Avent's Success Well Earned

Aside from the word "thugs," perhaps no other term gets used as liberally in the sports media world as "dream job." Nonetheless, there's been a lot of talk lately about "dream jobs." Even in the past few weeks and years here in the Triangle, we've seen several coaches come home to their so-called "dream jobs." For instance:

• Chuck Amato compared himself to soap star Susan Lucci when he was finally offered – and he accepted – the job at his alma mater, NC State, as football coach in January of 2000.

• According to his bio on the official UNC website, North Carolina football coach John Bunting "took with him [around the NFL as a player and coach] a framed photograph of Kenan Stadium. It hung in his locker or over his office desk for 30 years. Now Bunting sits in an office on the top floor of the Kenan Football Center with a panaromic [sic] view of stadium [sic] he cherishes so much."

• Even Duke football coach Carl Franks took hold of his "dream job," according to his bio at GoDuke.com: "For Franks, a Garner, N.C. native, one probably couldn't write a better script for a happy homecoming. It was on his 38th birthday – December 1, 1998 – that Duke Director of Athletics Joe Alleva offered him his dream job as the Blue Devils' head coach."

• And of course, there's Roy Williams, who just this week took over his "dream job" as basketball coach in Chapel Hill. (In the past 15 years, Roy must have purchased at least 250 homes at Governors Club.)

We've seen, in the case of Amato, that homecomings can indeed be happy, fruitful ones. For others, such as Franks, it can be a burden and a nightmare. Bunting's impact on UNC football is still in flux, though the Tar Heels have made incremental strides under his stewardship. And based on trends and statistics, one can assume that Williams will lead Carolina basketball back to the place where Tar Heel fans believe their program belongs.

Sometimes, however, homecomings for "dream jobs" aren't national news items; the press conferences aren't held in front of hundreds of well-wishers. Sometimes, in fact, the impact of such a homecoming isn't felt for many years.

Four years before Chuck Amato gave his famous ode to Ms. Lucci in front of hundreds in the A.E. Finley Fieldhouse, Elliott Avent gave a similar speech to a crowd of about six (including himself) in the Case Center on the NC State campus.

It was August 14, 1996, when Avent was named State's baseball coach. On hand for the summer press conference was Avent, NCSU Athletics Director Les Robinson, Bruce Winkworth of the NC State Media Relations Department, Al Myatt of the Raleigh News & Observer, and three writers from State's student newspaper, Technician. (J.P. Giglio, now with the N&O, was one; a certain Statefans.com columnist was another.)

Needless to say, Avent's return to the school he so dearly loved was not met with the kind of response that Amato's eventually would. But Avent was happy all the same.

"This is the only job I've ever wanted," said Avent, who had previously been at New Mexico State. "When people think of professional sports, especially baseball, they think of the New York Yankees. This is my New York Yankees. This is the only job I ever wanted when I started in coaching, and it's where I intend to be the rest of my life."

Avent is a vastly different person than his predecessor, Ray Tanner, who has led South Carolina to national prominence. For instance, the first time I met Tanner, as a student writer, he made me shake his hand twice, because the first time wasn't "man enough." By contrast, one of the first times I met Avent, I saw the man cry.

In journalism, you're not supposed to pull for players, coaches or teams (at least not publicly). But every now and then, you should get a free pass. I have pulled for Avent's teams ever since his hire – not because he's the second coming of Ray Tanner or Sam Esposito, but because he wants to be at NCSU.

"I'll do everything I can to uphold the proud tradition of NC State baseball, because NC State baseball is all about tradition," Avent said that day in 1996.

Avent has steered the State program admirably in the past seven years. He has signed some gems of ballplayers, only to see them head for the big leagues before ever playing a game in Raleigh. Others left before completing their eligibility at State. That attrition caught up with the Pack in 2000 and 2001, rebuilding years at State. But it was also 2001 when State became the first ACC tournament team to go from the play-in game to the tournament championship game. Even in a rebuilding year, Avent's team had talent: five State players signed pro contracts after '01.

Injuries plagued the Pack in 2002, and State finished a disappointing 33-26. The sting of a down year, coupled with the potential for the Pack to play many of its 2003 "home" games on the road due to construction at Doak Field, made for an anxious off-season.

But Avent and the Pack have more than persevered this season. While Doak Field was getting a much-needed facelift (the Pack's facilities are only now coming up to par with the rest of the ACC and resembling less a forgotten community ball field), State hit the road. The Pack has played "home" games all over the state: Kinston, Wilson, Zebulon, Wilmington, Clayton, Durham, Buies Creek – as well as a couple of games at an unfinished Doak.

But a funny thing has happened this year. The Pack is winning. A lot. And not just against the Marylands of the college baseball world. Two of three from Clemson. Two of three from Florida State. Two of three from Wake Forest. Don't look now, but the Pack is No. 8 in the land and heading towards a home regional in the NCAA Tournament. (Doak should be ready for May regionals – if Mother Nature cooperates.)

A few days after our package of stories about Avent's hire ran in Technician in August of 1996, the stocky man from Aventon, N.C. (no joke), came up to the newspaper's offices. Rarely do you want to see someone you've just written about come to see you face-to-face. But this was different.

I don't remember the exact conversation, but I remember Avent asking for numerous copies of the paper so he could send them out to his friends and family. It was then that he started crying, saying how no one had ever written anything so nice before. He was furiously shaking our hands and thanking us, all the while expressing how proud he was to be the head baseball coach at NC State.

So, Coach Avent, if you happen to be reading this: congratulations. It's been a long time coming, but you're doing a hell of a job with the Pack Nine. Hopefully, Pack fans are as proud as you are.

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