How a single second changed the course of NC State's football program for decades

Jim Ritcher (51), who won the Outland Trophy as the nation's top lineman, was a mainstay for the '79 Pack.
Jim Ritcher (51), who won the Outland Trophy as the nation's top lineman, was a mainstay for the '79 Pack.

Barry Jacobs’ recent column about “What If” rekindled a football game memory from the fall of 1979.

What if, with N.C. State’s football team ahead 7-6 against Penn State, the Carter-Finley Stadium veteran game-clock-keeper had not prematurely stopped the clock with one-second remaining after what obviously was going to be an incomplete pass by the Nittany Lions?

What if the ball had not hit the ground and the referees had not signaled a dead ball when, in anticipation, the clock-keeper stopped the clock showing :01, giving Penn State’s Herb Menhardt time to kick a 54-yard field goal to win the game, 9-7.

The Wolfpack won the Atlantic Coast Conference title defeating Duke the next week for a 5-1 league mark, but that one second was a factor in many ways. Out of the ACC, State was 2-3, defeating East Carolina and West Virginia while losing to Penn State and games at Auburn and South Carolina, a tough non-conference schedule.

A 7-4 record overall and a conference title were not good enough for the bowls. Second place Clemson (8-3, 4-2) went to a bowl as did fourth-place Wake Forest (8-3, 3-2) and fifth-place North Carolina (7-3-1, 3-3).

That was the seventh and last time N.C. State won the ACC football title. The Wolfpack’s other league title seasons had equally tough or tougher out of league games (not including bowl games):

1973: 8-3 overall; 6-0 ACC; 2-3 Non-ACC: home wins against East Carolina and South Carolina; losses at Nebraska, Georgia and Penn State.

1968: 6-1 ACC; 0-3 Non-ACC: lost at Nebraska and SMU and at home to Florida State.

1965: 5-2 ACC; 0-3 Non-ACC: lost at Florida and Iowa and at home to Florida State.

1964: 5-2 ACC; 0-3 Non-ACC: lost at Alabama, Virginia Tech and Florida State.

1963: 6-1 ACC; 2-1 Non-ACC: won at home against Southern Miss and Virginia Tech and lost at Florida State.

1957: 5-0-1 ACC; 2-1-1 Non-ACC: won at Florida State and Virginia Tech; tied at Miami (Fla.), lost at home to William & Mary.

Non-conference schedules were brutal for N.C. State, to say the least, in the late 1960s and into 1980s with games at Michigan State, Houston, Miami, Florida, Penn State, Auburn, Nebraska and many other bigger and better programs.

Away games against powerhouse programs made for a large payday, money needed to operate the athletics department. Bonds to pay for the construction of the Wolfpack’s home stadium had to be paid with all revenue after game expenses from home games. Road-earned income was good; won-loss records from those trips not so good.

In recent years, N.C. State’s non-conference schedule and that of most FBS teams have been packed with perceived lesser programs, easy wins so to speak that, included in-season ticket sales, allowing for a decent payoff to the visitor while generating tons of operating revenue.

In the last five seasons, the Wolfpack has been 15-25 in the ACC games and 19-5 in non-conference games. So, what would that non-conference record be if games of the last five seasons against Louisiana Tech, Richmond, Central Michigan, Georgia Southern, Old Dominion, South Florida, Presbyterian, Troy, South Alabama, Eastern Kentucky, William & Mary, Marshall, and Furman (to name a few) were replaced by those non-conference games from 1968, 1973 and 1979: Auburn, Penn State, Nebraska, Georgia?

There’s no good way to predict the outcomes but revenue lost would likely be be devastating, because road games of that magnitude generate less income than what’s gained by easy scheduling on a home season ticket.

Of course, winning generates fan excitement, even without ACC titles, and, for the head coach, wins produce bonuses. NC State coach Dave Doeren's contract includes these incentives: $50,000 for an eight-win season; add $50,000 for each additional win. Heck, win six games to qualify for a bowl game and there’s a check for $25,000 waiting for the head coach. Win the game and collect another $25,000.

This year’s non-conference slate includes home games with James Madison, Georgia State and West Virginia and a road game at Marshall. So, win those four (no easy task, especially JMU and WV) and two in the ACC to start the bonus chain reaction. It’s all about the money.

Now, the consequences of that 1-second left on the clock in 1979:

Because of that extra second, in addition to missing out on an invitation to any bowl game, coach Bo Rein left the Wolfpack for the head job at LSU and, before coaching a game there, died in a weird airplane incident; and, back-to-back three-year contracts brought Monte Kiffin and Tom Reed to N.C. State, combining for a 25-41 overall mark and a 12-27 ACC record and setting back by at least six years a college football program on the rise, a program that won at least seven games in seven of eight seasons including three with nine wins and two with eight.

All it took was :01.

At least that’s my “What If” conclusion.

Jim Pomeranz is a Cary writer.

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer