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July 24, 2007
O'Brien leaves B.C. behind to lead Wolfpack
PINEHURST, N.C. – North Carolina State coach Tom O'Brien doesn't expect to have any mixed emotions when he travels to Boston College to face his former team.
"No," O'Brien said of the Sept. 8 showdown between the Atlantic Coast Conference Atlantic Division rivals. "I'll be trying to beat them."
And that's just the way his current and former players want it.
Boston College's players know their former coach well enough to understand O'Brien's not the sort of guy who would treat the matchup differently from any other game.
O'Brien might hear Boston College fans cheering the winningest coach in the program's history or jeering the guy who jilted the Eagles for a conference rival.
But he won't be listening.
And neither will the players.
"It's a good story," Boston College quarterback Matt Ryan said this week during the ACC Media Days at the Pinehurst Resort. "But at the same time, I think that when push comes to shove, it's going to be Boston College-North Carolina State. He's not going to be feeling the emotions, and we're not going to be feeling the emotions. It's going to be about playing the game that day. That's the way he is, and that's the way we are. That's why he's been successful in all he's done, and that's why we've been successful."
As much as O'Brien and his former players want to turn the page, this story is too intriguing to ignore. When North Carolina State lured O'Brien from Boston College last winter, it marked only the second time in history that an ACC program had hired a head coach away from a conference rival.
The only other instance came in 1956 when Jim Tatum left Maryland for North Carolina. Bobby Ross coached Georgia Tech in 1987 after leading Maryland a year earlier, but the NFL's Buffalo Bills actually hired Ross away from the Terrapins before he landed at Georgia Tech.
Boston College responded to O'Brien's departure by hiring Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski, who had last worked for the Eagles as an offensive coordinator on O'Brien's Boston College staff from 1997-98.
The Wolfpack is counting on O'Brien and his military background to provide discipline to North Carolina State's program, while Boston College is relying on Jagodzinski's fiery nature to help the Eagles finally get over the hump and win a conference title.
"I think this will be a big rivalry from now on," North Carolina State defensive tackle DeMario Pressley said.
O'Brien said he made the move because he was impressed with North Carolina State's passionate fan base and its commitment to building state-of-the art facilities that could help a program reach the next level. The former Virginia assistant also knew the region well enough to realize it was a much more fertile recruiting area than New England.
Boston College's players say they've gotten over the hurt feelings that existed when they first learned about O'Brien's departure.
O'Brien is teaching those same types of lessons to his new team. North Carolina State needed some discipline after going 3-9 last year and ending the season on a seven-game losing streak. O'Brien is the type of guy who can provide it.
The former Navy defensive end and Marine Corps Reserve major's no-nonsense approach helped Boston College lead the ACC in turnover margin last year. North Carolina State tied for last place in the conference and 112th in the nation in that category under former coach Chuck Amato, who was fired at the end of the season.
"It's as much structure as anything," O'Brien said. "It's like your own children. You establish the parameters of how they're supposed to be and what's good behavior. They're always going to test you. They want to do this. They want to do that. You've always got one child who takes you to the limit. You have to be fair, you have to be equitable, but when you get to that position where you're pushed over the line, you're going to get whacked."
O'Brien said he learned that lesson from his own childhood.
"I always tested my parents," O'Brien said, "and I was always getting whacked."
The Wolfpack soon discovered it shouldn't test O'Brien. The players also learned to make sure their watches were set a few minutes early.
"He has taught us to be very punctual," Pressley said. "If he wants to meet with us at 8, we have to be there at 7:45 because the meeting will start at 7:55."
The change in attitude around North Carolina State is evident from the cover of the school's media guide, which has O'Brien wearing a stern expression that makes him look more like a high school principal than a football coach.
Boston College's players smiled in recognition when they heard the stories of the discipline O'Brien has brought to North Carolina State. They described their former coach as the type of coach players learn to appreciate.
"I have so much respect for him and really enjoyed playing for him," Ryan said. "He's a quiet guy. Don't take silence as (evidence) that he's mad at you. That's just his style. He's not an overly chatty guy."
That description wouldn't fit Ryan's new coach.
Jagodzinski said he wouldn't have left the NFL for any other college program. He enjoyed his previous Boston College experience so much that he remembers telling his wife a decade ago that he someday would become the Eagles' head coach.
He has embraced the challenges that come with inheriting one of the most talent-laden rosters in Boston College history. Instead of worrying about matching O'Brien's success, Jagodzinski has talked about taking things to the next level by winning the conference title that has eluded Boston College first in the Big East and now in the ACC (Boston College finished in a four-way tie for first place in the Big East in 2004 but didn't earn the conference's BCS bid).
"I feel very fortunate to be able to step into a situation like that where they've had a lot of success," Jagodzinski said. "I think we can continue to do that, do the same things they've done in the past with just a little bit different spin to it."
Jagodzinski should benefit from the return of respected defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani, who decided to remain at Boston College when most of the Eagles' assistants followed O'Brien to North Carolina State. The arrival of former East Carolina head coach Steve Logan as offensive coordinator ought to allow the Eagles to open up the offense.
Those experienced assistants should complement the 43-year-old Jagodzinski's youthful enthusiasm. When Jagodzinski talked to his new players shortly after taking the job, he wasted no time showing off a personality that is in stark contrast to O'Brien's approach.
"He was off the charts," Dunbar said. "He came in almost screaming and yelling. It was fun and exciting. It got our players revved up. … He's a very in-your-face kind of guy, which I think we needed."
Jagodzinski's personable approach and NFL experience already have impressed his players.
Ryan remembers meeting Jagodzinski the night Boston College announced the hiring. Jagodzinski already trusted his quarterback so much that the two of them discussed his game plan for the Packers' upcoming game with the Minnesota Vikings. They have since spent quite a bit of time talking about Packers quarterback Brett Favre and what makes him such a special player.
"That's part of how exciting it is to be able to work with Coach Jagodzinski," Ryan said. "He's worked with one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game.''
Ryan's happy with his new coach, but he also has no animosity toward his predecessor.
"I wish him the best for 11 games of the year," Ryan said.
That won't stop him from trying to beat the heck out of his former coach in that other game.
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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