RALEIGH — Tom O'Brien said he doesn't ever wonder about his future as the coach of N.C. State.
He's too busy trying to make sure this season is better than his past three with the Wolfpack.
"The only thing we do is work hard and try to put a football team together to go out and have a winning season and go to a bowl game," O'Brien said after a practice last week. "That's what our goals are, and that's what we're working toward."
After O'Brien went 16-21 overall with a losing record in each of his first three seasons with the Wolfpack, his job security seems tenuous as the team prepares to host Western Carolina on Saturday in its opener.
He came to N.C. State with excellent credentials after turning the Boston College program around. But aside from posting a 3-0 record against rival North Carolina, O'Brien has had few highlights at N.C. State.
And now he is working for a new chancellor and athletic director in Randy Woodson and Debbie Yow, respectively. Yow, hired in June to replace Lee Fowler, said she isn't going to discuss O'Brien in depth unless the two of them are in a room together at the same time.
That's unlikely to happen because of their busy schedules, so Yow limited her comments to the goals she said are "obvious" that she shares with O'Brien.
"We both want to have a winning record," Yow said. "We both want to go to a bowl. We both want to win the bowl."
O'Brien's teams did that in each of his last seven seasons at Boston College but haven't done it at N.C. State. His Wolfpack teams have been set back by long-term injuries to key players such as Nate Irving, Toney Baker, Anthony Hill and Donald Bowens.
On a few occasions this summer, O'Brien has regretfully mentioned one injury in one game that may have been the only reason he has yet to have a winning season at N.C. State.
As players such as Irving and Hill returned from injuries late in 2008, the Wolfpack won its last four regular-season games to go 6-6 and reach the Papajohns.com Bowl in Birmingham, Ala.
There, Russell Wilson passed for 186 yards and ran for 46 more to stake the Wolfpack to a 17-6 halftime lead over Rutgers. But on the final drive of the first half, Wilson suffered a knee injury.
N.C. State managed just 95 yards after halftime and lost 29-23, finishing with a 6-7 record.
"There isn't any reason why we can't be [a top ACC program]," O'Brien said. "But you can't be unless you have the pieces in place to be that way. And for the last three years, we haven't had enough guys to do what we wanted to do."
O'Brien said Boston College improved during his tenure there because his staff stuck to its beliefs and followed through with them. That's a quality that he has continued at N.C. State, according to Wilson, the junior quarterback.
Wilson said O'Brien has been unfailingly consistent in his plan and demands.
"He sticks to what he says, and you know what you're going to get every day," Wilson said. "I think that's a positive thing."
At the same time, though, O'Brien has made subtle changes during the offseason. Following the lead of schools such as Duke and Central Florida, he has N.C. State practicing in the mornings before classes rather than in the afternoons after classes.
Thirteen of his freshmen were among the approximately 100 students participating in the university's new, academically intense "summer start" program in summer school. O'Brien said the grades they posted were encouraging. He hopes practicing early and the summer program will lead to improvement in the classroom for the team.
N.C. State's most recent NCAA Academic Progress Rate mark of 937 ranked 10th in the 12-school ACC, and O'Brien wants that to improve. It's part of his three-pronged plan to make the Wolfpack champions in the classroom, in the community and on the field.
"If you don't do it right off the field, you're never going to get it right on the field," O'Brien said.
O'Brien also struggled early at Boston College, posting a 16-18 record over the first three seasons that was similar to his current mark at N.C. State.
The only difference was that in his third year, the Eagles went 8-4. But O'Brien sounds confident that he can do the same thing at N.C. State that he did while posting a 75-45 record in 10 seasons at Boston College.
"We went in and took over a program that had some problems, like what we had to do here, and we built a program," he said. "I think what everybody remembers is the last five years at BC. They don't look at the first five."
At N.C. State, they will be scrutinizing Season 4 for evidence O'Brien should stick around for Season 5. Getting to a bowl game and winning it could provide that evidence.
It may take another excellent season from Wilson (who threw an ACC-high 31 TD passes in 2009) and improvement on defense to reach those goals. N.C. State faces a strong schedule that includes games against nationally ranked ACC foes Florida State, Georgia Tech, North Carolina and Virginia Tech.
O'Brien said there's no reason N.C. State can't eventually be ranked, too, and reach another of Yow's goals - to be a top-25 program.
"You've got five teams in this conference in the preseason top 25," O'Brien said. "The goal is to be there at the end of the year. But if there's five in this conference that get there, we think we can get to the top of the conference. We were able to do it at Boston College. Certainly we can do it here."
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