While it now seems like eons ago, back-to-back losses to Furman in the 1980s had rippling ramifications for N.C. State football.
Those losses helped seal the fate of Wolfpack coach Tom Reed, who resigned in 1985 after three straight 3-8 seasons.
They helped usher in Dick Sheridan, the former Furman coach who impressed then-NCSU athletic director Willis Casey and was hired to replace Reed.
The turnaround was swift for the Pack. Taking basically the same group of players, Sheridan and his staff went 8-3-1 in 1986 and took the Pack to six bowls in seven seasons, making N.C. State relevant again in football.
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Clay Hendrix was an offensive lineman on the Furman teams that surprised N.C. State 34-30 in 1984 at Carter-Finley Stadium, then returned to pound the Pack 42-20 in 1985. He then served as a graduate assistant at N.C. State on Sheridan’s staff in 1986 and ’87 before becoming the Paladins’ offensive line coach.
Hendrix now is in his first year as Furman’s head coach. For the first time since that 42-20 win, the Paladins will return to Carter-Finley for a game Saturday at 12:20 p.m.
Can history repeat itself? Few expect that to happen. Either way, Sheridan will be there to see it, attending the game as a guest of N.C. State.
“When I got the job I hadn’t seen the schedule, and when I saw N.C. State I said, well, that’s kind of it ironic,” Hendrix said in an interview this week.
“When we won at N.C. State in 1985, we started 10 seniors and a junior on offense. Last Saturday, we played 18 freshmen. It’s a little bit of where we are with our program. There’s a reason why I’m here coaching. Things weren’t going great. We’re a really young team.”
Furman, a member of the Southern Conference, is 0-2 after a pair of close losses – 24-23 to Wofford, when the Paladins failed on a final-minute two-point conversion, then 34-31 to Elon, which kicked a winning field goal with five seconds left.
But this is another step up for Furman. The Wolfpack, 1-1 after beating Marshall last week, is a Power-5 school with a $40 million-a-year football operation.
“There’s a much bigger difference now between the haves and the have-nots in college football,” said Furman associate athletic director Ken Pettus, a former Sheridan assistant coach at Furman and N.C. State. “The rich are tremendously richer. The little schools are suffering.”
Hendrix put it another way: “In 1985, the ACC payoff per school, I’m guessing, was about $500,000 a year and the Southern Conference payoff was zero. In 2017, the ACC payout is almost $30 million and the Southern Conference payout is still zero.”
Under Sheridan, the Division I-AA Paladins had won games against South Carolina and Georgia Tech before the trips to Raleigh. Their precision offense bamboozled the Pack in ’84 and ’85, causing N.C. State quarterback Erik Kramer to call the second game “a total disaster.”
“Especially on offense, technique and scheme overcame talent,” Pettus said. “I’m not saying we played any harder than they did, but especially on offense our schemes were very hard to defend.”
The Paladins now run a triple-option offense similar to the one used by Air Force, where Hendrix coached for a decade before taking the Furman job (Wolfpack assistant coach Des Kitchings, a former Furman star, also was mentioned as a candidate.)
N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said there are some differences, that Furman will break the wishbone for spread sets and can be a threat passing.
“It’s a unique preparation, defensively,” Doeren said.
After the Paladins’ win in 1985, Sheridan stood outside the visitors locker room at Carter-Finley chatting with Furman fans. Asked abut the significance of the back-to-back wins, he said they were important for the program and pleasing for the fans but stressed that winning the Southern Conference was the program’s No. 1 goal.
That wasn’t coachspeak, Hendrix said.
“Furman had been in the Southern Conference since 1921 and in 50-some years had never won the conference championship,” Hendrix said. “Coach Sheridan won six of eight. It’s kind of amazing what he did. He did it with less, and he never bent one principle.”
Before Sheridan agreed to take the N.C. State job, the Paladins reached the 1985 NCAA Division I-AA championship game, losing 44-42 to Georgia Southern.
Hendrix believes beating the Wolfpack in 1984 and ’85 helped earn added credibility with the N.C. State players once the Furman staff took over in Raleigh.
“We asked a lot of them and that first spring was darn brutal,” added Pettus, who coached N.C. State’s linebackers. “But the ones who survived it, we won over. They were really tough kids.”
In seven seasons at N.C. State, Sheridan did not win an ACC championship but had a 52-29-3 overall record, going 31-18-1 in ACC games and winning six of seven against rival North Carolina.
Sheridan abruptly resigned in the summer of 1993, citing health reasons. While he later was approached by other schools – including South Carolina, his alma mater – time passed and he never returned to coaching.
“It doesn’t take long for them to forget about you,” Sheridan said.
But Sheridan will be watching Saturday. It will be N.C. State and Furman, again, and there are some things that have not been forgotten.
Furman at NC State
Where: Carter-Finley Stadium, Raleigh
TV: WRAL, WNCT