They say you’re only as good as your last game. Dave Doeren’s last game wasn’t one to remember. On a wet Saturday night last November, rival UNC rolled into Raleigh and blew out the Wolfpack, 41-10.
On one end of Carter-Finley Stadium, Tar Heels’ head coach Mack Brown danced the night away in the locker room, as UNC clinched a trip to a bowl game. On the other end a drained, drenched and defeated Doeren stopped to talk with each of his seniors, quietly apologizing for the season.
“Ultimately I failed big time,” Doeren said. “You go 4-8 I don’t care how many injuries you have, as the leader of the program you have to own it.
During the past 10 months, Doeren has had plenty of time to reflect on that game and injury-plagued season — the worst he’s had with the Wolfpack since it went 3-9 in his opening year. He did indeed own it, he says, allowing himself to feel the burn, using it to push himself harder.
Doeren used the offseason to make some changes to his staff and make some changes to himself. As the Wolfpack enters its season opener against Wake Forest on Saturday, Doeren is under constant scrutiny from fans who want to see the program advance to the next level.
That doesn’t matter to him that much, he says. But what does matter to him is that his program gets back on track.
“We’re competitive as hell,” Doeren said about him and his staff. “We don’t like losing.”
Doeren has things he can hang his hat on, for sure. His eight years makes him the second-longest tenured coach in school history after Earle Edwards, who coached at N.C. State for 17 years. “Kind of cool” is how Doeren put it.
There were 11 NFL draft picks that came out of the 2018 and 2019 classes, including first-round picks Bradley Chubb (No. 5 to Broncos in 2018) and Garrett Bradbury (No. 18 to the Vikings in ‘19). When he sees New York Giants defensive tackle B.J. Hill or Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett speak out about social injustices, he beams with pride.
“I was a part of his life,” Doeren said of Brissett, sounding like a proud father. “The wins and loses are great, but that’s not why I coach.”
There have been more wins (47) for Doeren at N.C. State than losses (42). He has gone 4-2 in Bowl games, including 1-0 as coach at Northern Illinois, missing out on a postseason game last season for just the second time since he’s been in Raleigh.
And anyone who is being honest will admit that last year would have been a challenge for any coach. Injuries decimated the roster, with 19 players and 12 starters missing chunks of the season, fueling a six-game losing streak to end the year, one blowout loss after another down the stretch.
Still, the disappointment he was feeling after the UNC loss was enough that, during a short conversation with N.C. State Athletic Director Boo Corrigan, Doeren admitted that some changes needed to be made.
“Getting into the offseason there was a lot of transparency about the things we didn’t like and making sure that wasn’t going to happen again by the steps we were going to take,” Doeren said. “Guys were great, they don’t want to lose, they don’t want to be in the position they were in last year, not going to a bowl game, so they were very open to change.”
That started with Doeren taking time to evaluate the program. One thing he realized was that his staff was not gelling. That meant he needed to have some tough but necessary conversations.
When the dust settled, Doeren had done a complete overhaul, bringing in Tim Beck to call the offense, promoting Tony Gibson to defensive coordinator and hiring Brian Mitchell (corners) and Joe DeForest (safeties), both of whom previously worked with Gibson at West Virginia.
He also brought in former East Carolina head coach Ruffin McNeill, who is beloved in North Carolina, having grown up here. McNeill has many connections with high school coaches in the state and is someone Doeren leans on for advice — a man who has been in that head coach chair.
So far, the new mix is working.
“The chemistry of our staff is really good,” Doeren said recently. “I wanted to hire very positive people and I felt like we added some really positive guys from an energy standpoint, that have been through this game quite a bit, with a lot of experiences.”
One trait Doeren was looking for in all his new coahes was the ability to recruit. N.C. State brought in some solid classes in 2018 and 19, both headlined by in-state, four-star players like linebacker Payton Wilson and defensive end Savion Jackson who could have gone anywhere.
However, since Brown returned to Chapel Hill before last season, UNC has loaded its classes with in-state talent and has had two top-five recruiting classes in the ACC. Brown’s 2020 class was ranked No. 13 in the nation. It seemed like Doeren had a fence around the state until Brown arrived, bringing some serious competition on the recruiting trail.
His new staffers knew how important it is to take back the state, Doeren stresses it all the time. He likes what they’ve done so far, securing 18 commitments for the class of 2021, currently sixth in the ACC. That includes 10 commitments from in-state players, already surpassing the number in the class of 2020. Doeren knew fans were getting uneasy when it came to the recruiting battles, but time was needed with so many new coaches.
“I knew it wasn’t going to happen immediately, players want to meet these guys,” Doeren said. “A lot of people were bashing our recruiting class early on, but they’re not going to come here without getting to know our staff. To their credit they (coaches) worked really hard to build relationships and the last month-and-a-half we picked up.
“I just think it takes time and some people want to see us play and there are probably seven or eight kids who want to see if we’re better, what’s the new staff going to be like. So we’re waiting for that kind of information once we get into the season here.”
As laid back as he might appear at times, especially at weekly press conferences (which he admits isn’t his favorite part of the job), Doeren does have emotions.
He may not always show them, but they are there, there have been glimpses. There’s a picture in the media guide of Doeren running on the field, a slight grin on his face peeking through the smoke and fireworks. He loves his job and loves seeing the players succeed even more.
Behind closed doors there are moments of frustration. He may vent in his office, even more so when he gets home to his wife, Sara. But when it’s time to get in front of the team and coaches, he doesn’t show his feelings.
“I owe them to be better than that,” Doeren said. “Yeah, there are times I’m definitely not feeling great about what’s going on, but I’m never going to show that publicly, never going to show that to a player and I’m not going to let a coach do that either. I think the power of positivity and being solution based in the face of adversity is critical.”
There has never been an offseason with more adversity than 2020, dealing with coronavirus and the growing fight against racial injustice. There was no script on how to handle things, but Doeren has found a way and his team said he’s never shown a glimpse of doubt or been unsure of himself.
“Coach Doeren has done a great job of being honest and transparent with us,” tight end Cary Angeline said. “He’s done a good job preparing us. I definitely think Coach Doeren has been great in handling this whole situation.”
Even under unique circumstances, this is a big year for Doeren. He probably won’t get a pass from fans if the team gets off to a bad start. There aren’t any cupcakes in September as ACC teams play 10 conference opponents with a plus one. Liberty comes to town in November. By then things could be going well, or really, really bad or somewhere in between. For now, Doeren has his list of things he wants to improve on in year eight.
He wants to get better when it comes to leading his staff, knowing when to offer constructive criticism and knowing when to let coaches be who they are. With the players, it’s always about trying to build better relationships, making sure they know he has an open door policy. For the program, he talks about taking that next step.
“I’m competitive, I want to win in everything I do, don’t get me wrong,” Doeren said. “If you and I sat down and played a game of cards I’d want to win.”
The Wolfpack haven’t won an ACC title in 41 years. They’ve been close to achieving big things, going toe-to-toe with Clemson in 2016 and 2017. However consecutive blowout losses to the Tigers in 2018 and 2019 make those close games feel like they happened decades ago.
“As a program it’s just taking that next step, man,” said Doeren, whose current contract runs through 2023. “We’ve been knocking on the door and just trying to find a way to get to the next step.”
The 2019 season taught Doeren how to deal with a decimated roster and how to remain resilient. He said he learned how to have grit and keep fighting and that will surely help him in 2020, with so many unknowns.
But he’s ready for whatever the season brings. He’ll find a way to handle things, even when they change by the minute. If things don’t go well, there will be fans calling for his head. But he can’t control that, only what happens inside that football facility.
He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Being a coach at times it’s really, really hard. When things don’t work out you get a lot of criticism, but when they do it’s magical to watch,” Doeren said. “It’s like art coming to life and seeing that player I know went through hell and then all of a sudden doing this successfully, I get a lot of joy out of that. I have a lot of damn fun, man.”
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