Amato Era: What Might Have Been?

Chuck Amato ushered in one of the most exciting eras in the storied history of NC State football. The brash, energetic Amato had finally received the opportunity he had been waiting for at his alma mater, and he was determined to make sure that everyone knew that he planned on turning the college football world on its ear.

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    "We're just trying to get these guys to believe in themselves. We want them to believe that they can do things aggressively and not get intimidated by anybody. We want to do the intimidating.

    "We want to chase the football hard, and we want to get there with a bad disposition."

    With those words in the spring of 2000, Chuck Amato ushered in one of the most exciting eras in the storied history of NC State football. The brash, energetic Amato had finally received the opportunity he had been waiting for at his alma mater, and he was determined to make sure that everyone knew that he planned on turning the college football world on its ear.

    Amato was the captain of the famed 1967 "White Shoes Defense" as a linebacker for the Wolfpack, and he also captured two ACC wrestling titles during his time as a student-athlete. While at State, he earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics in 1969 and a master's degree in education in 1973. After assistant-coaching stops at his prep alma mater, Easton Area High School; his college alma mater, NC State; and the University of Arizona, Amato joined Bobby Bowden's staff at Florida State. He spent 18 years in Tallahassee, helping the Seminoles win eight straight conference championships. However, Amato yearned to return to NC State to guide his own program, and in 2000, he got his chance.

    The coach with the predominant pecs had barely a month to put together a 20-man recruiting class that was widely regarded as the ACC's worst. However, the group included a pair of lightly regarded Alabama natives in quarterback Philip Rivers and receiver Jerricho Cotchery, and the duo would go on to become one of the most prolific aerial tandems in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

    "We want to chase the football hard, and we want to get there with a bad disposition."

    Amato's first team had some top-notch talents in tailback Ray Robinson and wideout Koren Robinson on offense and linebacker Levar Fisher and safeties Adrian Wilson and Terrence Holt on defense, but most observers scoffed at the notion that a true freshman—even one as precocious as Rivers—could lead a team through the rugged ACC. Quickly, however, Amato made believers of his players.

    "We're going to shock the world, I promise you," said Fisher that spring.

    Fisher proved to be prophetic. Every week, NC State seemed to be involved in a contest that game down to the final moments, leading to Amato joking about taking nitroglycerine tablets by the handful. In Amato's first game, State upended Arkansas State in double overtime, and a nearly three weeks later, in a nationally televised Thursday night game, the Pack outlasted Georgia Tech in overtime again. The Wolfpack's overtime magic would come to an end in a double-overtime loss to Maryland late in the year, but Amato's first team had qualified for the MicronPC.com Bowl. In a fitting end to a year that had featured the motto "Finish," the Pack overcome a 24-0 deficit to beat Minnesota, 38-30, finishing the year at 8-4. Behind Rivers's right arm and offensive coordinator Norm Chow's offensive genius, the Wolfpack established single-season school marks for pass completions, attempts and fewest turnovers, and finished second all-time in NC State annals in passing yardage.

    Amato parlayed the strong initial campaign into a highly acclaimed recruiting class. The 30-man group was considered the No. 9 haul in the country by guru Max Emfinger and No. 12 nationally by ESPN.com, who called NC State "the big surprise this year." Among the notable developments were landing Dovonte Edwards out of rival UNC-Chapel Hill's backyard; the arrival of three junior college standouts—Shawn Price, Terrance Chapman and Terrance Martin—to bolster the defensive line; and landing 10 players out of the state of Florida. Sunshine State natives Tramain Hall, Jay Davis, Greg Golden, Sterling Hicks, Marcus Hudson, Andre Maddox and Patrick Thomas would become mainstays of Amato's first few teams.

    Debuting the motto "Full Speed Ahead," Amato's 2001 squad finished at 7-5, with the signature victory coming when State dealt Florida State its first-ever ACC home loss. A tearful Amato embraced his former mentor, Bowden, at midfield following the game. While the Pack was defeated by Pittsburgh in the Tangerine Bowl, NC State established another impressive school record, turning the ball over just 13 times in 11 regular-season contests.

    On the recruiting trails, Amato & Co. landed arguably the nation's top cornerback, A.J. Davis; one of the finest receivers in the country, Richard Washington; and All-American tailback T.A. McLendon in the Class of 2001. The 24-man class was rated No. 30 in the land by Prep Football Report, but an argument could be made that the group could be considered Amato's best in terms of top-to-bottom depth. Among the lesser-ranked players who proved to be huge contributors to the Pack were receiver Brian Clark, kicker/punter John Deraney, offensive lineman Leroy Harris, safety Garland Heath, linebacker Oliver Hoyte, defensive end/linebacker Manny Lawson, linebacker Patrick Lowery, defensive tackle John McCargo, offensive tackle James Newby and tight end T.J. Williams.

    "We were in every school in this state in May. Our coaches knocked on every door in North Carolina, and we're going to do it again this May."

    Off the field, Amato fought the erroneous perception, perpetuated by in-state schools, that the Wolfpack was concentrating its recruiting efforts in the state of Florida instead of its home state.

    "We signed more people from in-state than anywhere else," Amato said in 2001. "This is the base.

    "We were in every school in this state in May. Our coaches knocked on every door in North Carolina, and we're going to do it again this May."

    No one was questioning NC State's reputation on the field. The breakthrough season that Amato had dreamed about had arrived, with the Pack reeling off nine straight wins to start the season and earning a No. 8 ranking in the polls. Even after three consecutive heartbreaking losses, the Wolfpack lived up to its "Step Up" motto, beating Florida State once more than then hammering Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl for its school-record 11th victory. Raleigh had a downtown parade to honor the team's accomplishments, and amidst the fanfare and confetti, no one could have predicted that it would turn out to be Amato's only year with a winning conference record (5-3).

    Amato and his coaches responded by fashioning its finest recruiting haul, on paper. Headlined by All-Americans Mario Williams, Derek Morris and Marcus Stone, the group was considered the best in the conference and No. 8 nationally by SuperPrep. Standouts Darrell Blackman, Raymond Brooks, Jamesly Jean, James Martin, LeRue Rumph, Miguel Scott, Jimmie Sutton III, Stephen Tulloch and DeMarcus "Tank" Tyler were also part of a class that earned attention with a remarkable seven early enrollees. When the brand-new Wendell H. Murphy Football Center opened a couple of months later, NC State football was arguably riding as high as it had at any other point in the program's history.

    In 2003, Rivers's final season, the team's motto was "Cut It Loose"—and Rivers did just that. He and the Pack set school records for total offense, first downs, passing attempts, completions, yards, completion percentage, touchdowns and points scored. Rivers was tabbed ACC Player of the Year, but the 8-5 record was something of a disappointment, even after the Pack took apart Kansas, 56-26, in the Tangerine Bowl.

    State's Class of 2004 featured in-state standouts Andre Brown, Gerard Miller and DeMario Pressley, plus Florida natives Octavius Darby, John Dunlap, DaJuan Morgan and Willie Young, but, for the first time, the high-risk, high-reward recruiting strategy employed by assistants such as Doc Holliday and Chris Demarest began to falter in this class. The group was tabbed as the No. 27 class in the country by G&W Recruiting, but in recruiting circles, the 18-man haul was marked for its near-misses than the players who ultimately signed with the Pack.

    The following season, cracks began to appear in the façade constructed by Amato. The motto of "Discipline" became something of a running joke among observers after the Wolfpack finished at 5-6 and was decimated by penalties and turnovers. State boasted the nation's top overall defense, but inconsistency at the quarterback position and undisciplined play stymied their efforts all year long. State didn't qualify for a bowl game for the first time in the Amato era, leading the coach to vow never to have another losing season.

    The recruiting Class of 2005 included blue-chippers such as Toney Baker, Curtis Crouch, J.C. Neal and Kyle Newell, but did not contain the depth and athleticism of previous classes, marking two straight years that the recruiting haul had declined in quality.

    When NC State won just two of its first six games in 2005, Amato realized that a change was needed at signal-caller. He removed redshirt senior Davis for redshirt sophomore Stone, and despite a similar lack of passing production, the Pack responded by winning four of its last five games to earn a bid to the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Charlotte, N.C. The Wolfpack's rock-solid defense lifted the squad to a shutout win over South Florida and a 7-5 mark for the campaign. The good vibes from the fantastic finish were short-lived, however, with Williams, McCargo, Tulloch and Morris all deciding to leave NC State early for the NFL Draft. Though the season motto had been "Trust," onlookers began to question whether these departing players trusted whether Amato still had the program on the right track.

    The Wolfpack's Class of 2006 was stacked mostly with lightly regarded athletes, many of whom were considered projects or ‘tweeners, players without an obvious position who would be fitted into the right spot in time. For the first time, questions about Amato's future had a tangible impact on off-the-field recruiting efforts.

    "I didn't come here to use this job as a stepping stone like many others have or could. I wanted to surround myself with people who would help me stretch my vision and not choke my dreams."

    Instead of answers to the queries about the head coach, the beginning of the 2006 season brought only more questions. State lost two of its first three games, with a controversial loss to Akron at home and a blowout road loss to Southern Mississippi. Amato benched Stone for hometown product and legacy recruit Daniel Evans, and he helped the Pack pull out dramatic wins over Boston College and Florida State, giving the Wolfpack back-to-back conference victories over ranked opponents and a leg up on the fight for the ACC championship. Improbably, though, NC State lost its final seven games of the year, with each and every week seeming to bring a narrow loss in which NC State had every opportunity to win.

    Like in 1999, NC State lost to rival UNC and in-state foe East Carolina to end the season, creating the circumstances that paved the way for Amato to land his dream job. Seven years before, it had cost Mike O'Cain his job—and it did the same for Amato.

    The final report card on Amato showed his final overall record to be 49-37, with a 25-31 mark in conference play. The record was similar to his predecessor O'Cain's (41-40, 26-30) and paled in comparison to that of O'Cain's predecessor, Dick Sheridan, 52-29-3. Say what you will about the relative strength of the Atlantic Coast Conference in these respective tenures, but Amato's ultimate demise likely came from an underwhelming 7-7 mark against Big Four foes UNC and Wake Forest. Amato's teams consistently appeared to play down to the level of competition and find ways to allow the other team multiple opportunities to win.

    Amato was also hit hard by attrition on his coaching staffs just about every year, leading to speculation that he was a micro-manager who made it difficult for coaches to exhibit creativity or correct their own mistakes. In seven seasons, he had four different offensive coordinators (Chow, Marty Galbraith, Noel Mazzone and Marc Trestman) and four different defensive coordinators (Buddy Green, by committee, Reggie Herring and Steve Dunlap). The lack of continuity hindered the growth of offensive and defensive philosophies, relationships between players and coaches, and the approach to recruiting.

    What cannot be underestimated, however, was the role that Amato played in generating excitement among the fanbase and motivating the powers-that-be to build facilities that rank among the very finest in the nation. Amato dared to dream and to bring up the possibilities of what might be achieved at a place that he held close to his heart.

    "When I came to North Carolina State University, I set my dreams very high," said Amato in a statement announcing his dismissal. "My vision was to take this program to places that it had never been before in 100-plus years of playing football.

    "I didn't come here to use this job as a stepping stone like many others have or could. I wanted to surround myself with people who would help me stretch my vision and not choke my dreams."

    When Amato addressed his team for the final time, he urged his players to continue getting good grades and to play hard for their new coach. He emotionally told them that he would be the first one to buy tickets when NC State finally earned its rightful spot in an ACC championship game. The players were moved by the words of the man they had come to play for and respect.

    "Chuck went up there, heart on the outside of his chest, and just had all his emotions on his sleeve," said sophomore cornerback Levin Neal. "After hearing that, I feel a whole lot different about everything now. He loved every one of us, and I do believe that. I believe he wants the best for us."

    With dramatic wins over Florida State, tooth-and-nail battles with Ohio State, ESPN Gameday appearances, gleaming new facilities, headline-making recruiting victories, NFL first-round draft picks and school-record fan attendance, Amato breathed life into a moribund program and made everything seem truly possible. Many fans will always look on the renovated Carter-Finley Stadium as the "House That Chuck Built" and will wonder how things might have been different if the "game of inches" had eventually turned NC State's way.

    In the end, however, Amato's downfall was not that he dreamed too big; it is that the details that go into consistent success and resounding accomplishments were too often overlooked. That is why Pack fans say goodbye to one of their own and wish good luck to a fellow alumnus today—and why they will hold their new coach to a higher standard for having come to know and cheer for one Charles Amato.

    *****

    Check back tomorrow for Pack Pride's analysis of potential candidates to replace Chuck Amato as the leader of the Pack.


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