Sam Esposito is the thread that connects the biggest sports accomplishments in N.C. State’s history.
Esposito led the Wolfpack baseball program to the College World Series in 1968. He was an assistant basketball coach on their 1974 national championship team and indirectly helped N.C. State win another basketball title in 1983.
Esposito, whom N.C. State baseball coach Elliott Avent affectionately called “the godfather of N.C. State athletics,” passed away early Tuesday morning in Montezuma. He was 86.
Officially, Esposito was the head baseball coach for 21 years, starting in 1967, and an assistant basketball coach for 12 years. After 513 wins and four ACC titles, he retired as the baseball coach in 1987. His No. 4 jersey is the only number retired by the Wolfpack program.
“He was at the root of every success story at N.C. State,” Avent said. “He was always in the background, and he never wanted any of the attention for himself.”
There wasn’t much Esposito couldn’t do. He was the star quarterback in high school in Chicago, he earned a basketball scholarship to Indiana, and he played major-league baseball for 10 years.
“He was the best,” said David Horning, a longtime assistant athletic director at N.C. State.
Esposito’s impact on Wolfpack athletics went well beyond his own win-loss record. He worked part-time in the school’s compliance office for almost another 20 years after he retired as baseball coach.
He was a mentor to the other coaches in the athletic department, getting his start in the late 1960s with basketball coach Norm Sloan and then as a consigliere to Jim Valvano in the 1980s.
The post-game routine during the basketball season was to gather in Valvano’s office that night, rehash the previous game and start planning on the next game. They’d reconnoiter in Esposito’s office the next morning.
“They’d fuss and laugh and cut one another,” said Charlie Bryant, a former assistant basketball coach for Sloan and former president of the Wolfpack Club. “They’d have verbal battles. He was the only person I know who could get V’s goat. He was really good at that.”
You’ve heard of a players’ coach? Esposito was a coaches’ coach. He was part sounding board, part psychologist, part strategist and part recruiting whisperer.
“He was the guy who all the coaches went to talk to, and they would talk about all their anxieties with him,” Horning said. “He was like a security blanket for them.”
Bob Guzzo, N.C. State’s wrestling coach from 1974 to 2004, shared an office with Esposito at the Case Athletic Center for four or five years, which he called "an education in itself."
"I can't begin to explain how much he helped me along the way," Guzzo said. "He really had some special attributes. He could really evaluate talent. I would always be talking about my wrestlers and he didn't know anything about wrestling, but he came to some of our matches and it was amazing the insights he had regarding kids and talent."
Guzzo recalled recruiting heavyweight wrestler Tab Thacker, who was a 400-pounder in high school in Winston-Salem. Guzzo said he had offered Thacker a chance to walk on but had not offered him a scholarship.
"I told Sam I was impressed with the kid and his family but didn't offer him," Guzzo said. "Sam says, 'How many matches do you think he can win?" I said probably about 80 percent just based on size. Sam says, 'How many kids do you have on your team right now that can win 80 percent of their matches?'
"He said to get right back in the car and get back over there and offer him a scholarship. I did. That same day. And Tab was a national champion."
Thacker, who died in 2007 at age 45, was a three-time All-American and the NCAA heavyweight champion in 1984.
At 5-9 with soft hands, Esposito was the prototype for a utility infielder. He spent nine of his 10 seasons in the major leagues with his hometown White Sox. He helped them reach the World Series in 1959.
A member of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame and the N.C. State Athletic Hall of Fame for his baseball and coaching accomplishments, Esposito was an even better golfer than baseball player, and handball was probably his best sport.
“He was such a unique person,” Bryant said. “I already miss him, and many, many others do, too.”
Staff writer Chip Alexander contributed to this story.