Joe Gottfried is, in his own words, a “big N.C. State fan.”
After all, his son, Mark, coaches the Wolfpack basketball team.
But Gottfried will be at N.C. State’s football game on Saturday night in his hometown of Mobile, Ala., and his allegiance will not be with the Wolfpack.
“Oh, I’m pulling for South Alabama in this game,” Joe Gottfried said. “I want to see an upset.”
That the Wolfpack (3-0), from a “Power 5” conference, is even playing at Ladd-Peebles Stadium on Saturday night is already something of an upset.
Gottfried, who was the Jaguars’ athletic director for 26 years until he retired in 2009, is one of the main reasons N.C. State will play a second straight nonconference road game.
Gottfried negotiated a “two-for-one” deal — two road games, one home game — with former N.C. State AD Lee Fowler in March 2009.
N.C. State paid South Alabama $300,000 for the first leg of the three-game series, a 35-13 Wolfpack win in 2011. The schools traded off $200,000 travel tabs for the second two games in the series. N.C. State beat South Alabama 31-7 in Raleigh in 2012.
The Wolfpack ended up with back-to-back road games against “Group of 5” conference teams (Conference USA, American Athletic, Mid-American, Sun Belt, Mountain West) because of an inevitably Gottfried realized a long time ago.
“The (Power 5 schools) are not going to play each other every week,” Gottfried said. “Alabama is not going to play Ohio State one week and USC the next. They don’t want do that. They need the Middle Tennessees and South Alabamas.”
N.C. State got into this scheduling predicament, in part, because in the spring of 2012, the ACC decided to go to a nine-game conference schedule for the 2013 season. That would leave only mean three nonconference games per season. The schools started to plan accordingly.
N.C. State had a three-game deal with South Alabama in place. Then it was left last year with only five home games. With a need to fill one home slot, Old Dominion answered, but only if N.C. State would agree to play in Norfolk, Va., this season.
With little other choice, N.C. State ended up with two road games against Group of 5 schools in the same year. Wake Forest, for similar reasons, had to do the same last year.
This year of the ACC’s 56 nonconference games, only eight are on the road against Group of 5 schools. Miami is the other ACC school that has two (Florida Atlantic, Cincinnati).
Gottfried has been looking forward to this game since he signed it six years ago. South Alabama only started up its football program in ’09 but has already made significant progress.
The Jaguars, 2-1 this season, won six games last season and qualified for a bowl game in their first year of postseason eligibility in the Sun Belt Conference.
They’ve already had a home game with one Power 5 school, a 35-3 loss to Mississippi State last year, and will host Oklahoma State in 2017.
Gottfried believes in South Alabama’s potential, even as the Power 5 conferences pull away from the Division I pack and with the yo-yo state of the University of Alabama-Birmingham’s program.
“It’s really a good football job,” Gottfried said. “It could be like Boise State because we have great high school football in the state of Alabama.”
When UAB, after much controversy, decided to drop football last year, no one benefitted more than South Alabama. UAB will re-start its program next fall, but seven former players are on South Alabama’s roster, including senior quarterback Cody Clements, and offensive coordinator Bryant Vincent joined Joey Jones’ staff.
There’s also a glut of “Power 5” conference talent on the Jaguars’ roster with three transfers from Alabama and one each from Virginia Tech and Texas Tech.
“They have players, it’s all over the tape,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “Our guys know.”
After three relatively smooth wins to open the season — a contrast to last year’s start which included a one-point win over Georgia Southern and a comeback to beat Old Dominion 46-34 — Doeren constantly reminds his players to focus on the task at hand.
“We talk a lot about it but you still have to go out there and play,” Doeren said.
That’s what N.C. State will do on Saturday night in the Alabama panhandle. And Joe Gottfried will savor the moment and the memory.
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio