Bridging The Gap, Part I

A pair of athletes from the state of Alabama assaulted NC State's record books a few years back and longtime Wolfpack assistant Joe Pate played a huge role in Philip Rivers and Jerricho Cotchery ending up in Raleigh.

When you've put in 17 years as a respected assistant and trusted member of the athletics department at one school, it is difficult to imagine that your contributions could be best measured by two players. But when those players are two of the all-time greats in the history of a storied program, it becomes understandable... and Joe Pate would rather they have the limelight anyway.

Now an Assistant Athletics Director for the Wolfpack, Pate is perhaps best known for bringing the "Bama Boys," Philip Rivers and Jerricho Cotchery, to NC State. Though he believed he discovered two diamonds in the rough in the duo, even he could not have imagined the havoc they would wreak on the Wolfpack's record book.

Interestingly, the story starts years ago when Pate, coaching at Austin High School in Austin, Ala., squared off against rival Decatur High... led by Steve Rivers. Years later, Pate developed strong contacts when he headed up recruiting in the state for Tennessee-Chattanooga, and he maintained a good relationship with Rivers and other Alabama high school coaches when he went on to recruit the state for NC State.

Pate first heard Philip Rivers's name when the youngster was just a sophomore, with area coaches insisting to Pate that he was the best player in the area. That feedback, along with Pate's familiarity with Philip's father Steve, allowed the Pack to get an early start on recruiting the promising signal-caller.

One of the things that quickly caught Pate's attention was the youngster's competitive fire and his knowledge of the game. Pate can remember Steve showing film where you could see an 8-year-old Philip on the sidelines, jumping up and down as the team's ballboy. He credits that experience watching his father coach for Philip's uncanny ability to diagnose what opposing teams are trying to do to stop him. Pate said that speaking to Philip in high school was like listening to a college coordinator break down opposing high school's defensive schemes and coverages.

"He just had an unbelievable football mind and grasp on the game," Pate said.

Other schools may have had questions about Rivers's athletic ability, but to Pate, those questions were answered when he saw Rivers scores nearly 50 points playing point guard for the Athens basketball team and then lead the state in interceptions as a junior safety. Still other colleges may have been concerned about what Pate called a "funny motion," but to Pate, any of those concerns were more than offset by Philip's fast release.

Thanks to his relationship with Steve Rivers, Pate also got a unique perspective on Philip's leadership skills and intangibles. Pate was allowed to go out on the field in practices to listen in on how Philip ran a huddle, and said he would often hear Philip urge on his teammates by saying, "We're going to take this ball and score."

Throw in the fact that Rivers didn't throw interceptions and was incredibly accurate, and Pate couldn't understand how Alabama, his own alma mater no less, could elect not to recruit the player of the year in their own state. It turns out that the Crimson Tide had promised a high school junior quarterback, Brodie Croyle, that ‘Bama wouldn't sign a quarterback that year, a fortunate development for NC State.

Elsewhere, Auburn was recruiting him as a signal-caller, with coach Tommy Tuberville coming to watch Rivers play and then-offensive coordinator (and later State's offensive coordinator) Noel Mazzone telling him that he could play another position if it didn't work out at quarterback. Ole Miss recruited Rivers hard under David Cutcliffe, even though they already had a commitment from Eli Manning, and Louisville, Memphis and Georgia also recruited him, though the Bulldogs already had a quarterback commitment.

As those schools were considered and eventually eliminated by the Rivers family, it became clearer and clearer to Rivers that NC State was the place for him. At the time, Mike O'Cain was the State coach, and he was able to convince father and son to come to the Wolfpack camp, where Philip bonded with a few of the NC State players, with the presence of a few other Alabama natives helping the Pack's cause as well.

Philip and a friend later attended State's game against South Carolina, the first game as Gamecocks coach for one-time NC State coach Lou Holtz, and Rivers enjoyed the atmosphere. At that point, it looked good for State to eventually pluck Rivers out of Alabama and install him as the heir apparent as the leader of the Pack.

However, things changed quickly and dramatically when O'Cain was let go and NC State underwent a coaching search. Pate was retained in the interim, with the promise that he would have a job of some type waiting for him at State when the new coach was named. He kept recruiting Rivers, assuring father and son that the Wolfpack intended to honor his scholarship, no matter who the new coach turned out to be. Then-athletics director Lee Robinson lent his voice to the recruiting process as well, also assuring Steve and Philip Rivers that there was a place for young Philip with the Pack no matter what.

However, the Rivers family still had a few reservations about casting their lot with a program that had such a major question at the top.

"Philip and Steve said, ‘That's where we want to go, but what if ya'll hire a guy that runs the wishbone?'" said Pate. "I told him I didn't think that would happen."

Understandably, Philip's father Steve and mother Joan needed to feel comfortable that the new NC State staff would look after Philip if there were any "rough spots," as Pate remembered. As Pate allayed their fears, he also pointed out that, with record-breaking quarterback Jamie Barnette graduating, Philip would have a great opportunity to see immediate playing time in the Red and White.

"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," Pate said. "But I did tell Philip [that], in my opinion, if he did what he could do, it would surprise me if he didn't come here and start."

In that role as not only the coach who showed the most interesting in Philip the earliest, but also as family friend, Pate served as an essential bridge between the eras of O'Cain and new coach Chuck Amato.

Stay tuned for part two of our look back at the recruitments of NC State standouts, Philip Rivers and Jerricho Cotchery.

Editor's Note: Recruiting analyst Steve Williams contributed to this report.

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