Over the next week and a half, and probably even after Russell Wilson takes the field with the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl, there will be a lot of talk about how “Tom O’Brien ran off Russell Wilson at N.C. State” as the wider world tries to get its head around the idea that a player as obviously talented and successful as Wilson could have been forced to complete his college career at a different school.
That’s not exactly how it happened.
The chain of events and decisions that led to Wilson transferring to Wisconsin in April 2011 for his final year of eligibility was far more complicated than that, and O’Brien’s decision was never that simple. Essentially, the N.C. State coach had to choose between one more year of Wilson or two years of Mike Glennon, but even that’s an oversimplification.
This wasn’t just about O’Brien and Wilson. It was about O’Brien and Wilson and Glennon and the Colorado Rockies and even Wilson’s late father. It was about a coach trying to do the best thing for his program and a player trying to do the best thing for himself, and how those goals and desires came into inevitable conflict.
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It started long before the spring of 2011. O’Brien believed Wilson’s inconsistency the previous fall – in a narrow win against Central Florida and a loss to East Carolina in particular – was a direct result of the quarterback skipping spring practice during 2010 to play baseball, first for N.C. State and then in the minor leagues after he was drafted by the Rockies. O’Brien wanted Wilson to concentrate on football and practice with the team during the spring.
Wilson loved N.C. State, but he also was unwilling to let go of his baseball dreams, his two-sport ambition fueled by his close relationship with his athlete father, who died in the summer of 2010 after a lengthy illness. Wilson felt he still could become an NFL quarterback without giving up baseball, a stance supported by the Rockies, who invested a six-figure signing bonus in the fourth-round draft pick.
Wilson, meanwhile, wasn’t the only player who had obtained his undergraduate degree at that point and had the right to transfer anywhere and play immediately. Glennon graduated as well. That left O’Brien with a choice between two quarterbacks – one with one year of eligibility left and one with two. And if Glennon transferred and Wilson’s baseball career took off, O’Brien feared being left with neither that fall.
So if Wilson insisted on playing baseball in the spring of 2011, O’Brien felt he had no choice but to commit to Glennon as the starter going forward. In April, he released Wilson from his scholarship. Two months later, when Wilson’s transfer to Wisconsin was complete, he left his minor league baseball team in midseason to spend the summer in Madison.
Had O’Brien allowed Wilson to play his final season on Wilson’s terms, it’s quite possible the 2011 season would have turned out far better for the Wolfpack, which lost early games at Wake Forest and Cincinnati in part because of Glennon’s growing pains at quarterback and the unwillingness of defenses to honor Glennon as a read-option running threat the way they had Wilson.
But in that scenario, Glennon, an NFL quarterback in his own right, would have ended up a two-year starter somewhere else (Wisconsin?), and N.C. State would have been in big trouble at the position in 2012, just as it was in 2013 under Dave Doeren. O’Brien might well have ended up getting fired after the 2012 season either way.
It’s fair to criticize O’Brien’s decision, as it most certainly will be countless times between now and the Super Bowl on Feb. 2, but only the decision he actually had to make. It was never as simple as it sounds now.