As the saying goes, there are two certainties in life- death and taxes. Well, you can add a third...the fact that Philip Rivers is NC State’s top player of the past decade and any other decade for that matter.
Consider this stat, in four years with Rivers at the helm, NC State averaged 32.29 points per game. He put up better than 60 points once, 50 points on six occasions and 40 points in five contests. Rivers won 34 games while the quarterback at NC State, averaging better than eight wins a year while never missing a start in 51 games. He was 3-1 in bowl games for the Wolfpack, culminating in a 56-26 blowout win over Kansas in his final game for NC State, a contest where Rivers may have been at his absolute best.
River’s biggest win probably came during his junior season when the Pack crushed Notre Dame 28-6 in the Gator Bowl. The Pack ran out to a 9-0 record that year and found itself in 2002's initial BCS rankings. However, as fate would have it, a delay of game penalty against Georgia Tech gave the Jackets a second chance to convert a third and 24 after the Pack has stopped them on the previous play. GT would go on to win that night in what would be the first of three consecutive losses. Still, that season proved to be one of the most exciting in recent Wolfpack history.
Exiting high school, Rivers received his fair share of recruiting attention but was never considered a big time prospect by any stretch. Alabama never recruited him seriously because they had already received a commitment from Brodie Croyle. Auburn talked about Rivers playing defense if quarterback didn’t work out. Ole Miss wanted Rivers bad and would have taken him but they already had a commitment from Eli Manning.
The constant in River’s recruiting was NC State. Then-assistant coach Joe Pate headed up the Pack’s efforts in Alabama and jumped on the tall, lanky QB early and never relented. While some of the other big name schools balked at River’s ability as a quarterback, Pate was intrigued not only with his physical ability but the intangibles he brought to the field. In a recent interview with Pack Pride, Pate talked about the attributes that caught his eye while scouting Rivers in high school.
“The thing about Rivers that people don’t know is that he was a really good athlete,” said Pate. “He was the point guard on the basketball team and scored 48 or 49 points one game. When he was a junior he played defense and led the state in interceptions.
“But I guess the advantage we had over some other people was we knew more about him. We probably watched him practice more. Steve (Steve Rivers, father of Philip and head coach at Athens High School) would let me get right out on the field in the huddle and see how he communicated with his teammates. It would be like, ‘we’re going to take this ball and score’. He had a little funny motion but he had a strong arm and he still gets rid of the ball quickly. And the most important thing to me was his accuracy and then he didn’t throw interceptions and he put the ball where it needed to be.
“But he was such a tremendous leader and had so many intangibles. When I recruited Philip and other kids, I never, ever told one of them that I could promise them that they would come in and start. But, I did tell Philip, in my opinion, if he did what he could do, it wouldn’t surprise me if he didn’t come here and start.”
The bond forged between Pate, Rivers and his family was strong enough to overcome the firing of head coach Mike O’Cain in 1999. All it took was an in-home visit from Pate and newly hired head coach Chuck Amato to solidify River’s commitment to NC State.
The Pack received an added bonus because Rivers was able to graduate high school early and enroll at State in time for spring workouts. While no one could have predicted River’s future at NC State, his path as the best to ever suit up for the Pack became crystal clear in a driving rain storm in his very first game. With the Wolfpack struggling against Arkansas State, Rivers took the field near the end of the first half just about the time a deluge of rain hit Carter-Finley Stadium. The freshman QB calmly led NC State on a drive across the field for a touchdown in what would be the first of many dramatic touchdown marches for the Wolfpack over the next four years.
Rivers game to game accomplishments are almost too numerous to list. There were comeback wins over Indiana and Minnesota and State’s first victory over UNC in seven years back in 2000. There was an improbable win over Florida State in Tallahassee in 2001. 2002 brought impressive wins over Texas Tech, UNC, Clemson and Florida State for a second consecutive year. 2003 proved to be a difficult year to some degree but even in defeat, Rivers gave two of his best individual efforts ever in road losses to Florida State (50-44) and Ohio State (44-38) that year.
When all was said and done, Rivers was atop the NC State career leader board in virtually every quarterback statistical category. He holds the top three season passing yardage totals. Rivers is the number one passer in career yardage (13,484 yards), career touchdowns (95), career completion percentage (.636) and career 300 yard games (19). He was the ACC’s rookie of the year in 2000 and the conference’s offensive player of the year in 2003.
However, Philip River’s impact on NC State football went well beyond just statistics. When Rivers was on the field, Wolfpack fans believed State could beat any team in the nation. For four years anything seemed possible and the excitement surrounding the program was never higher.
Although certainly possible, it is unlikely another quarterback of River’s caliber will come along in this lifetime. But for those that were around to witness his career in a Wolfpack uniform, it was a magical ride that seemed to end way too soon.