Russell Wilson Bobblehead Night A Reminder of Tom O’Brien’s Fateful Decision


In 2011, Russell Wilson stole 15 bases, drove in 15 runs and batted .228 with .708 OPS for the Single-A Asheville Tourists.

Three years later, Wilson is an NFL superstar and defending Super Bowl champion.

His Asheville Tourists tenure may have been pedestrian, but his success since prompted Russell Wilson bobblehead night for the Minor League franchise (h/t @DukeOfNick).

There’s no doubt Wilson made the right career choice. However, his decision to play for the Tourists changed the course of Wilson’s road to the Super Bowl.

Wilson had just completed his third season as North Carolina State’s starting quarterback in the spring of 2011. His passing touchdowns dipped from 2009 to 2010, down from 31 to 28, and he threw three more interceptions.

But he surpassed 3,500 yards passing and introduced a more prolific rushing element to his game, scoring nine touchdowns on the ground. More important, the Wolfpack ripped off nine wins in 2010 to finish ranked in the final Associated Press and USA Today Coaches Poll.

With fourth-year starter Wilson behind center, ACC championship contention was hardly out of the question for NC State.

But Wolfpack head coach was faced with a conundrum. A Wilson-led pursuit of NC State’s first ACC crown since 1979 was contingent on Wilson performing at his peak.

Wilson played baseball the year prior and missed the spring. His passing efficiency took enough of a dip in 2010 to give O’Brien cause for concern. The 2011 offseason put both Wilson and O’Brien at an impasse.

O’Brien issued a statement in April 2011, upon Wilson being granted release from his scholarship:

Russell and I have had very open conversations about his responsibilities respective to baseball and football. While I am certainly respectful of Russell’s dedication to baseball these last several years, within those discussions I also communicated to him the importance of his time commitment to NC State Football.

Coaches help prominent players balance two sports routinely, though each situation is unique. Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston continues to pitch for the Florida State baseball team, but Winston also played in the Seminoles’ spring football game.

And even at that, the reigning Heisman winner admitted to some lethargy, per USA Today’s Corey Clark.

When faced with championship aspirations, players must sometimes make difficult choices. Oregon defensive end Arik Armstead, for example, gave up his spot on the Ducks basketball team to improve on the gridiron this offseason. Armstead will play a critical role in Oregon’s pursuit of a national championship.

The risk Tom O’Brien faced in rolling with a potentially rusty Wilson could have longer lasting implications than NC State simply failing to win the ACC. Mike Glennon was the program’s future. Delaying his development for another year would be a fair trade-off for double-digit wins and a potential BCS bowl berth, but the risk of Wilson regressing once more would put O’Brien in a tenuous spot heading into 2012.

It’s ironic in hindsight, but in 2011 O’Brien made the lower risk decision. The Wolfpack’s struggles through the first half of that season seemingly validated any concerns about Glennon’s initial maturation, but his torrid finish to lead NC State to eight wins gave hope for a big 2012.

Of course, Wilson went on to disprove any fears his focus on baseball would lead to further regression on the football field. He also changed the perception of immediately eligible transfer quarterbacks.

Prior to his showing post-NC State, the most notable example of a BCS conference trying to solve its quarterback problem with a one-year transfer was Jeremiah Masoli at Ole Miss. The experiment did not go well.

Conversely, Wilson’s 2011 season for the Wisconsin Badgers is the best not only in that program’s history, but one of the best for a Big Ten quarterback ever.

That Wilson was not invited to the Heisman ceremony that season is a mystery–but his awards resume is just fine now that he can list a Lombardi Trophy among his accomplishment.

Transferring to Wisconsin didn’t necessarily impact Wilson’s NFL draft status. At 5-foot-11, an organization selecting him would be considered reaching whether he came from Madison or Raleigh.

But defying expectations while leading the Badgers to the Rose Bowl set a tone for his quick and unexpected rise within the Seahawks organization. Wilson quickly outperformed his competition to earn the starting job in 2012 and never look back.

That same year, Glennon returned to NC State to captain a team with high potential. The Wolfpack returned a veteran lineup, including a secondary that generated more turnovers than any other unit in college football.

The irony? Glennon’s completion percentage dipped in 2012 despite his throwing for nearly 1,000 yards more than in 2011. NC State’s lack of a consistent run game, an issue when Wilson was quarterbacking the team, forced Glennon into tough spots. As a result, he through a nation-leading 17 interceptions.

Meanwhile, the defense took a big step backward and the Pack finished a wholly uninspiring 7-6. Precisely the scenario O’Brien was trying to avoid came to fruition, and he was shown the door before NC State’s bowl loss to Vanderbilt.

Given the circumstances, O’Brien could wallow about his decision. But as Joe Giglio of the News-Observer detailed in January, the former NC State coach’s only regret is redshirting Wilson in 2007.

There’s no guarantee things would have gone any differently had Wilson played in 2007, or if he’d returned in 2011.

From Wilson’s end, there could be some acrimony–but there isn’t. Wisconsin proved to be a great situation–after all, had he stayed at NC State, he wouldn’t have played in a backfield that featured Montee Ball.

If anything, there seems to be a mutual embrace between Wilson and his former home program.

Russell Wilson bobblehead night isn’t the first time the Seahawks quarterback will be honored in North Carolina this offseason. NC State announced in March that Wilson’s No. 16 will hang in Carter-Finley Stadium and be used as an honor number for future Wolfpack players, a la No. 55 at USC or Pres. Gerald Ford’s No. 48 (along with others) at Michigan.

Really, the only hint of bad blood in the Russell Wilson-Tom O’Brien saga is from the Wisconsin* fan who purchased a billboard in Raleigh, just before February’s Super Bowl.

*Editor’s note: The below billboard may have been the work of a North Carolina Tar Heels fan, per News-Observer. Credit @hwkbgr for the find.