NC State football coach Dave Doeren: It's his time, his team

jgiglio@newsobserver.comAugust 24, 2013 

  • Season opener

    Louisiana Tech at N.C. State

    Saturday, 12:30 p.m.

    TV: ACC Network

— When it comes to building a winning football program, there is no detail small enough for Dave Doeren.

Doeren was hired nine months ago to elevate N.C. State’s program into a perennial top 25 candidate and an ACC championship contender. To get there, the 41-year-old Kansan believes you have to “win the day.”

Those daily wins, however small, add up to real wins on the field. That’s how Doeren did it at Northern Illinois, where he won 23 games and a pair of conference titles in his first two seasons as a head coach.

That’s how Doeren will approach his job with the Wolfpack, which is coming off a disappointing 7-6 finish in 2012, which cost former coach Tom O’Brien his job.

With the season opener six days away, Doeren has been busy collecting wins where he can. There has been noticeable progress on the recruiting trail, where the current class ranks in the top 25 nationally, but also progress with the players he inherited.

“He wants us to buy in,” senior linebacker D.J. Green said. “I feel like, more and more people are starting to buy in.”

You “win the day” by controlling what you can, and by putting in the hard work. A program prone to wild swings and inconsistencies the past three seasons could benefit from a straightforward, micro-focused approach.

Before the first snap Saturday against Louisiana Tech, the players already are starting to see the results of Doeren’s measured approach.

“Hands on” is how Doeren likes to describe it.

“We are all over our guys in every way in their lives,” Doeren said.

“Involved” is the word senior receiver Bryan Underwood uses.

“There’s not a day that goes by where he’s not talking to us,” Underwood said. “He’s like a second father.”

Accountability and discipline are also a part of Doeren's hands-on approach. After sophomore running back Shadrach Thornton was arrested for assault on a female in early June, Doeren suspended last season’s leading rusher for the opener.

The players have shown an appreciation for Doeren’s involvement, even in items that would otherwise seem trivial. Take the breakfast menu. The players were tired of the same potatoes at breakfast.

“They were these little cubes and they had no flavor,” Green said.

So the players asked Doeren for some additions to the menu.

“Now we’ve got regular hash browns, baked potato, yams, all kinds,” Green said.

You know the old saying, the path to gridiron glory is paved by potatoes. Chuckle, if you will, but solving the smaller problems fits Doeren’s ethos.

“That’s a big deal,” Doeren said. “Now we have five days of five different potatoes and the guys are fired up about it.

“If I can make them happy that way, it’s awesome. If that equals happiness to a locker room then that’s great. You want the guys excited to come in there and know that you have their well being in mind.”

A players’ coach

Keeping the players happy was a big part of Doeren’s success at Northern Illinois.

“From the beginning, he established himself as a players’ coach,” said Jeff Compher, the current athletic director at East Carolina and the AD who hired Doeren at NIU.

“He works hard, and he makes sure the players do, too, but he understands how to relate to them.”

Doeren has already shown a willingness to promote the Wolfpack program in unconventional ways. He played the guitar with Scotty McCreery for ESPN's GameDay crew before the basketball team's home game with North Carolina.

He also did a series of videos on the school's web site called "Dare Coach D." He was challenged by a variety of different teams at the school, including softball, golf and soccer. He was most comfortable with the bass fishing team but was a good sport through it all.

It’s all part of his style, all part of what led Compher to say that hiring Doeren to replace Jerry Kill was an easy decision.

Doeren was the defensive coordinator at Wisconsin in 2010, when Kill led the Huskies to a then-school record 11 wins in his final season.

Compher described Doeren as “bright and genuine,” and said he was impressed by Doeren’s recruiting work at Wisconsin and Kansas but also as an assistant at the FCS level.

“He had success on every level,” Compher said. “He recruited well on every level. It was clear he was a special coach.”

After a 2-3 start to his first season, the NIU players weren’t too sure about Doeren. Nine straight wins to close the season answered those doubts.

“He never asked us to be more than we were,” said Indianapolis Colts backup quarterback Chandler Harnish, who was the Huskies’ quarterback in 2011. “He understood what we could do and then put us in the best position to win.”

The Huskies finished 2011 11-3 and won the MAC title, an accomplishment that eluded Kill’s final team.

Winning with Harnish, a four-year starter, and a group of seniors was one thing. The Huskies were even better in 2012, going 12-2 with a new quarterback and a rebuilt offensive line.

“Really, that’s impressive when you think about it,” Harnish said. “That was a big transition and look at the way he handled it.”

A new challenge

N.C. State is a program in transition. The Wolfpack returns four regular starters on each side of the ball. A sizable senior class departed with O’Brien. There’s also the matter of starting over at quarterback.

With Russell Wilson for three years and two from Mike Glennon, N.C. State has had an NFL quarterback for the past five seasons.

Doeren will have to adapt again and figure out to win in transition.

“I went through this two years ago, I’m not going to panic at all,” Doeren said.

That type of poise and pragmatism led N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow to the DeKalb Airport on Saturday, Dec. 1.

Yow knew Doeren’s agent, Jordan Bazant, because he also represents N.C. State basketball coach Mark Gottfried. Yow, who made the coaching change with O’Brien six days earlier, wanted to interview Doeren.

Doeren wanted to wait until after the MAC title game. On Friday, Yow got a call from Bazant. Another BCS conference school was interested in Doeren. Yow told Bazant she needed to talk Doeren first.

“I had a free pass to meet with him before anyone else; I wanted to make the most of it,” Yow said.

She pitched Doeren on N.C. State’s facilities and fans and the amount of in-state talent available. She also made sure to tell him the school hadn’t won a conference title since 1979 and that would be a job requirement of the next coach.

“He wanted this challenge,” Yow said. “I think he knew this was his moment.”

There are differences between the situations at N.C. State and Northern Illinois, both on the plus and minus side.

Yow trusts she hired the right coach in Doeren.

“He’s intuitive about what matters,” Yow said. “He figures out what really matters and what’s going to get results and he spends his time on those items.”

Doeren’s “win the day” approach has evolved from his time at Wisconsin, where he worked for coach Bret Bielema.

“It’s a philosophy of handling your business that day and it creates success down the road,” Doeren said.

The games start Saturday. The road began nine months ago.

Giglio: 919-829-8938

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