career.
Some N.C. State fans defended O’Brien by saying if he didn’t let Mike Glennon — who was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ starting quarterback as a 2013 rookie — play for the Wolfpack as a junior in 2011, he would lose Glennon as a transfer for the 2011 and 2012 seasons. I’m not buying that argument. Since when does Major O’Brien cave in to a backup quarterback’s demands?
But whatever O’Brien’s reasoning, he delivered his ultimatum. Wilson chose summer baseball, Wisconsin gained a Big Ten title and North Carolina State lost an ambassador.
As a graduate student, Wilson had immediate eligibility at his new school. Then-Wisconsin coach Brett Bielema recognized he had all the pieces in place for a Big Ten title but a quarterback and began pursuing Wilson relentlessly.
At Wisconsin, Wilson showed he can do better than pick up where he left off as a three-year starter at North Carolina State. In a matter of one training camp, he learned a new offense, was voted a team captain and led the Badgers to the Big Ten title, although they lost to Oregon in the Rose Bowl.
If you’re a Michigan State alumnus, like me, you have more than empathy for North Carolina State fans. You have similar outrage.
If Wilson stays at N.C. State, Michigan State likely wins the 2011 Big Ten title in addition to the 2013 conference title the Spartans so elegantly capped with a Rose Bowl win over Stanford.
In the 2011 Big Ten title game, Michigan State was leading 39-34 in the final minutes when Wilson directed a comeback drive of 64 yards in eight plays for the winning score of 42-39. Wilson, with his ability to extend plays, completed a third-and-4 pass for 11 yards to midfield. Then he completed a fourth-and-6 pass for 36 yards to the Michigan State 7-yard line. Montee Ball scored the game-winner on the next play.
No other Wisconsin quarterback could have led the Badgers to that Big Ten title game. Few other quarterbacks could have dramatically made those plays under pressure.
Most coaches would have recognized they had a special talent long before Russell Wilson led Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl and Seattle to the Super Bowl. North Carolina State fans — as well as Michigan State fans — will never forgive Tom O’Brien.