Friday, November 22, 2013

How NC State Football Won an ACC Title on America's Saddest Day

Early in 1963, the season-finale NC State-Wake Forest football game was moved from Saturday afternoon to Friday night. State officials didn't want to have a conflict with the big game scheduled that Saturday in Durham between three-time ACC champion Duke and North Carolina.

Friday night games were not particularly rare at that time, as the gentleman's agreement between college and high school administrators that prevented Friday night college games was not yet in place. Future ACC foes Miami and Florida State had faced each other on a Friday night earlier that season.

The anticipated showdown in Durham had an added twist, thanks to NC State's surprising play throughout the regular season. The Pack beat Clemson earlier in the year, thanks to a 77-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jim Rossi to receiver Ray Barlow, the first points the Pack scored against the Tigers since 1958. In its first home game of the season -- played on Oct. 26 at crumbling Riddick Stadium -- head coach Earle Edwards' team beat three-time defending ACC champion Duke for the first time since 1947.

The only blemish on the team's record was a loss at North Carolina.

Heading into the final weekend of the season, the Pack found itself in the unexpected driver's seat in the conference race, for the first time since halfback Dick Christy carried the 1957 Pack to its first ACC championship. All it needed to do was beat the 1-8 Demon Deacons on its home field in the only college football game scheduled for that night to gain a share of the ACC title with the winner of the Duke-UNC game.

So on Friday, Nov. 22, 1963 -- 50 years ago today -- the NC State campus was thinking of nothing but football.

That changed about four hours before kickoff, when Lee Harvey Oswald shot President John F. Kennedy in Dallas. As a horrified nation watched and waited for reports about the president, the Wolfpack and Deacons tried to prepare to play a game.

There was some talk of cancelling the game. All but 16 of the Saturday games scheduled for that weekend -- including the Duke-Carolina game -- were cancelled. But the Deacons had already arrived from Winston-Salem. There was really no other option than to play the game.

"This is a day of deep tragedy for our nation and for mankind," said Chancellor John T. Caldwell. "Let not the playing of this game diminish our sense of respect for our great president or the office."

Players and fans shed tears during a long moment of silence before the game, but it proceeded as planned. The game itself was less than inspiring. The Wolfpack rolled up 408 rushing yards, including 133 by halfback Mike Clark in the only 100-yard rushing day of his career. But the celebration for only the third conference championship in school history was muted, as the events of the day took precedence.

North Carolina eventually beat the Blue Devils the weekend after Thanksgiving to gain its share of the title and earn the league's automatic berth into the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla. The Wolfpack, which had been denied a postseason berth in 1957 because of a department-wide postseason ban by the NCAA, was invited to play Mississippi State in the five-year-old Liberty Bowl in Philadelphia, the second bowl bid in school history. It was the first time in league history that the ACC sent more than one team to a bowl game.

On a frigid afternoon, when an announced crowd of 8,300 spectators were barely visible in the wind-swept 102,000-seat Municipal Stadium, the 19th-ranked Pack fell 16-12 to its No. 11 ranked opponent.

Edwards was named the ACC Coach of the Year for the second time and receiver Don Montgomery was named first-team All-ACC for the second year in a row, was named second-team All-American and won the H.C. Kennett Award as the school's top athlete.

Winning a share of that ACC title in 1963 put Edwards' program on a roll. It won the 1964 title outright, and shared the title again in 1965, just in time for the long-anticipated opening of Carter Stadium a year later. The gleaming concrete stadium had long been Edwards' dream, the reason he agreed to play most of the teams on the road for more than a decade, traveling to all corners of the country to play against national powers in exchange for guarantees that paid athletic department expenses and helped with the down payment for the stadium.

Edwards led the 1967 team to the first bowl victory in 1967 and won another ACC title in 1968, winning two more ACC Coach of the Year honors before retiring after the 1970 season. He was elected to the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 1974 and tonight highlights the second class of the NC State Athletic Hall of Fame.

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