Thirteen years later, former N.C. State head coach Chuck Amato still thinks about T.A. McLendon’s second-down run at Kenan Stadium.
As the guest speaker at Wednesday’s Durham Sports Club meeting at Croasdaile Country Club, Amato, 70, jumped straight to that moment after he was introduced by Tommy Hunt, the ACC Head of Officials at the time of McLendon’s play.
“Chuck never, ever complained about officiating,” Hunt quipped sarcastically.
Amato had reason to complain on Oct. 9, 2004. With the Wolfpack trailing North Carolina 30-24, McLendon lunged across the goal line as the line judge raised him arms to signal a touchdown, but the linesman on the other side of the field ruled that he came up short.
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McLendon fumbled on the next play, giving the Tar Heels a victory.
“If you were only on the sideline in that North Carolina game before they had instant replay, where you could see it in the paper the next day, there was a picture that he was in,” Amato said to Hunt. “That was probably one of the worst things that ever happened to us, but other than that, everything was good.”
Now the associate head coach and defensive coordinator at Akron, Amato was responsible for one of the most successful runs in Wolfpack history, leading the team to a school-record 11 wins in 2002. But the controversial loss to the Tar Heels kept his team out of a bowl in 2004, and after a 3-9 season in 2006, Amato was fired. His overall record at N.C. was 49-37.
Amato put his ability to command a room on display Wednesday, speaking for more than 30 minutes from no notes. He showed no bitterness about how his alma mater handled his exit, getting emotional at one point as he reflected on what N.C. State means to him.
“People come up to me and say, ‘Chuck, I just want to thank you for everything you did at my school.’ I say, ‘Guess what buddy? It’s my school too,’ ” Amato said. “I’m proud of what I did.”
Amato’s roots in Raleigh go back much further than when he was hired as the head coach in 2000.
He starred at linebacker for the Wolfpack from 1965-67, helping it win its first eight games and rise to No. 3 in the nation his senior year. N.C. State’s defense was famous for its white shoes that season, but when the team traveled to face then-No. 2 Houston in the Astrodome, it was given new shoes for the artificial turf that had to be returned.
Sensing a potential dilemma, head coach Earle Edwards called his defensive leader aside at practice the week before the game.
“He puts his arm around me and says, ‘Now I talked to Mr. (Roy) Clogston, who was the AD at the time, and if you guys want to paint those shoes white, we’ll pay for them if there’s a problem,” Amato said. “I said, ‘Coach, if you said we couldn’t paint them, they’re already painted.’ ”
N.C. State upset the Cougars 16-6 on the road, highlighting a season that ended with a 9-2 record and a Liberty Bowl victory.
After graduating, Amato earned a master’s degree in education at N.C. State and spent nine years on the coaching staff, earning his first full-time position under Lou Holtz in 1973.
“I became a full-time coach as a secondary coach. I weighed about 220 pounds at the time – probably the biggest and most muscular secondary coach in the country,” Amato joked. “I couldn’t throw the football, but I had people that could do that for me.”
Amato was then the linebackers coach for two years at Arizona before spending 18 years as an assistant at Florida State, where he won a national championship under head coach Bobby Bowden. He didn’t have his first and only head coaching job until age 53, when N.C. State called in 2000.
“Everybody nowadays, they don’t want to be a graduate assistant, they don’t want to go through the chain of life. They want to start on top,” Amato said. “There’s only one endeavor in life that starts on top, and that’s digging a ditch.”
Amato returned to Florida State for Bowden’s last three years after his dismissal from N.C. State and had to take two years off while he battled throat cancer before landing at Akron in 2012.
The Zips won their first bowl game in school history in 2015, with Amato helping head coach Terry Bowden – Bobby’s son – orchestrate a remarkable turnaround after three straight 1-11 seasons from 2010-12.
Five days shy of his 71st birthday, Amato did not show any indications of slowing down Wednesday.
“I love to coach,” Amato said. “Surround yourself with people who want to stretch your dreams and not choke your visions. I have really lived by that.”