Luke DeCock

DeCock: On team full of stars, Sloan’s contributions still overshadowed

N.C. State coach Norm Sloan stands just inside a door at Reynolds Coliseum following a pep rally for the Wolfpack. His team was preparing to board buses to travel to the 1974 Final Four.
N.C. State coach Norm Sloan stands just inside a door at Reynolds Coliseum following a pep rally for the Wolfpack. His team was preparing to board buses to travel to the 1974 Final Four. 1974 NEWS & OBSERVER FILE PHOTO

It was a team so powerful, so charismatic, that even the radioactive plaid of Norm Sloan’s sportcoats didn’t stand out. There was big Tommy Burleson and little Monte Towe and, above them all, dazzling David Thompson. N.C. State didn’t need a coach in 1974. It needed a ringmaster.

Which may be how, 40 years later, the one critical member of that team who doesn’t get the acclaim he probably deserves is the man who actually put it together.

Sloan, who died in 2003 at age 77, isn’t in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame despite winning 627 games and a national title. Even among N.C. State fans, he ranks third behind Everett Case and Jim Valvano, even though only Case won more games for the Wolfpack (both went into N.C. State’s own Hall of Fame ahead of Sloan). And on a team with players like Thompson, Burleson and Towe, even Sloan’s outsized personality was in the shadows.

“It’s hard to look past those guys to see Norm,” N.C. State historian Tim Peeler said. “But he brought them all together. He used to say the only thing he could do with that team was screw it up, so he just sat back and watched them play, but that’s very disingenuous.”

Mixed reactions to Stormin’ Norman

This area cherishes its coaches, from Case and Frank McGuire to Dean Smith and Valvano to Roy Williams to Mike Krzyzewski. It is perhaps the one thing that fans of all three teams have in common above all else, their reverence for the men who did so much to build these programs, who brought in the players who became legends.

So why doesn’t Sloan get the same acclaim, here or elsewhere? He did have his run-ins with the NCAA – once at N.C. State while recruiting Thompson, which ended up costing the 1973 team its shot at postseason greatness, and later at Florida – but such travails only seemed to deepen Wolfpack fans’ love of Valvano.

Is it because of Sloan’s personality?

Sloan could be as abrasive as his wardrobe was loud. Officials typically bore the brunt of Sloan’s fury – referee George Conley pulled the plug on a 1967 game at Maryland with more than a minute to go after Sloan picked up a double technical – but they were far from alone.

Sportswriter Mark Whicker once wrote a parody of the State fight song in honor of the late sports information director Ed Seaman that included the phrase, “I’m the SID from State and you can call me on the phone; if you’re a guy I really hate, I’ll line you up with Norman Sloan.”

“He was forthright,” former N.C. State player and Duke coach Bucky Waters said. “There was a Bobby Knight quality about him, in that the congeniality award was never on his priority list: ‘There it is, take it or leave it.  ”

Which points directly to the other reason Sloan probably gets overlooked: Is it because he walked away from N.C. State out of pique, not just once but twice?

Sloan had come to N.C. State in 1946, one of Case’s first recruits and one of many from Indiana. He quit the team as a senior when Case insisted on playing Vic Bubas instead. And Sloan, who had come to N.C. State from Florida to take over for Press Maravich in 1966, went back to Florida in 1980, largely for financial reasons. (He returned to the Triangle after leaving the Gators in 1989 and lived the rest of his life here.)

A Hall of Fame resume

But Sloan’s resume speaks for itself: More than 600 wins at schools both large and small, at N.C. State, Florida, the Citadel and Presbyterian; three-time ACC coach of the year; coach of the year in three different conferences; a national title team in 1974 that not only won one of the greatest games of all time, the ACC tournament final against Maryland, but interrupted the greatest dynasty of all time, UCLA; and an undefeated team a year earlier, denied a chance to prove itself because of NCAA sanctions.

One of the Naismith Hall of Fame’s great inequities was remedied last year when longtime Houston coach Guy Lewis, the house father of Phi Slama Jama, was finally inducted into the Hall. Lewis was an innovator and a great coach, a slam-dunk Hall of Famer, no pun intended, but he never won a national title.

Sloan’s resume compares favorably in several respects, and yet there has never been the same clamor on behalf of Sloan. (Lefty Driesell, on the other bench in the overtime win over Maryland and Sloan’s greatest ally in the fight against Smith’s empire at North Carolina, has been similarly overlooked by the Hall of Fame.)

“He did it his way, sometimes a little abrasive,” said Art Musselman, one of Sloan’s assistant coaches in 1974. “It’s a good question. I’ve quandaried over that, too. Sometimes when they say N.C. State won the NCAA title, it’s Valvano’s ’83 team spoken to more than the ’74 team, and that’s because of personalities. I strongly believe that.”

The same passion for the game that made Sloan both a great coach – and, when unchecked, a fiery figure – may be what stands in the way of his legacy truly being recognized.