NCAA champions in 1974 and 1983, N.C. State hadn’t been relevant in college basketball’s month of madness since skimpy gym shorts were in vogue, long overshadowed by its talent-laden neighbors 30 miles away.
But under first-year Coach Mark Gottfried, the 11th-seeded Wolfpack outperformed second-seeded Duke (a first-round casualty) and heads to St. Louis for Friday’s clash with No. 2 seeded Kansas in arguably better form than its most reviled foe, top-seeded North Carolina, whose high-powered offense suffered a major blow the moment point guard Kendall Marshall broke his right wrist in Sunday’s win over Creighton.
“N.C. State does have a great basketball tradition, but we’ve been down,” concedes former Raleigh mayor Smedes York, 71, who played for the Wolfpack, served as chairman of the university’s trustees and led the search that recommended Debbie Yow, Maryland’s former athletic director, for the same post at N.C. State. “To see it get to this level — back to where we think it ought to be — that’s the exciting part.”
That excitement has been building all season.
N.C. State’s iconic bell tower is lit in red after each men’s basketball victory, with students gathering around to bellow the fight song. Gottfried’s team has lit that tower 24 times this season, a dramatic turnabout for a group that finished 15-16 the season before. Sidney Lowe, a member of Jim Valvano’s 1983 championship squad, then resigned as coach after five seasons at the helm.
When the Wolfpack clinched its first NCAA tournament berth since 2006 earlier this month, the din on campus was deafening, with students braying and car horns blaring. And when N.C. State stormed into the Sweet 16 last Sunday, the Technician student newspaper ran what was billed as “an open love letter to the N.C. State basketball team and Coach Gottfried.”
In it, junior Ahmed Amer, 20, describes Gottfried as “a bronzed god surrounded by golden light” and praised Yow for having made the hire that “turned out to be the best decision anyone has ever made, ever.”
Even the dead are celebrating in Raleigh, where the bronze statue of explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, for whom the city is named, is sporting a Wolfpack jersey this week.
To Mike Warren, a member of the 1983 NCAA championship team, it was always like this when he was a basketball-crazed youngster in Raleigh, worshipping David Thompson, Tommy Burleson and Monte Towe, the stars of Norm Sloan’s 1974 championship team.
“We didn’t know this hard-time stuff,” said Warren, 49, who now runs a financial-services firm.