DeCock

Pack fans take a stand for O'Brien

Staff WriterNovember 3, 2011 

Feet shoulder-width apart, arms crossed over the chest, a look of distant concern on one's face.

It's a new craze among N.C. State fans: "TOBing," otherwise known as posting pictures of themselves mimicking football coach Tom O'Brien's frequent sideline pose.

It started out, as most Internet memes do these days, as a one-off joke on Twitter, a parody of the short-lived "Tebowing" fad, but TOBing appears to have some legs.

A website - tob-ing.tumblr.com - is cataloging pictures of O'Brien in his trademark stance as well as fans' imitations of it - including a strikingly dramatic shot of a Wolfpack fan TOBing on a Tallahassee, Fla., dance floor before the Florida State game, blurred bodies swirling around him in the near-dark.

It's an homage to the coach, but it's also gently mocking, a subtle reference to some fans' main complaint about O'Brien: He doesn't show enough emotion on the sideline.

That is, of course, not his way. It never has been. In public, he often adopts his Icy Commander persona, a purposeful, steely countenance. He patrols his sideline.

There is another side to O'Brien, but very few fans will ever get to see Smilin' Tom, the cheerfully sardonic and affable person his friends and former assistants know.

The ability to switch between these personas, the on-duty and off-duty, always has been a trait common to some military officers and service-academy graduates; in "The Right Stuff," Tom Wolfe noted the Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard's ability to switch quickly between "Smilin' Al" and "the Icy Commander," sometimes within the same conversation.

For his part, O'Brien tends to stick with one or the other, particularly in public, but Smilin' Tom sometimes slips through when he says something he finds humorous and punctuates it with a quick inhale.

Typically, North Carolina week brings out that side of O'Brien as much as anything else. He can't resist taking verbal jabs at the neighbors down the road, whether it's "state championship" talk or pointing out, slyly, how players on his team haven't fought back when they've been punched by that particular opponent.

It feels like he's been a little quieter this year, although that might have as much to do with the noise coming from the Chapel Hill side of things as interim coach Everett Withers, a North Carolina native, has engaged with the rivalry more than his predecessor Butch Davis ever did.

O'Brien acknowledged the importance of the rivalry Monday but stayed largely silent. "No sound bites here," he said at one point.

His relative quiet might have something to do with the departure of Davis, depriving O'Brien of a personal rival, or the departure of Russell Wilson, which had the potential to place O'Brien in an awkward position if the Wolfpack struggled this season, which it has.

Those struggles have had little to do with Wilson, but the pressure on O'Brien has nevertheless been steadily building with each disappointing loss. Saturday's game against the Tar Heels offers him a small chance at redemption in a season the Wolfpack is unlikely to go to a bowl.

It's enough to make a coach cross his arms, tilt his hat forward and stare into the distance, wondering what comes next.

luke.decock@newsobserver.com, twitter.com/LukeDeCock or 919-829-8947

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