Monday, November 24, 2014

What Have We Gotten Ourselves Into?

The day he was hired, Jim Valvano put on a show. As usual.
He flew in from New York on a private Lear jet.

He brought with him, not surprisingly, his own reporter to cover the events of the day.

And in a room full of media—a veritable braintrust of ACC basketball knowledge—he quickly won over a crowd that, for more than a decade, had been openly called the “Worm Brigade” by his predecessor.

That’s how Jim Valvano arrived in Raleigh on March 27, 1980, to begin the circus of his NC State coaching career.

Recently, an author contacted me to do some research for his upcoming book about the golden age of ACC hoops and I found a bunch of clips that had been tucked away some years ago. One batch was from Valvano’s inaugural press conference, and it only reinforces why the Eye-talian coach from Queens became a beloved figure here in the South, long before he devolved into a pariah in the book/academic scandal of the late 1980s and resurrected himself as a hero in his fight against cancer.

That early spring day almost 35 years ago was magnificent, a bit more raucous than the press conference two weeks earlier in which Duke introduced its straight-laced new coach, 33-year-old Mike Krzyzewski of Army.

As was his wont, Valvano told some whoopers that day – about changing flights in Charlotte, about being a co-owner of a bar in New Rochelle—but he certainly got off on the right foot with the collected media, which was quite a stew of hospitality room philosophers and North Carolina newspaper luminaries.

They liked him as soon as he walked by the photo corps and said: “I’ll take a dozen 8x10s, please.”

To set things straight: he flew from New Rochelle to Raleigh on a private jet with NC State assistant coach Marty Fletcher, a holdover from Norm Sloan’s staff, and Al Mari, a writer from New York’s Gannett News Service, for which Valvano wrote a weekly basketball column. (Probably not a coincidence: Four months after Valvano arrived in Raleigh, with his blessings and those of new football coach Monte Kiffin, Stu Coman began publishing “The Wolfpacker,” a newspaper covering Wolfpack athletics and featuring a column by Valvano in each issue.)

At the time, Valvano also had a cable access coaches show before most the rest of the country had cable television, 10 weeks of summer basketball camp and an outside income of more than double his base salary at Iona—a cool $35,000 per year.

Valvano, 34, told the gathered people that he was part owner of two bar-restaurants, one of which was called “The Fonz,” where fans and players came by after games to see the coach, adorned in an apron, serve Amaretto sours and lead everyone in singing. He walked back those claims pretty quickly when it was suggested that the “The Fonz” was a place where local gamblers hung out, as well as agent Paul Corvino, whose illegal signing of Iona star Jeff Ruland got Valvano in trouble with the NCAA before he ever coached a game for the Wolfpack.

Few may remember it, but Valvano was not the first choice to replace Sloan, despite what the people on the search committee called the greatest in-person interview they had ever participated in. It had happened two weeks before in Washington.

The first choice of athletics director Willis Casey was Morgan Wootten, the famed coach of DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Md. On the day Valvano was introduced, Casey so vehemently denied that Wootten had ever been extended an offer that it absolutely had to be true. Casey did say four college coaches had been interviewed for Sloan’s vacancy, and they were thought to be Valvano, Bill Foster of Clemson, Tom Young of Rutgers and Jack Hartman of Kansas State.

In other words: Who?

Valvano had been a hot coaching commodity for a while. He definitely had been offered the Providence job two years before, and had been in talks with both Oklahoma and St. Louis.

“Can you see me at one of those Southern schools?” Valvano said a few years earlier. “You know, where the referees wear crewcuts and say ‘Hey, C.T., mighty fine team you got there. How’s your wife? How’s that prized pig of yours?’”

Wonder how Wendell Murphy felt about that?

Here then, is some of the raucousness of that day at the old College Inn meeting room, where Valvano was introduced underneath a Slobbering Wolf logo, without much of the “I’ve worked my whole life to get her and I couldn’t be happier” nonsense. He signed a contract worth somewhere between $40,000-$45,000, and Casey said any outside business Valvano generated was between the coach and the outside company, so he wouldn't disclose any information on a full financial package.

In attendance that day were Casey, school president Joab Thomas, assistant athletics director Frank Weedon, sports information director Ed Seaman, the  usual collection of superfans and boosters and a standing room only collection of writers and three television stations.
  • “I played very hard to get. I told them I would take a multi-week contract. And that’s what I got. I called Willis Casey back at 11:30 the other night and said ‘I don’t want to bother you, but I’ve got a wife and 2.7 children. They’d like to know if my contract is for a year, a month, if I’m getting paid, or am I paying you?’
  • “I have an average family, with 2.7 kids. My wife is pregnant. She’s working on a power forward.

  • Of his own family, with older brother Nick and younger brother Bob, he said: “I’m the one in the family that there are no pictures of."

  • Of his one-year stint as head coach of Johns Hopkins: “Most places you start two guards, two forwards and a center. I started an ophthalmologist, a gynecologist and a pediatrician, I sent in a general practitioner for the pediatrician.” (He used this line a lot over the years, but this was a new audience.)
  • Of moving to the country life North Carolina after growing up in New York City and Long Island: “I don’t fly fish. It’s tough casting into a fire hydrant.”
  • His thoughts of academics: “I’m not in the business of fouling kids up. I like to have a close relationship with my players. It’s important for players not to always see their coach in a three-piece suit. I’d like them to see them come over to my house and see my wife make me take the garbage out. Self-image is so important. I consider myself fairly intelligent. I like the theater. I like to read. I like to have conversation with the academic community. I like to feel good about me. Basketball is not my whole life. I want [my players] to understand that someday the cheering is going to stop. My job is to prepare them for that. When you get your first job at IBM, they don’t say, ‘Here comes No. 10, at left desk.’”
  • On his five years at Iona, the small Christian Brothers schools in New Rochelle, N.Y., where he guided the Gaels to 31 consecutive conference wins, two conference championships and a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances while serving as men’s basketball coach and athletics director: “The last time they had won anything up there was during the French and Indian War.”
  • (On the way home, he told Mari, with a much more reflective tone: “I thank God my path and the paths of the kids at Iona crossed. We enjoyed highs together, and we suffered through some lows together. Five years ago, we wouldn’t have had two people at a Chamber of Commerce dinner. Wednesday night, we had a houseful. Iona went far beyond everyone’s expectations. They’ll still have a great team this year, but when you think about it, the coach—me—is bigger than the program. Here, the program is bigger than the coach. I had to think of the future. The trend toward league play will hurt Iona. After this year, the NCAA has a rule that states that to qualify for an NCAA bid, a team must face every team in its conference. Do you think Army will want to face Iona? Of course not. Look at St. John’s and Syracuse. Do you think those schools—the so-called big boys—want to play little Iona? No, they don’t. So they go into the Big East. What’s going to happen to Iona after this year? Will they go independent? If they do, will they get a bid? Sure—if they win 22-23 games. The five-year program there is over, and now everybody know how good Iona is. But at 34, I wanted to coach. As athletics director at Iona, I was getting bogged down in swimming problems and football helmets. Here, I was told I would coach a long time and that made me feel good.”)
  • On his enjoyment of the game: “I work 365 days for 30 nights. They’re special to me. To me, the greatest thing in the world is being introduced and running from the bench to mid-court before the game."
  • And on coaching in the shadow of Dean Smith at North Carolina, something that grated at Sloan, Duke’s Bill Foster and others who never got to share the same spotlight as the Tar Heels Hall of Fame coach: “Shadow? I’m 34 years old, have respect for everybody, but I won’t live in anyone’s shadow. I look forward to meeting him on the court, but I’m not worried about it. And I’ll tell you one more thing—I’m going to outlive him.”
It might have been the biggest laugh line of the day.

And, in retrospect, the saddest.

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