Valvano dies of cancer

'HE PUT UP A GOOD FIGHT'

he'll be remembered for rim shots

April 29, 1993|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

Florida State basketball coach Pat Kennedy said recently of ** his mentor and former boss Jim Valvano: "We always thought Jimmy had nine lives, but I guess he only has one like the rest of us."

That life ended yesterday when Valvano, 47, lost a 10-month battle with cancer.

"He put up a good fight. It's amazing what a constitution he had," said Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner Gene Corrigan. "I don't know how many of us could have done what he did."

Valvano's death came a little more than 10 years after he vaulted onto the national stage by leading North Carolina State to an NCAA championship with a huge upset of Houston.

Winning the national championship helped Valvano become one the most recognized and respected coaches in the game, but he later became one of the most embattled. He eventually was forced out at N.C. State in 1990, with the Wolfpack on NCAA probation.

It was in Baltimore that Valvano began his 20-year head-coaching career. At 23, Valvano was hired to coach at Johns Hopkins in 1969. He spent only one season there, but he made an immediate and lasting impression.

"He had been an assistant at Rutgers for one year after playing there, and the Rutgers people said he was so knowledgeable, so good with the kids," recalled Hopkins athletic director Bob Scott, then the school's lacrosse coach. "They were right. We knew then that he'd be coaching at the highest level of basketball someday. He had a real pizazz about him. We used to have to hold our sides from laughing so hard at some of his stories."

Valvano went from Johns Hopkins to the University of Connecticut, where he was an assistant under Dee Rowe for two years. He left there to become a head coach again, this time at Bucknell. It was at Bucknell that Valvano's coaching style began to develop.

Once, when the team was going through a long losing streak, he promised his players that he would suit up for warm-ups if they won five games in a row. They did -- and he did. But Valvano had bigger dreams than Bucknell, and he left there after three seasons to become head coach at Iona College.

It was at Iona that Valvano's reputation as one of the best sideline strategists -- as well as one of the most quotable coaches in the business -- grew. When he was first hired, Valvano often said people compared him to then-New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath.

"They say that Joe Namath is ruggedly handsome; they just say I have a big nose," said Valvano.

He spent five years at the small school in New Rochelle, N.Y., and he used to kid about the introduction he gave himself at

camps and clinics. "I'd tell people, 'I'm Jim Valvano, Iona College.' And they'd tell me, 'Son, you're too young to own a college.' "

Said Baltimore businessman Bill Gaertner, one of his assistants for three years at Iona: "Jimmy used to say, 'The game isn't over until the last writer leaves.' "

Despite a career that was filled with rim shots as well as jump shots, Valvano was serious about making it in big-time college basketball. After turning Iona into a regional power, after upsetting soon-to-be national champion Louisville in 1980 at Madison Square Garden, Valvano was hired at N.C. State.

"His personality didn't change when he got to N.C. State," said Maryland coach Gary Williams, who knew Valvano for more than 20 years. "One of his strengths was that he always treated people in the profession as equals, no matter what level of coaching they were on."

In his third year at N.C. State, he took the Wolfpack to the national championship. After winning the ACC tournament to gain a bid to the NCAA tournament, N.C. State won a series of down-to-the-wire games, ending with the improbable victory over top-ranked Houston.

Coming back to beat Phi Slamma Jamma on the game's final play -- an air ball by Dereck Whittenburg turned into a dunk at the buzzer by Lorenzo Charles -- Valvano took off on a mad -- around the court, looking for someone to hug. "My luck, I ended up finding a 60-year-old man," Valvano said, referring to athletic director Willis Casey.

It turned out to be the highlight of Valvano's career and the launching pad to his second career: selling Jimmy V. He was praised by his fellow coaches for becoming an entrepreneur, and was criticized by the media for not paying attention to his program, especially to many academically deficient players.

Perhaps the last shining moment for Valvano as a coach came in 1987, when his Wolfpack upset North Carolina in the final of the ACC tournament. By 1989, after the publication of "Personal Fouls," a critical account of the N.C. State program, Valvano found himself in the swirl of controversy. Having succeeded the retiring Casey as athletic director, Valvano was forced to resign the position. He remained as basketball coach as the program began a two-year period of probation.

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