When North Carolina State was not a very good football team, Coach Monte Kiffin was an outrageously funny man whose high jinks provided comic relief and brought the Wolfpack attention outside of Raleigh, N.C.
There was the time before the 1980 intrasquad spring game, when Kiffin had the school's band leader play the William Tell Overture. Pistol in hand, Kiffin rode in on a white show horse that nearly plowed through the student union window when frightened by the crash of the cymbals.
Later that year, the day before his first game as head coach, Kiffin arrived at a pep rally by jumping out of a helicopter from about eight feet above the ground. After landing with all his bones intact, Kiffin jumped and pulled the parachute rip cord, delighting his audience.
After that, Kiffin went down for the count in an exhibition against Joe Frazier at the Raleigh Coliseum.
A lot of people laughed in 1980 when the Wolfpack went 6-5 with an easy schedule. The laughs helped last year, too, when State, playing a tougher schedule, lost its last six games to finish the season at 4-7.
Kiffin's team is producing more victories than laughs these days. The Wolfpack is 3-0 with two shutouts. Some observers think they belong in the top 20. Kiffin is more concerned with State's trip to College Park Saturday at 1:30, for a date with a Terrapin squad Kiffin calls "the best 0-2 team in the country."
Kiffin still is as personable as ever, say those who know him. "He still likes to joke. But he hasn't jumped out of any airplanes lately," said one of Kiffen's coworkers in the N.C. State athletic department.
"We're approaching everything as a big game, and trying everything we can to win," Kiffin said yesterday by telephone. "The offseason was trying, after those six straight defeats. I couldn't wait until Sept 4. I tried to keep my sense of humor. I figure it doesn't do any good to change. But it's hard for me to tell whether that kept us relaxed or not."
What Kiffin did change was his team's offense. Last year, the Wolfpack started the season with victories over Richmond, Wake Forest and East Carolina. But the offense was fairly predictable and revolved around freshman running back Joe McIntosh, who gained more than 1,000 yards. Maryland beat State, 34-9, in Raleigh the fourth week, and the Wolfpack would win only one more game (against Virginia) all season.
State's first three opponents this year also were mediocre: the Wolfpack shut out Furman and Wake Forest and barely defeated East Carolina.
But the method of victory has State's supporters excited. Quarterback Tol Avery, who was unimpressive as a passer last year, didn't secure the starting job this fall until the last week of preseason; already, he has thrown for more touchdowns than he did in all of 1981.
"We're throwing the football much better," Kiffin said. "Passing is the biggest change we've had, and Tol Avery has played well."
Avery threw for only three touchdowns and 725 yards and had 10 interceptions in 139 attempts last season. This year he has thrown for five touchdowns and 558 yards and no interceptions. He's the ninth-leading passer in the nation.
Kiffin is giving most of the credit to his new offensive coordinator, Carl Smith. The running game hasn't been as productive as usual -- even though McIntosh has 359 yards rushing -- but that is expected to improve, also. Dan Radakovich, formerly of Penn State, the Los Angeles Rams and Pittsburgh Steelers, is the new offensive line coach.
"Most of all," Kiffin said, "it's fun to come to work on Monday mornings."