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O'Brien has always been, always will be, a man of principle

By Mike DiMauro

Publication: The Day

Published September 05. 2012 4:00AM

It is frightening sometimes how much character we in the media can attach to our subjects. Sometimes, we judge one act and make a grand pronouncement. Sometimes, the person in question was just nice to us. Sometimes, we actually get it right. Moral of the story: Beware the pundit tossing bouquets.

But this much I know: A man coming to Rentschler Field this weekend is among the most decent, principled coaches in the history of college football.

His name is Tom O'Brien.

He will lead North Carolina State on to the lawn of Rentschler undoubtedly wearing his trademark white cap, now six years removed from his days at Boston College. He was never particularly forthcoming or glib with the Boston media and never quite won The Big One during his days on The Heights. But in this era when most forms of decency in college sports have been thrown down a flight of stairs, any school, any program, anywhere should be proud to employ Thomas P. O'Brien.

He arrived at BC in 1997 with the program awash in a gambling scandal that percolated under laissez-faire former coach Dan Henning. What followed: No more gambling, exemplary academic achievement, a 75-45 record, eight straight bowl games and four straight wins over Notre Dame (sorry, couldn't resist).

But with Tom O'Brien, there is always a "but."

Take, for example, late autumn, 2001. BC had just beaten Notre Dame on a wild Saturday night in Chestnut Hill and had a bye week to prepare for Miami and first place in the Big East. In that two-week period, O'Brien suspended William Green, BC's most dynamic player and future NFL running back, for the game.

It was never known why Green was suspended, although there was plenty of speculation that Green's transgression was relatively minor, arriving back to campus a little late after the bye week.

Green certainly could have been the difference in BC's contentious loss to Miami.

OK. Now I'm not trying to make O'Brien into Bishop Tutu. But this was at a time when the media spotlight was duller, institutions weren't as wary of the NCAA and its arbitrary punishments and such suspensions were more infrequent than they are today.

Other coaches might have handled Green's discipline differently.

But that's Tom O'Brien.

You love him for his principles.

You hate him for his principles.

"I think most BC fans appreciate Tom O'Brien for what he was," said Bill Maloney, author of the BC sports blog "Eagle In Atlanta," which is required reading for the BC folks. "But it was his stubbornness and inflexibility, being too married to his way. You see the same things at NC State, losing Russell Wilson (to Wisconsin) because of baseball. His belief in the system is such that the team suffers sometimes and the players do, too."

Maloney's take is spot on. That's why there was always a sense of a grudging appreciation of O'Brien. Yes, his program is squeaky clean. Yes, he gets good kids. Yes, he wins. Yes, those are all good things. But glory hallelujah why couldn't he just win, you know, when it counts?

Which makes all of this sort of sad. The intoxication of winning permeates fan bases so much that principles become obstacles.

O'Brien is 33-31 as North Carolina State's coach. He's got a good one in quarterback Mike Glennon, a potential first-round draft choice. Yet amid the this-is-finally-the-year preseason babble, the Wolfpack didn't play so well Friday night against Tennessee. The fan base remains impatient.

"He's done exactly what I thought he'd do at NC State," Maloney said. "Win more than he loses, represent the program well, but not quite be able to get them to the next level."

All of which makes O'Brien a fascinating story, especially for a guy who's not very quotable. He wins more than he loses. He represents the program well. His kids study and behave or face the consequences.

But then there's always that "but."

That's Tom O'Brien.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro.

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