The 32-year itch: NC State and the wait for another title

FILE PHOTO - Tampa, Fla.--UNC’s Tyler Hansbrough (50) looks on as N.C. State’s Ben McCauley (34) reacts after fouling UNC’s Wayne Ellington (2) with 1:14 left to play in the second half on Sunday March 11, 2007 in the St. Pete Times Forum. Ellington made both free throws to give UNC a 80-75 lead.
FILE PHOTO - Tampa, Fla.--UNC’s Tyler Hansbrough (50) looks on as N.C. State’s Ben McCauley (34) reacts after fouling UNC’s Wayne Ellington (2) with 1:14 left to play in the second half on Sunday March 11, 2007 in the St. Pete Times Forum. Ellington made both free throws to give UNC a 80-75 lead.

A copy of Grays Sports Almanac might be enough. Just in case, grab some Plutonium and the DeLorean, too.

Time travel would have been the only way to convince Chris Corchiani, back in 1987, about the impending ACC title drought for N.C. State.

“It would have been hard to imagine,” Corchiani said. “Impossible really.”

Corchiani was a senior in high school. A McDonald’s All-American in Miami on his way to play for the Wolfpack in the fall when Jim Valvano led N.C. State to a surprise ACC title in March 1987. It was Valvano’s second title in five years and the program’s 10th.

Thirty two years later, the Wolfpack enters Wednesday’s ACC tournament matchup with Clemson in Charlotte in search of its elusive 11th conference title.

“It has been so long,” said Corchiani, the fiery point guard who became the first player in NCAA history with 1,000 assists.

So long that the arena where Valvano’s upstart sixth-seed knocked off top-seeded North Carolina is now a shopping mall. The old Capital Centre in Landover, Md. was demolished in 2002. N.C. State’s drought still lives.

Progress across the board

N.C. State has made much progress during athletic director Debbie Yow’s tenure, across the board in all sports. Yow’s stated goal, when she was hired from Maryland in 2010, was to turn N.C. State into a “top 25” program.

N.C. State went from No. 89 in the all-sport Director’s Cup standings the year before Yow was hired to No. 15 last year.

In the glory days, more schools were contenders; Jim Valvano hugs two of his players after NCSU wins the ACC Tournament in1987. News and Observer file photo

N.C. State was won more ACC titles (four) this academic year than any other conference school. The wrestling and men’s and women’s swimming programs are annual contenders for national titles and have lifted the profile of the athletic department.

The football and men’s basketball programs are both on terra firma after some shaky spells during Yow’s tenure. Both the football and basketball teams spent time in the top 25 this academic year, which hadn’t happened at N.C. State since 2002-03.

But the conference title drought in the revenue sports is remarkable for the wrong reason. N.C. State is the only member of a “Power 5” conference that hasn’t won at least a share of conference title — regular season or tournament — in football, men’s basketball or baseball this century.

Northwestern, which shared a Big Ten title in football in 2000, has the second-longest drought among P5 schools. Nearly two-thirds of the major programs (41 of 65) have won at least a share of a conference title since 2016.

N.C. State football’s last ACC title was in 1979 and the basketball program’s last regular-season title was in 1989. Baseball went to the College World Series in 2013 but hasn’t won a conference title since 1992.

“While ACC championships will always be valued at N.C. State, it’s not the lone indicator and I’m proud of the historic success we’re currently having as an athletic program overall,” Yow wrote in an email to the News & Observer this week.

Bragging rights

It is awesome to see the progress made by the nonrevenue programs, said Chung Yi, an N.C. State fan who lives in Morrisville, but bragging about the Director’s Cup standings is not quite the same as comparing titles.

Yi, 44, is a mortgage loan officer. He regularly travels to attend N.C. State games on the road. He went to the Gator Bowl in December and he’ll be in Charlotte on Wednesday for the ACC tournament. When his friends, who are North Carolina fans, start trash-talking on a group text, Yi finds himself with little ammunition.

“You can’t really say anything,” Yi said. “You just have to take it. It’s tough.”

It hasn’t always been that way. N.C. State won the ACC tournament the first three years it was played and four of the first six in the 1950s. The school’s 10th basketball title in ‘87 equaled UNC for the most by any ACC school. At that time, Duke’s official title count was seven.

Since then, Duke has won the ACC tournament 13 times and UNC eight. Seven other schools have won the tournament since N.C. State’s last title, including three schools who weren’t in the ACC in 1987.

“To go 32 years without one, it has been hard, especially when you have to watch Duke and Carolina win so many,” said Jason Talley, 44, a State grad who grew up in Cary. “

The NC State Wolfpack men's basketball team practiced at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, NC Monday, March 11, 2019, before the start of the 2019 New York Life ACC Tournament.

Close but no crown

N.C. State has had some good chances to end the title drought. The Wolfpack has been to the championship game four times since ‘87. Twice it made a four-games-in-four-days run to the title round (in 1997 and 2007). UNC knocked out a weary-legged Wolfpack each time.

N.C. State reached the title game in 2002, and lost by 30 to Duke in Charlotte, in the old Coliseum. The next year, it made it back to the final in Greensboro and faced Duke again. The Wolfpack had a 15-point lead at the under-12 mark in the second half before J.J. Redick led a furious Duke rally for an 84-77 win.

Duke’s Casey Sanders catches NC State’s Josh Powell across the face as Powell grabs a rebound in first half action in the ACC Tournament championship game Sunday, March 16, 2003. No foul was called. Scott Sharpe

“That still burns,” said Julius Hodge, the star of that Wolfpack team whose foul trouble precipitated Duke’s comeback. “That’s the one game I’d like to have back.”

Hodge, now an assistant coach at San Jose State, wishes the drought would have ended during his stellar career in the early 2000s. The Wolfpack let a double-digit semifinal lead slip away to eventual ACC champion Maryland in 2004.

“It would just mean so much to the fan base to get one,” Hodge said.

Waiting for the next one

Actually, Corchiani was on the last N.C. State team to win an ACC title. During his sophomore season, in 1988-89, N.C. State went 10-4 in the ACC and finished first during the regular season. Given that the tournament winner is the conference’s designated champion, Corchiani doesn’t remember anyone making a big deal about it in ‘89.

“It wasn’t much of a celebration at all,” said Corchiani, 50, who is the CEO of a home mortgage company and a title insurance company in the Triangle. “We were proud of coming in first in the regular season but we never really put a huge emphasis on that. It was always about the ACC tournament and the NCAA tournament.”

If Corchiani had known then what he knows now, he would have made a bigger deal about the regular-season crown, but it will just make the celebration for the next title that much sweeter. Corchiani will be in Charlotte this week, just in case.

“I want to be there for the next championship they win,” he said.