NC State’s Monte Towe reflects on Reynolds Coliseum
At first the players at Oak Hall School had no clue about the identity of the short old guy. A search on YouTube clarified matters somewhat. Then the squad took the basketball court under Monte Towe’s tutelage and the picture came into sharp focus.
Very quickly through the halls, you’d hear, ‘Hey, Coach can play,’” recalls Jeff Malloy, the private school’s athletic director. “He may be older now, but he’s still got it. His basketball IQ is off the chart. He sees things that the rest of us don’t.”
Anyone who watched the 5-7 Towe play at N.C. State would recognize that acute court consciousness, augmented by aggressiveness and well-rounded skills. Towe applied those talents to great effect, shepherding the Wolfpack to a cumulative 79-7 record, a national championship, two undefeated ACC seasons and two ACC titles from 1973-75. Years later, coach Norm Sloan described him aptly as “the sawed-off point guard who was the heart of our team.”
Towe stands among the three least-towering ACC giants to earn first team all-conference honors, along with N.C. State’s 5-9 Lou Pucillo (1958,1959), the ’59 ACC Player of the Year, and 5-3 Muggsy Bogues of Wake (1987).
“No one was more competitive,” Gary Stokan, a former State teammate and a fellow Sloan assistant in 1979 and 1980, says of Towe. “Monte was the one of the most competitive players I’ve ever played with or against.”
Towe, 65 this coming September, was a masterful passer, a gift central to the success of the ACC’s most prolific offense. The undefeated ‘73 Wolfpack scored 92.9 points per game, best in league history. Over Towe’s three varsity seasons N.C. State averaged 92.3 points, also unmatched in the ACC.
Yet it was an inadvertently high backdoor lob from Towe -- which David Thompson soared to the top of the backboard to convert – that became a signature Pack play in those pre-dunk days.
“David was one of the greatest of all time to be in the air and adjust his body, catch the ball and being able to lay it in,” Towe says of the “alley-oop” discovered during practice their freshman year.
A contemporaneous N.C. State media guide lauded Towe’s ability to “pass or dribble opponents dizzy on occasions.” Those occasions were especially numerous in 1974 when, paced by Thompson and 7-2 Tom Burleson, Sloan’s squad went 30-1 and won the national championship. Along the way N.C. State triumphed in arguably the greatest game in league history, a 103-100 overtime victory over Maryland in the ACC tournament final, and ended UCLA’s stranglehold streak of seven straight NCAA titles.
That year, Towe made All-ACC. He also played second base for conference-champion baseball teams directed by Sam Esposito. A Sloan assistant as well, “Espo” had scouted Towe as a prep basketball player and convinced Sloan to take a look.
The multi-sport star attended Oak Hill High in Converse, Indiana. In Sloan’s autobiographical 1991 book, “Confessions of a Coach,” the Indianapolis native called Converse a typical “small, all-white, one-stoplight” town rife with racial prejudice. But Towe defied norms beyond his modest stature in a big man’s game. He even grew up an ACC fan in Hoosier country.
Not a very diplomatic fan, apparently. When Sloan came to the Towe home on an official visit, the coach asked the prospect, “You ever hear of the ACC?” Nearly a half-century later, the straightforward Towe recalls his reply. “I think I said something like, “’Yes, I really like South Carolina.’”
Towe parlayed his gifts into playing briefly in the pros alongside Thompson, his great friend. The pair had been N.C. State roommates, racial mixing Towe’s father protested to no avail, according to Sloan.
After being cut by the Denver Nuggets, the well-liked Towe went into coaching under Sloan. The profession eventually bounced him through a dozen college and pro jobs – three in Raleigh -- before landing as a prep coach in Gainesville, Florida.
Towe’s stops included running the Global Basketball Association’s Raleigh Bullfrogs at Dorton Arena in 1992. Head coaching positions followed in Fayetteville of the soon-defunct GBA and in Venezuela, New Orleans, and at Florida junior colleges Chipola and Santa Fe. One assistant’s berth brought him back to Raleigh, where he thought he’d eventually settle, to work beside Sidney Lowe at N.C. State from 2007-10.
Towe quit the college grind in 2014 and moved to Gainesville, a municipality with a population similar to Cary, where his wife had family and a position as a diabetes researcher at Florida. Towe felt at home too, having spent some 15 years coaching basketball and teaching tennis in the university town.
“I don’t see myself leaving Gainesville unless something happens I wouldn’t foresee,” says Towe. “I’m very satisfied where I am. I’ve had so many good things in basketball. I’ve been punched a couple of times, but it’s been good. My life, I feel like I’m right where I should be right now. I’ve always felt like that.”
When Oak Hall, an independent school with about 115 boys in its high school ranks, offered a job coaching basketball without the burdens of recruiting or teaching classes, he seized the opportunity. “It’s like a pro job, only I don’t get paid like a pro,” Towe teases.
“He’s a great teacher,” says Malloy, the AD. “Everything that comes out of his mouth, the kids are learning.” Approaching his fourth year successfully directing the Eagles, Towe enjoys his role and his freedom. “I still have no regrets about what I’m doing,” he says. “I put my mark on the basketball world.”