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1999 thriller affected fates of coaches, programs

Joe Avento • Updated Sep 2, 2015 at 3:54 PM

Just how close did Carl Torbush come to working for Mike O’Cain instead of the other way around?

It might have been six inches.

That was the amount of field between a North Carolina State touchdown and a North Carolina stop, and that small amount of real estate shaped the futures of the two coaches reunited years later at East Tennessee State University.

It was Nov. 11, 1999, and the two rivals were playing in front of a big crowd and ESPN’s cameras on a Thursday night game.

Torbush’s North Carolina team was leading, 10-6, in the closing minutes.

O’Cain’s Wolfpack had just been given a reprieve, an offside penalty on fourth down that allowed them one more play.

With 1:36 remaining, N.C. State quarterback Jamie Barnette dropped back and found star receiver Chris Coleman cutting across the middle near the goal line.

It was fourth and goal. The game would either be won or lost on the play.

Coleman caught the pass and Tar Heels defensive back Erroll Hood latched onto him. As the receiver was trying to stretch the ball across the line, another defensive back, David Bomar, drilled Coleman.

The big question was did the ball cross the line?

As it turned out, it came up six inches short, and Torbush kept his job for another year.

O’Cain wasn’t as lucky. He was fired by former ETSU basketball coach and athletic director Les Robinson, who had recently moved to N.C. State from ETSU.

“A lot of things happened on that one play,” Torbush said.

Those six inches kept N.C. State out of a bowl game and probably cost O’Cain his job.

The close call was the second meeting between Torbush and O’Cain as head coaches. A year earlier, the Tar Heels won 37-34.

“Two really good ballgames, two tight, hard-fought ballgames,” O’Cain said. “Unfortunately for me, we just came up short.”

Torbush had been told during the days leading up to the 1999 game that he would be fired. Those same six inches might have given him a reprieve as plans for his termination were shelved after the Tar Heels won their last two games to finish 3-8.

And he didn’t waste any time in hiring the recently unemployed O’Cain to his staff as offensive coordinator.

“That’s an interesting story how he ended up at North Carolina instead of me ending up and North Carolina State,” Torbush said. “Because it might have come down to who won that ballgame.”

Ultimately, after a 6-5 record in 2000 wasn’t good enough, North Carolina fired Torbush and his staff, O’Cain included.

“Mike did a great job,” Torbush said. “In my opinion, if they would have left us alone, we would have been fine. But that’s just not the way the world works.”

O’Cain said he had no trouble switching sides in the rivalry between the Tar Heels and Wolfpack. In fact, he said friendships can be more important than the colors a coach is wearing in any given season.

Look at the coaching record of Torbush and O’Cain — they have worked at a combined 21 schools in their careers — and you see what he means.

“In our profession, you understand, whether you’re at East Tennessee State or Clemson or N.C. State, you’re always giving your best for that school,” O’Cain said. “But you’re always going to be playing against people that you know, people you coached with or maybe grew up with. That rivalry is never going to get in the way of a friendship.

“That lasts a lot longer than that one day you’re going to play. Life’s too short. Carl and I are too good of friends to let anything get in the way of our friendship.”

That friendship began in the early1980s when Torbush was an assistant at Louisiana Tech and O’Cain was at Murray State. They crossed paths while recruiting at a high school jamboree in Florida.

They stayed in contact throughout the years, even faced each other from time to time.

“When you’ve been around Mike for 10 minutes, you realize what a wonderful human being he is,” Torbush said. “We competed against each other and had great respect for each other. At some point in time, we hoped we could get back together.”

After the staff was fired at North Carolina in 2000, Torbush wound up coaching at Alabama, Texas A&M, Carson-Newman, Mississippi State, Kansas and Liberty. O’Cain was at Clemson, Virginia Tech and James Madison. They never dreamed they’d be coaching together years later at a resurrected program like ETSU.

“You never know what the good Lord has in store for you and how the road’s going to converge,” O’Cain said. “Carl’s philosophy and mine go hand in hand, how he wants to handle his players, how he wants to treat his players, how he wants to coach his players. It’s been very refreshing for me to come back and work with Carl.”

Torbush said trying to hire O’Cain was one of the first things on his mind when he got the ETSU job.

“Our friendship has gone a long way and I knew if I ever got another head coaching job, I’d try to hire him if he was available,” Torbush said. “It’s been a godsend and a great blessing. He’s happy here, his wife Nancy is happy here and he’s doing a great job.”

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