It was just an office.
You can tell yourself that and you’re probably right but to Elliott Avent it was piece of heaven.
Back in 1987, Sam Esposito’s office at the Case Athletic Center, next to Reynolds Coliseum in the middle of N.C. State’s campus, wasn’t particularly roomy, and it smelled like stale cigars, but it was the people who made the office special.
To Avent, then a full-time assistant baseball coach and part-time gopher, the regular morning visits to Esposito’s office were like holding a ticket to a masterclass in coaching.
Esposito, a former major leaguer, built N.C. State’s baseball program in the late 1960s and was also an assistant coach to Norm Sloan when N.C. State’s basketball team won the national championship in 1974.
Esposito had retired in the spring of ’87, after coaching the Wolfpack for 21 seasons, but he still played an important role. The longtime infielder for the Chicago White Sox was a mentor to Jim Valvano, then the Wolfpack’s basketball coach and athletic director.
The two paisans would hold court in Esposito’s office – former soccer coach George Tarantini and wrestling coach Bob Guzzo would often join in – dispensing lessons in strategy, recruiting, life and, occasionally from Valvano, poetry.
“If you listened, you learned,” Avent said.
And what did Avent learn?
“Everything,” he said.
Avent still can’t believe he was lucky enough to learn from his N.C. State idols. That a farm boy from Aventon would become the Wolfpack’s head baseball coach a decade after his apprenticeship in 1997 and still be around for his 20th season is beyond his comprehension.
“Absolutely not, not in a million years,” Avent said, “I never dreamed I’d be here.”
But Avent, who will turn 60 on May 1, is as much of a fixture at N.C. State as Esposito and Valvano were. Avent’s 717 wins are the most in school history. He led the Wolfpack to the College World Series, and a school-record 50 wins, in 2013. His teams have made the NCAA tournament 14 times in 19 seasons and reached the ACC championship game five times.
Not that Avent wants any part of a comparison to his coaching heroes.
“They were so smart,” Avent said of Esposito and Valvano. “They did so many great things here. The most pride I have in this program is I haven’t screwed things up.”
Avent has an appreciation for N.C. State, and a love of the school, that few can match. A Wolfpack fan since he could walk, Avent goes to more basketball and football practices than just about anybody.
“He definitely loves N.C. State,” Wolfpack basketball coach Mark Gottfried said. “There’s no doubt about that. He has poured his heart into this place.”
I’m jealous of his relationship with his players.
NC State basketball coach Mark Gottfried on baseball coach Elliott Avent
Avent has never known any other way. The Avents of Aventon, named for their kin who settled the farming town near Rocky Mount in the 1730s, were State fans in a town full of State fans.
Avent’s dad, Jack, ran a country store and had 4.5 acres of farmland. Elliott picked tobacco and played some baseball on the side.
Avent went to college at N.C. State in 1974, five months after David Thompson led the Wolfpack to the national title in basketball. Avent didn’t play baseball at N.C. State, or even at Northern Nash High School. Instead, he played semipro ball for the Red Oak Reds and the Drake Ducks.
In his time at N.C. State, Avent did become friends with some of the baseball players, including Ray Tanner, who eventually replaced Esposito in 1987.
Avent left N.C. State in 1978, about 15 hours short of his textiles degree, and began his coaching career at North Carolina Wesleyan. He got his undergraduate degree from Virginia Commonwealth in 1984. Three years and two coaching stops later, he was back at N.C. State.
“A great fit”
Most coaches would object to being labeled as a “fan” but not Avent. His enthusiasm for N.C. State actually helped him get the job when Tanner left for South Carolina in 1996.
“To be honest, that was a factor,” said Les Robinson, the former N.C. State AD who hired Avent in Aug. 1996. “We interviewed four or five other coaches but Elliott cared so much at N.C. State. He was a great fit.”
Bruce Winkworth, who worked with Avent as N.C. State’s sports information director for baseball for 15 years, describes Avent as having an “irrepressible well of enthusiasm for N.C. State.”
There is an energy to Avent, Winkworth said, that 19- and 20-year-old college students can relate to.
“He still has a lot of kid in him,” Winkworth said. “For this game, I think that helps.”
His temples have grayed but there’s no doubt Avent’s energy, even 20 years later, is still contagious, first baseman Preston Palmeiro said.
“He’s bouncing off the wall at all times and it kind of rubs off on you,” Palmeiro said.
And Avent is the same way about his players as he is about N.C. State.
“I’m jealous of his relationship with his players,” Gottfried said. “He has a great rapport with his guys. I think his guys want to play really hard for him.”
Brett Austin, the catcher on N.C. State’s CWS team in 2013, said he’s even closer with Avent now. The coach will reach out with a text or a call, Austin said, when the players need it the most.
“I’ve never met a coach that cares about his players as much as he does,” said Austin, who’s playing in the White Sox minor-league system. “He will do anything for you.”
Avent did pick up one trait from Valvano.
“He’s a storyteller,” said assistant coach Chris Hart, who has worked with Avent the past 12 years. “He’s constantly telling stories but he’s good at it.”
There isn’t a tangent Avent has met that he doesn’t like.
“Sometimes when he gets rolling, you just have to sit back and let him do his thing,” Palmeiro said.
Avent can spin off a story about an upcoming home series to a football game from the 1970s or a basketball anecdote or a political rant, depending on his mood. And don’t get him started on the University of North Carolina.
As Tarantini, his longtime friend, likes to say, Avent is “North Carolina Italian” because he talks with his hands and his voice can carry like fly ball on a windy day at Wrigley Field.
“He’s so passionate,” said Tarantini, who coached N.C. State’s soccer team for 25 years. “He’s a very good coach because he loves his team and he loves his job. All Elliott ever wanted was an opportunity at N.C. State and he has made the most of it.”
Overcoming a tough loss
After a lifetime as an N.C. State fan and almost two decades as the coach, there’s still work to be done by Avent.
The Wolfpack has played for the ACC title five times since 2001, including last year in Durham, but it has not won the conference championship since 1992.
The College World Series trip was the program’s first since 1968, when Esposito took them, but a heart-wrenching loss to UCLA derailed their title hopes in Omaha in 2013.
After a lost season in 2014, even with stars Carlos Rodon and Trea Turner (a pair of first-round draft picks who both finished last season in the major leagues), N.C. State bounced back last season and was two outs away from another Super Regional trip.
The Wolfpack lost to Texas Christian 9-8 in 10 innings. It was the most difficult loss, Avent said, in his career.
But Avent dipped back into Valvano’s playbook to get over it. Just like Valvano needed Esposito to dissect wins and losses and be a sounding board, Avent has Gottfried.
Not long after the TCU loss, Avent called Gottfried, who went through a similar NCAA exit in 2014 to Saint Louis.
“We’ve spent a lot of time over the last three or four years playing Dr. Phil for each other,” Gottfried said. “When you’re a head coach, you don’t have a lot of people to talk to. Sometimes it’s nice to have another head coach that understands that role.”
So Avent and Gottfried sat on the back porch at Gottfried’s house and commiserated over the TCU loss. There might have been an adult beverage and a cigar (in coach Espo’s honor) involved.
For Avent, maybe it wasn’t heaven but it was definitely peace on Earth.
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio