The firing of Tom O’Brian

Posted December 3rd, 2012 by russfrazierwp and filed in Bitter lametations, Opinion
Comments Off on The firing of Tom O’Brian

Tom O’Brian, the head football coach of North Carolina State University (NCSU) was fired by the Athletic Director (AD), Debbie Yow, on November 26. She wants NCSU to be in the top 25 perennially, and she wants a dominant program in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC).

When I first heard of this I went, “What? They were getting better. He’s gotten us to bowl games 3 years in a row. We didn’t cheat like UNC to get there, either. He’s gotten past the worst years of debilitating injuries and now it seems the bench is deeper. It looks like he has some sort of good quarterback supply channel going.”

But the big money has taken over the ACC just like the other college conferences and Debbie Yow seems to have a sort of manic gleam in her eyes. “Uh-oh,” I say.

You think I’m a killjoy, a spoilsport, a plodding naysayer? I won’t go into the whole “filling seats with fannies” thing. But let me address one thing I think I understand fairly well. That is the issue of what Tom O’Brian was trying to do versus what Debbie Yow thinks she wants. It is the fact that Tom O’Brian was trying to create a system and the AD does not want a System so much as a Savior.

Football stadium

A football stadium. Hey, not enough fannies in those seats!


One of the popular myths in organizations that include corporations and government as well as in academia is the idea that if we only had the right people we could excel and achieve greatness. It’s the idea that our destiny is determined by Christ-like demigods with powers and abilities that transcend the mortal powers and abilities the vast majority of us were born with. Do you see the logical flaw in this thinking? If we were all so dependent on these special people to succeed, then that means that poorly performing organizations fail because their leaders aren’t special enough. Never mind the nebulous, non-quantifiable and ever-shifting qualities that gifted people possess. If that reasoning were sound, it means that merely possessing the quality of superiority is enough. Think about that. The mere possession of the quality of superiority.

Now, let’s do a little thought experiment. We are going to pick some failed organizations and say they failed because they lacked especially talented people.

Big companies fail. How about Lehman Brothers in September 2008? The fourth largest investment bank in the US. No special people, that’s what went wrong there. Don’t bother with arguing that a combination of a lack of regulation and systemic greed did them in.

What about whole countries that have never achieved greatness? Lack of brilliant people. That must mean that the demigod gene simply is absent in places like Sub-Saharan Africa. Except for South Africa where greatness has been achieved, no doubt due to the special genes brought there by the Dutch immigrants.

How about the Soviet Union? The entire system of government failed. Why? They didn’t have any accomplished and talented people in the Communist Party. The same goes for Egypt, Syria and Libya – they lacked special winner demigods to save them.

Oh, and here’s another thing to think about regarding those examples. They must have had superior people during their creation phase, but lost them along the way at some point. Otherwise, the special people logic does not work.

The entire idea of special, gifted people being the key to organizational success is false, and, as I point out above, leads to even worse conclusions that include racism and bigotry. And the use of past performance as a predictor of future performance is like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Tom O’Brian was wise enough to know that he would not be at NCSU forever, that he might even get hit by a bus one day and suddenly be unavailable to coach. That’s why a system of management is important, so the remaining people have a template, an established plan that works consistently for their organization. I’m not sure, but I’d bet the Marine Corps had something to do with that mindset.

In nations, this is known as institutional maturity. It takes time, effort, thoughtful debate, and maintenance.

Comments are closed.