Third season often no charm for coaches

Staff WriterOctober 27, 2009 

Into the second half of their third seasons, it's become clear that N.C. State's Tom O'Brien and North Carolina's Butch Davis have slipped into dangerous patterns.

In both football programs, head coaches who struggled through their third seasons wound up having very limited shelf life. The exception was Chuck Amato at State. At 11-3 overall and 5-3 in the ACC, the third season was his best in a seven-year stay.

But since Earle Edwards retired after the 1970 season, State's most successful coaches have been Lou Holtz and Dick Sheridan, both of whom won from the start. Mike O'Cain, who followed Sheridan, started 7-5 and 9-3 only to hit a 3-8 wall in his third season. From that point, O'Cain had several big wins but did not recapture enough momentum to keep his job.

At UNC, John Bunting and Carl Torbush had third seasons that framed future firings. Torbush didn't even make it back for a fourth run, and that was after his team had a 6-5 record.

Each coach's situation is different, of course. But at both schools, the coaches who didn't survive generally struggled with bewildering team performance swings from game to game, even half to half.

Other than the strange dark-blue uniforms and the weeknight start, UNC's 30-27 loss to Florida State on Thursday was hardly a new experience for fans in Kenan Stadium. Many of them have seen much the same uneven execution several times since Mack Brown's final season in 1997.

O'Cain's final State team began the 1999 season with wins over Texas and South Carolina only to end the schedule scoring six points each in losses to UNC and East Carolina.

Overall, their coaching résumés suggest that Davis and O'Brien will gain traction. But there's little doubt their matching 0-3 conference records represent cause for alarm.

caulton.tudor@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8946

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