Even in defeat, Wolfpack doesn't wish for V

JOHN EISENBERG

March 17, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

COLLEGE PARK -- For a couple of sloooow hours at Cole Field House yesterday afternoon, as the season was slipping away in the second round of the NCAA tournament, North Carolina State needed the bad, old days again. Jimmy Valvano. Oh, yes. The Wolfpack could have used V against Oklahoma State yesterday.

It was a V game. It had V's fingerprints all over it. Eddie Sutton had Oklahoma State holding the ball, slowing the pace and FTC playing elbows-out defense. You walked it up, ran your patterns, worked your mismatches and made your free throws. X's and O's were huge. There was none of the run-and-gun the Wolfpack has favored.

Who knows, V might have made the difference. That is not meant as a slight to Les Robinson, V's replacement, a fine coach who wheedled 20 wins out of incomplete talent this season. It's just that V was famous for winning these games. He would have worked it like a lounge act: Down on one knee, dying a little, working the refs, sweating. No coach was worth more during a game.

V wasn't there yesterday, though. This was the new North Carolina State. The one that wasn't on probation. The one that wasn't facing point-shaving allegations. The one without a coach who showed almost total disregard for his players' classwork. The one that didn't represent much of what is wrong with college athletics.

Maybe V was missed for a couple of hours yesterday. Maybe he is still missed by some dunderhead State alumni who can't recognize that V was embarrassing their degrees. But in the locker room yesterday, no one was crying out for the old State, for V's State. They preferred the new model.

"I think the program is back on its feet again," said senior guard Chris Corchiani after Oklahoma State's 73-64 win. "This was a very, very enjoyable season. Finally, there was no controversy. Finally, our image wasn't tarnished. It's not easy going out there knowing people think you're the bad guys. I don't know how long it will take, but I know people aren't going to think that about State anymore."

This season will not be remembered as fondly in Raleigh as the 1982-83 season, when V won a national title. But this, like that, was a watershed season at North Carolina State. The Wolfpack stopped being the bad guys, the ones who didn't play by the rules. They rediscovered their self-respect. That they also won 20 was just a dividend.

We have learned not to trust what we see in college sports, to wait for innocence to be proven, but Robinson's State does look promising. He comes with a superb record for graduating his players. He used a portion of the money from his shoe contract to set up a scholarship fund for former players. He has never been in NCAA trouble.

All you need to know can be found in the media guide. The players are featured ahead of the coach. Even the team's lifetime record is listed ahead of the coach's biography. That's a stunning thing in the college game, where coaches' egos run wild. V, of course, was never a back-seat guy. Anything but that.

"I have to say, [Robinson] was like a god in disguise for us," said sophomore forward Bryant Feggins, a V recruit. "He just came in and won us over right away. This year has been so much fun. Basketball is fun again. It wasn't fun last year. I'm just glad last year is over."

The Wolfpack was on probation last year, and then in midseason a former player was alleged to have shaved points. After the season, Valvano reluctantly agreed to leave -- for $600,000. Robinson was a hot, hot name, having taken East Tennessee State to the NCAAs two years running. The timing was perfect.

So was the fit. Robinson, 48, was a State alum, and had graduated all but one of his four-year players in 17 years as a head coach. For a program suffering terribly from comparisons with neighboring do-gooders Duke and North Carolina, he couldn't show up fast enough.

Of course, you never know what will happen when a coaching change is made, how the players will react. But there is one basic guideline in such matters: Players, like everyone else in the world, are loyal first to themselves. If they think the coach is a problem, they will welcome a new one.

Whether the Wolfpack players were particularly loyal to V is hard to gauge these days, but it is clear they thought a change was needed, that V had become the story, and not a pleasant story at that. Rodney Monroe summed it all up yesterday in one neat sentence: "The coaching change went smoothly." Miss V? Don't think so.

Robinson will still have to fight V's winning legacy, which will not be easy. So far, so good. The Wolfpack had their great backcourt of Corchiani and Monroe this year, but no proven big men. Preseason guesses had them landing anywhere from fifth to seventh in the ACC. They finished third, beating Duke and Carolina along the way, and won their first-round NCAA game.

Maybe V would have made life tougher for Oklahoma State yesterday. The Wolfpack gave up 19 straight points from late in the first half to early in the second. Robinson did what he could. V was just so beautiful at such times. Maybe he would have called a bunch of timeouts, run some fancy sets, gotten Monroe free. Maybe he would have made a difference. He certainly would have had a couple of good lines after the game. We will just have to do without.

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