Commentary

Third-year coaches expecting more

Pressure mounts for third-year coaches to translate growing pains into wins

Originally Published: August 19, 2009
By Heather Dinich | ESPN.com

Miami coach Randy Shannon was making his way through a grocery store recently when the person he was talking to on the phone sent him a text message and told him to hang up. Shannon did what his friend told him.

"I called the guy back, and he said, 'Somebody's walking behind you, putting everything on the Internet,'" Shannon said.

[+] EnlargeRandy Shannon
AP Photo/Alan DiazMiami reeled off five straight wins in 2008, but Randy Shannon knows Canes fans expect better than a .500 finish in ACC play.

That's what it's like to be a head coach: constantly under scrutiny, and constantly being watched.

For coaches like Shannon who are entering Year 3, the outside expectations seem to triple.

Three ACC coaches -- NC State's Tom O'Brien, North Carolina's Butch Davis and Miami's Shannon -- are in the midst of building their programs, and all use catchphrases like "changing the culture" and "getting the players to buy into" their philosophies. At this point, the process of rebuilding the roster with their handpicked recruits is well under way, their staffs are intact and they have public support from their administrations.

The only thing left to do is win.

"It's a different year, and in your third year you ought to be a better football team," O'Brien said. "We don't need measuring sticks; we need to win football games. That's the bottom line."

So far, all three of them are lagging behind in the win column. That's not exactly a surprise, considering the different obstacles each inherited. Shannon and Davis are both 12-13 overall in their first two seasons, and O'Brien is 11-14. All of them have losing records against their ACC opponents. Yet while Davis has been lauded for a rapid turnaround and Wolfpack fans have patiently endured NC State's seemingly endless injuries, Shannon seems to be the one under the most pressure this season. He's also the one tasked with rebuilding a national power: mending the program that was brought from the Big East with the hopes of a national championship payday for the ACC.

It hasn't exactly happened that way -- yet.

Shannon has lured some of the nation's top recruiting classes, but fans are becoming anxious to see it pay off on the field.

"It's a lot of pressure on you, but you deal with it," Shannon said. "Like I tell the fans, sometimes we may not win a game or play as well as we should, they're going to get mad. I don't get upset at it because they want to see Miami do well. I tell the players that, when you see fans get upset at you, they're not mad at you because you lost, they want you to do well and be on the top all the time."

While all of them have made progress -- some more quickly than others, and with some progress not necessarily measurable in the win column -- all of them agree they're headed in the right direction, and there should be proof of that this fall. Each coach showed signs of promise in 2008. Miami went on a five-game winning streak midseason, UNC started the season with four of five wins, and NC State came on strong at the end, winning four straight to earn a bowl invitation. None of them, though, are satisfied with the current state of their program, and none of them really should be. None of them won their bowl games last year, and all of them ended the 2008 season out of contention for their respective division titles.

[+] EnlargeButch Davis
Chris Keane/Icon SMIButch Davis has increased the talent level at North Carolina since taking over as head coach.

"We had some significant hurdles to overcome," Davis said. "We were dramatically undertalented in 2007 and two recruiting classes later, we're a little bit better.

"You can talk about changing the culture, the attitude, the atmosphere, the expectations of the program inside the building, but it's still about the athletes," Davis said. "You still have to go out and recruit talented players, and that takes time to enhance your roster."

Miami has added 54 players over the past two years, therefore changing two-thirds of the roster, according to Shannon. Safety Randy Phillips said before the Canes could start winning, they had to first find the players who wanted to win.

"You can't put another coach in his position and expect them to do better than what he did," Phillips said. "He had to change the program first. … We can't change the program until you change the guys in the program. We had a lot of guys out there who were selfish. A lot of guys transferred, a lot of guys needed attitude adjustments. Now he's got the program where it needs to be off the field, and now it's time for us to go out and win."

Still, Phillips said the changes Shannon has made are more important than winning.

"You have to be patient with him," Phillips said. "His goal was to come in and make us better men. His goal is to win ballgames also, but at the same time you want him to graduate players and do all those great things like that. It's not all about winning all the time. To the fans it is, but they aren't the parents of the guys who are leaving with no degree, leaving with no education, going to jail, getting arrested; some even got killed. They weren't the parents or family members of people like that. Coach Shannon felt that. Coach Shannon went through all of that. He didn't want that to happen under his watch.

"If he was winning ballgames, and we were still going to jail and bad things were happening off the field, then you'd be criticizing him even harder, like, 'Oh he's running around with a bunch of hoodlums or thugs,' like they used to call us. But you can't call us that anymore. Coach Shannon made sure of that. Now it's time to win, and after we win, you'll look at the program and say 'That's a winning program. He really cleaned the whole program up.'"

[+] EnlargeTom O'Brien
Andrew Synowiez/US PresswireTom O'Brien has the Wolfpack poised to contend in the ACC.

O'Brien was also tasked with roster rebuilding. He was forced to redshirt a lot of players in his first two seasons to create depth, so this year they're not in a situation in which walk-ons appear in the two-deep. He has the best quarterback in the conference in Russell Wilson and a Matt Ryan-esque backup in rookie Mike Glennon.

"We still don't have enough depth and enough players to be … I don't know if we can be a championship football team," O'Brien said. "You never want to say you can't. You want to go out there and play and have a chance to do it, so we'll see. If we can stay healthy, we've got a shot to do some damage."

O'Brien said he and Davis had "a little bit of an advantage" in taking over their programs because they had been head coaches before. O'Brien brought six members of his staff with him from Boston College. One of the few who stayed behind -- former Eagles defensive coordinator Frank Spaziani -- is entering his first season as Boston College head coach and said he wouldn't be where he is today if it weren't for O'Brien. When asked what he thought O'Brien was capable of at NC State, Spaziani said, "I didn't think of what he could do; I thought in terms of what I knew he was going to do."

"I've been around Tom a long time -- since 1975," Spaziani said. "He's a good coach, he's got a good staff with him; it's just a matter of time. It's just a matter of time for them to be as good as anyone."

Last year, NC State beat all of its in-state opponents, including Wake Forest, Duke, East Carolina and UNC. UNC overcame the loss of injured starter T.J. Yates for half the season, and Davis doubled the Tar Heels' win total from four to eight in a year.

"I think we're at least where I thought we would be," Davis said. "Whether we're slightly ahead of it, I don't know. I've been pleasantly surprised and pleased at the passion and enthusiasm of the fans. We've had sellout crowds two years in a row. Recruiting has gone well. We've had players come in and buy into the system. Players we inherited … they wanted to be winners and go out winners, and that really helped up accelerate the pace."

Now that these coaches are entering their third seasons, though, the pace is expected to continue to accelerate.

Heather Dinich covers college sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at espn.hd@hotmail.com.