BLACKSBURG — Somewhere at his house, probably stuffed in a box, Mike O'Cain has a playbook for the 1981 Murray State football team. O'Cain was 27 years old and four years removed from graduation day at Clemson when he pulled on his headsets and called plays for the first time that season.
Murray State’s new head coach, 34-year-old Frank Beamer, was a first-time big whistle. He had a defensive background and decided to name O'Cain his offensive coordinator, even though they worked together for just one season, 1978 at The Citadel, before Beamer became Murray State’s defensive coordinator.
From what he remembers, O’Cain felt surprised that he got the job, which he called “a great stepping stone.” He did it for four years and later became the head coach at North Carolina State and offensive coordinator at North Carolina and Clemson, his alma mater.
Saturday”s game against Appalachian State begins Beamer’s 25th season at Virginia Tech. And up in the booth, with his side-parted hair having silvered since 1981, will be O’Cain, who replaced Bryan Stinespring as the Hokies’ play caller after last season.
O'Cain still coaches quarterbacks and Stinespring remains offensive coordinator. But for the first time since the 2004 season, after which he was fired by Clemson coach Tommy Bowden, O'Cain will assume the role that fans love to critique more than any other.
When O'Cain left his booth at Clemson’s Memorial Stadium on Nov. 20, 2004, he never imagined it would be seven years before he called plays again. The Tigers beat rival South Carolina 29-7 that day to finish 6-5. But they finished the year ranked 110th of 117 teams nationally in yards per game and 90th in points per game.
Ten days later, Bowden walked into O'Cain’s office and fired him. O'Cain got home earlier than usual that day, and his wife, Nancy, thought he was kidding when he told her Bowden let him go. O'Cain, South Carolina-born, loved his alma mater and thought he’d never move again after getting a job at Clemson in 2001, so the firing hurt him deeply.
O'Cain is honest, measured and exceedingly polite enough to not sound arrogant when talking about past disappointments and know-it-all fans. While he called the Clemson firing “ancient history,” he said he is looking forward to calling plays again, even if he believes that job itself gets too much credit or blame.
“I think sometimes, it’s overrated, to be honest with you, because so much of it is done during the week and everybody is involved with it,” he said.
This move, to have him call plays in quarterback Logan Thomas‘ first year starting, surprised him, just like the Murray State job and his ouster at Clemson. And while much of the talk surrounding Beamer’s offseason coaching changes centered on him shaking up the consistent composition of his assistants, there is nobody on his staff he has known longer than O'Cain – except for his son, Shane, the new running backs coach. Shane was born in 1977, the year before Beamer first worked with O'Cain.
The challenge Saturday for O'Cain and the offensive coaches is to determine what kind of defense Appalachian State is running – the 4-3 of last year, the 3-4 that coach Jerry Moore said he plans to use this year, or some combination thereof – and tweak the game plan accordingly.
“This game is a little harder because of that, of the unknown,” O'Cain said. “A lot of this, we’ll have to make adjustments at the game. Usually, most of these adjustments are made during the week, because you see what people are doing.”
But all these years later, so much of this will feel familiar – the call sheet on the table in front of him, the play unfolding on the field below, as he directs the game in his syrupy smooth accent. Offensive schemes have changed plenty in the past 30 years – as O'Cain’s old playbooks, all of which he kept, will show – yet one constant remains in the life of a play caller.
“Most people couldn’t call a football game if they had to, but they can sit up there in the stands and criticize the guy calling it,” O'Cain said. “But you understand that. And that’s just part of this game. You live with that and go on. Am I worried about it? No, not a bit, because I’ve been there before and done it.”
Read Darryl Slater’s blog at vteffect.com