O' Brien strikes back
By Aaron Beard
RALEIGH — North Carolina State coach Tom O’Brien and North Carolina interim coach Everett Withers have added a little spice to Saturday’s rivalry game.
Withers went on a radio show this week and said UNC is the state’s “flagship” university and pointed out the Tar Heels’ graduation rates are higher than the Wolfpack’s. Those comments irked O’Brien, who defended his program’s academic work and took jabs at UNC’s recent NCAA trouble with improper benefits and academic misconduct — which includes last week’s trip to Indianapolis for a hearing with the NCAA infractions committee.
“I’m just going to coach my football team and I’m not going to coach his,” O’Brien said when asked about Withers’ comments after Thursday morning’s practice. “As far as the flagship, here is a guy that’s on a football staff that ends up in Indianapolis. If you take three things you can’t do in college football, you have an agent on your staff, you’re paying your players and you have academic fraud. I mean, that’s a triple play as far as the NCAA goes.
“I don’t know what he has anything to talk about or they have anything to talk about. If that’s what the people want in their flagship university at North Carolina, then so be it.”
The NCAA alleged nine violations against UNC, including that former associate head coach John Blake steered players to an NFL agent while players received jewelry and other benefits from people outside the program. The school has already vacated all 16 wins from 2008 and 2008, reduced scholarships and put itself on two years of probation.
When asked about his paying players comment, O’Brien said: “They had players accepting money from somebody. Money’s being given by someone to somebody. I think that’s documented, right? I don’t know how it got there. Maybe I’m wrong saying that, but those are no-nos as far as the NCAA goes.”
O’Brien also appeared to take a shot at UNC’s investigation of its independent study classes after the school reported the NCAA had determined “some weakness” with oversight there.
“Our guys go to school, they’re not given grades and they graduate,” O’Brien said. “It’s a little tougher here if you have to go to school and you’re expected to have a syllabus and go to class. I think our guys earn everything they get here. And certainly all our graduates earn everything they get at this university.”
Later Thursday, Withers tried to defuse the situation before taking any questions from reporters before the afternoon practice.
“My statement didn’t have anything to do with really North Carolina State’s academics,” he said. “It was about my pride for the University of North Carolina and what our faculty and what our administration has done here.”
Withers, a Charlotte native who grew up wanting to play for UNC, said he hadn’t spoken with O’Brien and didn’t plan to address their tiff when the coaches chat before kickoff Saturday.
When asked his reaction to hearing O’Brien’s comments that morning, Withers said: “Boy, it must be a rivalry week.”
The comments that led to the exchange came in a taped interview that aired Wednesday on Raleigh’s 99.9 FM The Fan.
“I think the kids in this state need to know, you know, the flagship school in this state,” Withers told the station. “They need to know it academically. I think if you look at our graduation rates as opposed to our opponent’s this week graduation rates for academics or football, I think you’ll see a difference. I think if you look at the educational environment here, I think you’ll see a difference.”
North Carolina chancellor Holden Thorp and N.C. State chancellor Randy Woodson even discussed the exchange in a phone call Thursday.
“Holden and I have a great relationship,” Woodson said in a statement. “We talked this morning, exchanged apologies and we’re moving on.”
UNC spokeswoman Nancy Davis said the comments weren’t a big deal between chancellors who are “good friends.”
“The coaches were just engaging in a little rivalry-week talk,” she wrote in an email. “That’s all it was.”
N.C. State (4-4, 1-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) has won all four meetings against North Carolina (6-3, 2-3) since O’Brien took over before the 2007 season.
The Associated Press