Coaching Legends * Norman Sloan

Norman Sloan had just returned to his Alma Mater as head coach of the basketball team a week or so after the death of Everett Case and the departure of Press Maravich to LSU.

One morning soon thereafter, he sat brooding over his cup of coffee, wondering just what he was going to do. He had taken a good look at the returning players and found the cupboard bare. The situation had been bad enough, but he learned that Eddie Biedenbach had suffered a season ending injury before the season could begin.

He called Charlie Bryant into his office and said, "I know it's late. I know all the top recruits have signed with somebody. But is there anybody we can get? Anybody at all?"[1] Bryant had heard of a young player at Pfieffer who would love to come to State. "He is underweight but he is talented" Bryant stated. Sloan was skeptical, but Bryant told him that Rick Barry had once been passed over because he was too thin. Desperate, Coach Sloan told him to look into it. Bryant called an alumnus who lived in Fayetteville and whose family were friends with Vann Williford's family. "Do you think Vann would like to play in Raleigh?" asked Bryant. "I'm sure he would. Let me call him and one of us will get back to you," the alum said. Less than 30 minutes later, one of State's all time great players had agreed to come to Raleigh.

Coach Sloan's first season ended with a dismal 7-19 record. Freshmen were not allowed to play and Vann Williford had not shown he was willing to work hard enough to be a good player in any event. Sloan sat down with him and told him he could be a good player if he tried. "Don't let me catch you without a basketball in your hands," growled Sloan. Although Coach did not mean the statement literally, Williford took it that way. With Williford, NC State came back quickly from mediocrity and were very competitive by his senior year. Williford averaged 11.3 points and 8.1 rebounds per game during his sophomore year of 1968. During 1969 he averaged 21.6 points and 10 rebounds. His senior year he averaged 23.7 points and 10 rebounds, one of the finest years for any State player. The rebounds may have been more impressive than the points considering the fact that Williford was only 6'6" and 191 pounds.[2]

The signature Vann Williford basketball was a 15-foot jumper coming off a screen on the left side of the foul line. A teammate would pass him the ball at the top of the circle and he would use the screen to take the shot. The alternative was to use the screen to brush off his defender and take the pass for the immediate shot. He was deadly from that distance, averaging over 50% for his three varsity years. Also a superb shot from the foul line, Vann averaged 78.6% and 80% his junior and senior years from the charity stripe.

Sloan lead the Pack to a 23-7 record in 1970 and stunned the hated Gamecocks and John Roche in the ACC championship that March. N.C. State's roster included:

  • Al Heartly, the first black to play basketball for State and the valedictorian of his HS class. Al was a walk-on before winning a scholarship.
  • Rick Anheuser was a transfer from Bradley.
  • Joe Dunning was a timid guard from Delaware that Sloan had to give him a copy of Psycho Cybernetics in an effort to build up his confidence.
  • Ed Leftwich was from New Jersey and the only highly recruited player on the 23-7 team.
  • Vann Williford was wanted by no major college program and picked up by State out of desperation.

    South Carolina had a powerhouse of a team. They had Bobby Cremins, John Roche, Tom Riker (6-10), John Ribock (6-8) and Tom Owens (6-10). This team had plowed through the ACC regular season without a loss and out rebounded their opponents by over 13 boards a game. Their average winning margin in conference play was 18.1 points.

    State was no slouch, coming into the tournament with a 19-6 record. They beat Maryland in the first game with Sloan often screaming at Lefty Driesell to "shut up". They got by Virginia on a late follow shot by Rick Anheuser. This set up the championship game with the Gamecocks ranked in the national top 5 and over-whelmingly favored.

    John Roche had an ankle sprain going into the game, and his mobility was significantly reduced. Frank McGuire decided to play a 2-1-2 zone, which allowed State to slow the tempo of the game and minimize the terrific advantage South Carolina enjoyed underneath. The first half ended with South Carolina in front 24-17. State had trimmed an earlier 11-point disadvantage to 7 by halftime. In the second half State held the ball every time the Gamecocks went into their zone defense. Sloan reasoned that he had two or three of his players with 2 or 3 fouls, so he would shorten the game as much as USC allowed.

    With South Carolina up by 11 points, McGuire ordered his players to come out of the zone. Unfortunately, they forgot about Williford underneath and he knocked down a quick basket. State stole the inbounds pass and scored. Suddenly the Pack was down 7 and had the momentum. Vann Williford was hot and Rich Anheuser was grabbing rebounds as the Wolfpack managed to tie the score at 35 at the end of regulation time.

    The first overtime ended in a tie as Roche missed a shot that would have won the game. With 22 seconds left in overtime and South Carolina up by one, Ed Leftwich knocked the ball away from Cremins who was looking to pass the ball. He took the ball in for an easy shot and gave State the lead for good. Anheuser added two free throws to make the final margin 42-39. South Carolina had scored only 4 points in ten minutes of overtime. Vann Williford was the tournament's MVP.

    McGuire was so furious he chased the referee off the court claiming Leftwich had fouled his player when he stole the ball. He groused that everything went against him in the ACC tournament. He said, "Even the fans threw things at me and my players as we walked off the court."[3] McGuire refused to allow his team to show up for the second place trophies. Rumors followed soon after that McGuire was campaigning to have USC secede from the ACC. He later denied the claims and said that if it had been up to him, USC would have still been in the ACC. He said the withdrawal from the ACC was mostly a football thing and the Athletic Director at the time (Paul Dietzel).

    The two years following Williford's graduation were lean for the Pack. They finished 13-14 and 16-10 in the 1971 and 1972 seasons. However, a tall stranger had walked into the basketball office in 1968 asking if Sloan and Bryant were interested in a seven-foot basketball player. He said, "I have a nephew up in the mountains who is a sophomore. His name is Tommy Burleson."

    One of the best-known secrets of State's recruiting during the late ‘60s and the ‘70s is Charlie Bryant. Most folks know Charlie Bryant for his tremendous efforts as an executive with "The Wolfpack Club". He was also an assistant coach and a brilliant recruiter. It was Bryant that did the yeoman's share of the work recruiting the best college basketball player of all time, David Thompson (some pundits will contest my statement, offering such great players as Oscar Robertson and Lew Alcindor). David came to State a year after Tommy. The recruiting story is interesting as is the career and life of the fabulous player. I will cover his story in a separate article combined with the 1974 National Champion team. Thompson lived in a town outside of Shelby and went to Crest High School. His family was poverty stricken and lived in a cinder block home near Boiling Springs, NC. He played ball as he was growing up (10th grade) with players such as Artis Gilmore at Gardner Webb College. He was one of the most highly recruited high school players ever in college basketball, but had narrowed his choices to State, UNC and Duke. First he had to decide not to play for Gardner Webb. He had friends there and knew the coaching staff well and liked them.

    Sloan was short a point guard (pun intended) and asked Dick Dickey, the former Wolfpack great to scout a player near Dickey's home in Marion, Indiana. Dickey was glad to, but Sloan was surprised when told that he was interested in the wrong player. Instead, he should take a long look at a diminutive point guard named Monte Towe. Sloan didn't think a 5'7" guard could play in the ACC, and told Dickey so. Dick retorted that Sloan didn't listen when he had recommended John Mengelt and asked him if he was willing to make the same mistake again. That got Sloan's attention because Mengelt went on to have a great college campaign at Auburn and the NBA. Mengelt told Sloan after scoring 40 points against State in 1971, that he would have come to State in a heartbeat. "All it would have taken was a phone call, coach," said Mengelt.

    Still kicking himself over losing out on Mengelt, Sloan offered Towe a scholarship, and the making of an incredible team was complete. Earlier, Rick Holdt, Joe Cafferky and Tim Stoddard had joined the Wolfpack and Morris Rivers would come south to join the 1974 team, filling part of the void left when Holdt and Cafferky graduated following the 1973 season. With these athletes, Sloan went 65-1 from the first game of the 1973 season through the 8th game of the 1975 season. That included 9 consecutives wins over the hated Tar Heels.

    By the time the 1975 season came to an end, it had become obvious that Norman Sloan built his teams around one dominant player. First there was Vann Williford, then David Thompson. When he did not have a dominant player, his teams usually struggled. Fortunately, for State fans, he recruited a string of superb individual talents over the next 5 years. The first superstar after Thompson and Burleson was a huge talent named Kenny Carr. He was a freshman on the 1975 team that included Thompson, Rivers, Towe, Stoddard and Spence. This team was very good, probably good enough to win it all. However, the personality of the team changed after the national championship. Coach Sloan stated in his book, "Confessions of a Coach" that he sensed a change in his team soon after the fall 1974 semester began. He would hear about some player being seen in a bar, or another player was having a blast at a campus party. While this was not the first time that Sloan had heard about a player having a beer, he was concerned that the frequency of the reports indicated a problem with excess.

    Players stopped working as hard in preseason conditioning programs and there were players who did not show up for some sessions at all. After he didn't see improvement after he had yelled at his players a few times, he decided to talk to the team leader, which was unquestionably Monte Towe. When Towe was on the court even a blind man could tell who was in charge of NC State's team. He was an intelligent leader, but exercised full control of the game on the floor. When Towe became defensive, Sloan reminded him that it was Towe and the team that demanded rules and curfews after the UCLA loss the previous December. Towe then said something to the effect that the pressure was too much, that they (the players) couldn't live up to the stratospheric expectations. Sloan then thought he understood. They needed to be reassured that they would be OK, that they had just built it up too much in their minds. But Coach was not exactly right.

    Monte told him the team had been talking a lot and they felt that if they sacrificed and did everything they had done the year before, that they might not win it all. According to Sloan the team had decided to not sacrifice, but instead to enjoy the championship and have a good time that year. Monte told him they might win it all anyway. Sloan said he never thought he would hear a player say that to him, but that Monte had the courage to tell it straight, and he had to respect it even if he didn't like it. Sloan tried all season to get them out of it with individual and group discussions, but with limited success.

    Still the team went 22-6 and finished ranked 7th in the nation. That was an enormous underachievement and a great disappointment to the excited State fans. Had the team been in better condition, they could have gone far. In the first game of the ACC tournament, Thompson's legs began to cramp. The cramps were so severe that he had a limp in the second game against an excellent Maryland team, which State won by two with Thompson somehow scoring 30 points. Maryland had defeated State easily the first game of the season and then beat State in Reynolds by one point in the rematch. There was nothing left against Carolina who beat State by 4 to win the ACC championship.

    After Kenny Carr came Hawkeye Whitney in 1977. The duo could have made NC State a national contender, but Kenny went pro after his Junior season. This surprised most State fans since Burleson and then Thompson had stayed their four years. Kenny was ready for the pros and became a star for Portland for many NBA seasons. Kenny Matthews was a freshman on the 1978 team, as was Clyde Austin.

    The incoming freshmen on the 1980 team included Dereck Whittenburg, Sidney Lowe and Thurl Bailey!

    Who Is Norman Sloan?

    One day while young "Whitey" (his nickname in Huntington, Indiana) came running home from school like the devil was chasing him. When he banged into the house, his dad wanted to know what was going on. "Dad, there is a big guy chasing me!" When he found out that I had been mouthing back and forth with the kid, he made me go back into the yard and fight the guy. "The next thing I knew, I was out in the front yard doing a great imitation of a punching bag for the bigger kid." After it was over, his dad cleaned him up and took him into town for an ice cream cone. The lesson was explained on the way. "Son, you don't run your mouth and then run away. IF you disagree with someone, you stay there and disagree, and if they want to fight, you fight. If you're not willing to do that, then you keep your mouth shut and come on home."

    His father had a huge influence on his life. A proud man, he would not accept anyone's charity, even when they were without any meat for Thanksgiving during the Great Depression. He learned that he was to look out for himself, and to stand up for what he believed in, even if it meant hardship.

    When Sloan visited State as a prospect, he rode a bus from Indianapolis to Raleigh and spent two days. He only saw Case twice. Case told him that he would give him the opportunity to get an education that would allow him to put food on the table, clothes on his family's back and a roof over their head. Therefore, Sloan studied Textiles for two years and then decided he would become a coach when he graduated. Because it was easier to be a coach in those days if you were able to coach both basketball and football, Sloan quit the basketball team after his sophomore year to play football. This decision did not please Coach Case, but enabled Sloan to get a job as an assistant football coach at Presbyterian College. He was also named the head basketball coach at the small college in Clinton, SC. One of the assistant football coaches (and the head baseball coach) was a man by the name of Bo Schembechler (of Michigan football fame).

    After leaving Presbyterian for a job as assistant under Dr. Eugene Lambert at Memphis State in 1955-56, Sloan went back to SC to talk with both the Citadel and Clemson about the head basketball positions. He first visited The Citadel without any intention of taking the job. He liked the athletic director at The Citadel so much; he accepted the job to the amazement and consternation of his wife, Joan.

    When he got back to Memphis, he decided the nearly 30% pay cut he would take by going to Charleston was too much ($7,200 at Memphis as an assistant vs. $5,200 as The Citadel's head coach). So he planned to go to Charleston to break the news to The Citadel. After two days of thought he called the head coach at Memphis and told him that he had given his word to The Citadel and didn't want to go back on the commitment. Joan was again the recipient of a nasty surprise. For those of you who had the pleasure of watching some of Sloan's NC State teams, Joan sang the National Anthem at all ballgames at NCSU and later at Florida. The tradition started at The Citadel when General Mark Clark allowed Joan to sing the Anthem at the field house even though he had no intention of changing from the instrumental version at ball games. After hearing her sing, he called Sloan and told him his wife could sing the Anthem at every ball game.

    In 1960, Sloan became the head coach at Florida. He found out quickly that Florida was first and foremost a football school when he showed up for his first day on the new job. He was replacing John Mauer who was also an assistant football coach and occupied a very nice office next to Ray Graves, the head football coach and the athletic director. After waiting a couple of hours for Mauer to move out, he found out that his office was an old football position meeting room, with the classroom chairs still in it. Seems that Mauer would be staying on as an assistant to Graves in football. So, an assistant football coach trumped the head basketball coach in terms of status.

    When Sloan had the office paneled and carpeted (he thought at Graves authorization) he was in trouble with the athletics business manager and track coach. He ended up having to pay for the carpet out of his own pocket ($107). It helped a little to find out that Graves had paid for his carpet as well. The next battle was over basketball season tickets. Florida didn't do that for any sport other than football and no one thought it was appropriate in Gatorland. Finally, after fighting for season tickets all the way to the chairman of the athletic board, season tickets for basketball was approved and they sold all of 4 tickets to one person the first year. Eventually, tickets sales caught on and they did better, but it was a rocky beginning for Sloan.

    Stormin' Norman

    Sloan would go ballistic over imagined or real slights. He didn't wait to try to talk things out; he just got in the other person's face and had at it. Judgment and timing were also not his strong suits. He had to fight for a recruiting budget and later fought over whether the money was spent wisely.

    Then Sloan thought it was time to get a trainer for the basketball team. He went storming in to see Graves who was in the midst of a messy situation with football gamblers who approached "honest" Jon McBeth about fixing football games. Honest Jon not only said no, he turned them in. In the middle of trying to sort out the mess, Graves was confronted with a red faced yelling Sloan who was flapping his arms and breathing fire. Finally, Graves told Sloan that Graves' job was 99% football coach and 1% athletic director. Smooth Norman sneered, "You're telling me!" Needless to say, Graves ordered him out of the room.

    Such battles continued, and Sloan ended up complaining to the trainer about "that tin-eared S.O.B." Next thing he knew he was confronted by an irate Ray Graves who informed Sloan he heard about the discussion with the trainer. Sloan charmed his boss by saying "I knew that bean-bellied bastard was going to do that!"[4]

    This went on until Sloan became head coach at NCSU, replacing the departed Press Maravich in 1966. Florida did have a successful basketball program by that time and was drawing good crowds to the home games.

    Coach Sloan's Soft Side

    Stormin' Norman was a volatile and emotional man, but he also cared deeply about his players and people. One example was a young man named Charles Monroe. Charles had just spent 3 years at Central Youth Center and had 47 years to go of a 50-year sentence. Sloan started working with Monroe through a Community Volunteer Program, which enables a lawful citizen to help a high-grade inmate re-adapt to normal society.[5]

    "Coach Sloan is the closest friend I've ever had," says the 23-year-old Monroe. "If I have a problem, I can go to him with it."[6] Sloan took Monroe places with his family, such as church or movies, and invited Monroe to his home twice a week. Monroe often attended Wolfpack practices and went to the Big Four Tournament in Greensboro with the team.

    The outlook for Monroe changed to one of hope from one of despair because one man cared, really cared.

    Norman Moves On

    After 14 years as State's coach, Sloan left to go back to Florida. The main reason was over money and Willis Casey's reluctance to part with it. In typical Sloan fashion he got into yelling fights with Casey over his salary ($35,000 in 1980 and the lowest in the ACC). Accusing Casey of not wanting to do anything about it, Casey offered him the chance to talk to the Athletic Board and Sloan took it, eventually calling Casey a liar in the board meeting (Casey had denied knowing anything about Sloan being upset).[7] The board had only powers of recommendation, but Sloan had offended Dr. Joab Thomas, the school president. Not getting the best of the situation, Sloan left to go back to Florida, where he was even unhappier with his situation.

    A High Profile State Alumnus and Huge Fan

    After his problems at Florida with Bill Arnsparger, Sloan retired from coaching. There were allegations that Sloan paid Vernon Maxwell to play at Florida, along with other charges that Sloan denies.

    Norman and Joan retired to the mountains of North Carolina and often attends basketball games at NCSU. He is an avid fan and is deeply grateful for what the game of basketball did for him over the 31 or 32 years of playing the game in high school and college and then as a coach.

    Perhaps Stormin' Norman has found peace at last.

    [1] Four Corners by Joe Menzer page 171

    [2] Charlie Board's ACC (Plus!!!) Stats Archive

    [3] Ibid

    [4] "Confessions of a Coach" Norman Sloan published by Rutledge Hill Press in 1991.

    [5] From an article in the Raleigh News and Observer written by A.J. Carr entitled "North Carolina State Basketball Coach Norman Sloan Offers Helping Hand To Individual In ‘Hopeless' Situation"

    [6] Ibid.

    [7] "Confessions of a Coach", page 116.

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