Every seat in Reynolds Coliseum was filled an hour before game time.
The attraction was more than the advertised 10th anniversary celebration of the 1983 NCAA championship, more than the contest that followed against Duke. Fans and professional onlookers came to see the color analyst for the ABC telecast, the restless architect of that ’83 title, the man who’d been run off the N.C. State campus amidst a cloud of scandal, acrimony and ambiguity.
They’d come to see Jim Valvano.
It was public knowledge the ex-coach, gone from State for three years, had bone cancer. And while no one knew his fate that afternoon 25 years ago Wednesday, Valvano’s future appeared grim, a truth underlined by his pale skin and pained gait. The young upstart who arrived in the Triangle in 1980 alongside Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and largely matched him competitive step for step, who glibly vowed to beat North Carolina’s Dean Smith by outliving him, was only 46 but looked spent, life’s candle burnt to a nub. He would be dead two months later.
Valvano’s appearance on the court, the last speaker on the program, elicited a great ovation. He’d missed the prior two weeks of broadcast assignments, raising doubt he could participate. Friends saw Valvano draw strength from the crowd reaction, hardly a given considering the NCAA probation and academic and recruiting shortcomings on his watch that had elicited widespread criticism.
What’s more, Valvano’s peripatetic post-championship commercial activities – from in-season TV basketball commentator to clothing line purveyor, corporate speaker to cookbook author to host of his own radio show – made him a ripe symbol of excess in college sports. Sometimes Valvano appeared to want to do everything, be everything, eternally in search of a new challenge. While outside opinion, especially the hometown editorial page, saw a man unfairly exploiting his position at a public university for personal gain, Valvano explained he was merely following past practice and refused to remain “one-dimensional.”
In those days before big-time sports made coaching an even bigger-bucks occupation, Valvano reportedly derived at least 10 times his N.C. State salary from entrepreneurial ventures. His actions and the program’s missteps caused the university system to ban him and all coaches from a dual supervisory role as athletic director, a conflict of interest Valvano amply illustrated.
But those foibles didn’t stop fans from embracing the Rutgers English major with the black hair and gap-toothed grin. Valvano was a breath of fresh air in a profession taken too seriously and suffused with petty antagonisms. “The perspective on the game that I was taught since I was a kid is that the most important thing is participation,” the son of a high school coach confided. “Play. Play it all out. Give it all you’ve got, and then when it’s over smile and enjoy the people you competed with and against.”
Humor a companion
From his arrival in Raleigh, Valvano enjoyed engaging with fans. He quoted sages from Shakespeare to the Vinces, Lombardi and Scully.
Key to his early acceptance, long before ethnic diversity transformed the region, he played his Italian heritage and New York roots for laughs. Humor was his constant companion. Valvano described one on-court maneuver as “the triple cadenza play with the unbalanced coach.” He suggested an experimental shotclock be shortened “about a foot and a half.” After a game he exactingly imitated UNC’s big men, arms raised, stiffly jumping up and down in a zone. He brought extra N.C. State athletes to Cameron Indoor Stadium and positioned them behind the visitors’ bench.
“People think that I brought 15 football players to Duke because I was concerned about the safety of my players,” he teased. “That’s not true. I was concerned about my safety.”
Smith and Krzyzewski took rigorously disciplined approaches to running their programs and to winning games. “Coach V” – an ACC coaching character of a kind with Georgia Tech’s Bobby Cremins, Maryland’s Lefty Driesell and Wake’s Bones McKinney – improvised, rhapsodized about dreams, defied conventional thinking.
Valvano lent what he called “the joy of life” to the games he played, whether basketball or electronic darts. He employed junk defenses. He unapologetically eschewed “looking for perfection,” stating he sought only to be .500 during the ACC regular season. He reckoned that was good enough to earn a bid to the NCAAs, where his motto was famously “survive and advance.”
An enduring favorite
Central to Valvano’s popularity: because of, or despite, his uncommon methods, his talent-rich teams had a .647 winning percentage, a shade better than compiled by Hall of Famer Gary Williams at Maryland. During Valvano’s decade at the helm, N.C. State won its second national title (after 1974) and set a school record, since duplicated, with five straight NCAA appearances (1985-89). His Wolfpack also grabbed a pair of ACC championships (1983, 1987) and finished first during the 1985 and 1989 ACC regular seasons, feats unmatched since.
Success made Valvano an enduring favorite among many State fans, off-court travails notwithstanding, including years of competitive struggles by a program given more rigorous internal standards after he left.
Certainly his popularity was evident a quarter-century ago as he accepted the Reynolds crowd’s acclaim, greeted his former players, then made his way slowly to mid-court.
Valvano removed a microphone from a stand with practiced ease and spoke as he paced the school emblem. He joked at his own expense, retold a well-worn story. He hummed the school fight song, revving the participatory engine of crowd enthusiasm. “That’s power! That’s power!” He sighed. “I miss that.”
He discussed his debilitating battle with cancer, efforts that led to formation of the V Foundation for Cancer Research, which to date has raised more than $200 million for its mission. His elegiac remarks anticipated the much-replayed speech he delivered less than two weeks later at the ESPY Awards – from a “Don’t ever give up” peroration echoing Winston Churchill to insisting that what cancer “can’t touch is my mind, my heart, and my soul. It can’t touch those things.”
Valvano concluded his 13-minute farewell address by leading the faithful in one last snatch of the school fight song. Then he joined the game telecast, going his separate way.