CLEMSON - The trouble with Mike O'Cain is you can't tell if he's down on his luck or the luckiest guy alive.
Instead of taking a long vacation, he's still coaching college football. It would have been completely forgivable had taken the year off after being fired last month for the second time in two years.
Clemson coach Tommy Bowden gave him a chance to back out. I'll understand if you don't want to be quarterbacks coach. But he accepted the job. Got in his car and drove to Clemson with his Nikon 6006 in his trunk like it’s supposed to happen this way.
"The more I thought about it, it was the right thing to do," he says.
By now you would think he would have gotten the message – there’s only so much room in college football for the good guys, and by all accounts O'Cain is one of the good guys.
He watched his mentor Dick Sheridan get out after seeing N.C. State basketball coach Jim Valvano lose a nine-month battle with cancer. Then he tried his best for seven years to escape Sheridan’s shadow. For some reason he never resented the fact that he was the guy that had to take over for a legend. Even if it seemed that from the day he took the job there were some that had it out for him, he never lashed out.
"I never thought about leaving N.C. State," he says. Took him seven years, but he finally got the message when N.C. State Chancellor Marye Anne Fox called his house the Wednesday before Thanksgiving at 7:15 in the morning, showed up at his house at 7:45 and fired him shortly after that. Just days after his team lost to North Carolina by the length of a football.
He took a job at North Carolina as offensive coordinator with friend Carl Torbush. A year later he was looking for a job again after his successor at N.C. State, Chuck Amato, did something he never could do - beat North Carolina.
He watched State's players storm the field in celebration. What is it they say. What doesn't kill us only makes us stronger? O'Cain would survive that night. He had survived the death of his six-month-old son in 1984, the death of his older brother from leukemia in 1990. He survived seven long years at N.C. State. He could survive this.
"Firing is just a part of it," he says. "If you're where they don't want you, you're better off not being there and getting on with your life."
By all accounts, it should have been a miserable existence at N.C. State. Four times he faced having several of his players arrested. Then there were two straight 3-8 seasons. In 1996, he lost by 29 to East Carolina in the first game between the two schools in five years. It was a running joke for him that he didn’t have paper for the copier. N.C. State had shortchanged the football team financially. But he left N.C. State with the same smile he had when he arrived.
“I can’t say I enjoyed all phases,” he says. “I like the pressure, the stress. I liked the leadership role it provides for you.”
He was fired at the end of a season that started with a win at Texas and included a win over Clemson, a team he beat seven times in the 14 years he was on staff at N.C. State. He was six inches away from saving his job when Chris Coleman was caught at the goal line by North Carolina’s Errol Hood and finished off by David Bomar.
After a year at North Carolina as offensive coordinator for Torbush, he was out of a job again.
Life goes on.
So, here he is at Clemson as Bowden’s quarterbacks coach. Still smiles when he thinks about the past. Some say he lacks the intensity he needs to be a head coach. He says he doesn't want to walk around with a scowl on his face.
He’s not at Clemson to put his life back together. He’s getting on with his life, which involves much more than football. He’s a family man who would schedule meetings at N.C. State so his coaches could eat supper at home.
He’s at Clemson to teach quarterbacks, maybe open up some recruiting doors in North Carolina. He’ll also take time to use his camera every chance he gets. He would have been out taking pictures after a recent snow at Clemson if the snow hadn’t melted before practice finished.
“Being a head coach is not something that gnaws at me every night,” he says. “If the right opportunity comes along, I’ll take it, but I’m not going to take a head coaching job just to take a head coaching job. That’s why taking the quarterback job here was great. It’s a great opportunity for me. It’s a good group of people to work with in a great place.”
The way he figures, he’s a pretty lucky guy.