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Back with the Pack

NC State\'s Chuck Amato proves you can go home again
by: Gene Frenette
Florida Times-Union
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For eight consecutive years, football schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference have been looking up to Florida State in the league standings. Nobody has hit upon a formula to unseat the Seminoles as one of the most dominant programs in NCAA history.

So North Carolina State decided to take a new approach in its search for a football coach. Instead of hiring a big-name head coach like Georgia's Jim Donnan or Stanford's Tyrone Willingham, both of whom were considered, the Wolfpack decided on a course of action that no other ACC school had previously taken.

In attempt to catch FSU, they tapped into Bobby Bowden's talented pool of assistant coaches to hire Chuck Amato, a logical choice given the double luxury that he brings to N.C. State.

Not only does Amato deliver 18 years of insider knowledge about FSU's program, but as a Wolfpack alumnus and 10-year former assistant coach at N.C. State, no coach is likely to bring more emotion or passion to chasing the Seminoles' dynasty than Amato.

"I've had other head coaching opportunities, but this had more to do with who was asking than timing," said Amato. "My heart is in this place."

The feeling is obviously mutual. N.C. State was so fixated on Amato after firing Mike O'Cain on November 24 that it dragged out the hiring process six weeks before signing him to a five-year contract worth about $500,000 annually. The Wolfpack Club was flooded with calls from fans in December about why the search took so long.

Ironically, Bowden was behind the delay. While N.C. State had its eye on Amato since early December, it acquiesced to Bowden's plea to school chancellor Mary Anne Fox to allow Amato, who coached inside linebackers, to keep working through FSU's national championship bowl game against Virginia Tech.

The Seminoles completed their first perfect season in school history on January 4 with a 46-29 Sugar Bowl win against the Hokies. A day later, nearly one month after interviewing with N.C. State's search committee at the upscale Silver Slipper restaurant in Tallahassee, the 54-year-old Amato came home again. He accepted his first head coaching job after 30 years in the profession.

"I didn't know what was going on with the job until the day of the (Sugar Bowl) game," Amato said. "It's a compliment that they waited on me. It's unusual.''

Whatever setbacks the Wolfpack did suffer in recruiting, the search committee felt it would be offset by waiting on their consensus choice. For a school that hasn't won an ACC title since 1979, getting back to the top will require hard work and patience.

Amato knows as well as anyone that FSU with its access to aplentiful in-state recruiting crop and only four Florida schools playing Division I-A football isn't going to drop down any time soon. ACC schools have to raise their game.

Toward that end, N.C. State is following Wake Forest and Virginia by making a commitment to upgrading Carter-Finley Stadium and other football-related facilities to enhance recruiting.

"We have to shoot for the moon," Amato said. "We've got to set our goals high and make our players believe that. The administration has been supportive as far as improving the facility. In college athletics, you have to keep up with the Joneses. That's the way it is.

"FSU turned an erector set (in Doak Campbell Stadium) into one of the most impressive structures around. We need to get on a level playing field with them."

That's not going to happen overnight. Ten of the Wolfpack's 16 returning starters from last year's 6-6 team are on defense, Amato must find a replacement for quarterback Jamie Barnette, who engineered the Wolfpack's 24-7 upset of FSU in 1998.

And as most Seminole opponents have learned over the years, the biggest problem in keeping up with Bowden's program is depth. Except for Florida, Nebraska and a select few, schools generally don't have the reinforcements to stay with the 'Noles for a full 60 minutes.

Nobody understands better than Amato why the gap between FSU and the rest of the ACC remains so wide. He believes, given time, that he can begin to close it.

"I think seeing the day-to-day operation at FSU for 18 years, you know what it takes," Amato said. "I believe with a lot of hard work, we can get there. Ten years ago, would you have believed Kansas State is the program that it is today? Or that Virginia Tech would play FSU for the national title?

"Now those are isolated examples, but it shows it can happen. Everyone knows who we're all chasing. I think if we can get more consistent, we can be in position to win an ACC title."

Selling the Program

One of Bowden's greatest strengths in his quarter century of building the FSU program is his salesmanship. Few head coaches have fared better at convincing blue-chip recruits to sign with one school as Bowden has done over the years.

Amato, who recruited the fertile south Florida area for the 'Noles, was a big part of FSU's success in that area. But recruiting players to a well-established football powerhouse like Florida State, which sits somewhat isolated on the edge of the Florida Panhandle, and selling kids on N.C. State poses immensely different challenges.

One of the biggest obstacles for Amato, other than the fact he's neverbeen a college head coach, is trying to sell players on a school that is among seven Division I-A football teams in North and South Carolina.

"A lot of players Florida State signs are good the day they get oncampus," said former FSU assistant Brad Scott, now the tight ends coach at Clemson.

"But not all schools can get that level of talent. When you don't, you have to be able to bring the players you can get and mold them. It takes more time."

Scott should know. He also left FSU after the 'Noles first national championship season in 1993 for his first college head coaching job at South Carolina. But after hovering around .500 for four years, Scott was fired after going 1-10 in 1998.

After leaving the comfort and security of FSU, Amato had less than a month to put together his first recruiting class of 18 players, including quarterback Phillip Rivers, from Athens, Ala. Going into spring practice, the leading candidates to replace Barnette were sophomore Jatavius Sanders and redshirt freshman Toki McCray.

Given Amato's minimal recruiting time and the fact he didn't have a full coaching staff until well after National Signing Day, this class isn't a true measure of his salesmanship skills. But in the highly competitive Southeast, the Wolfpack must be able to significantly upgrade recruiting if they expect to consistently challenge FSU.

"You're not going to always get the 15 or 20 players you want, so you have to make sure you get the most you can out of those you sign," Scott added. "It's a lot tougher to build depth than it is at a place like Florida State. It's apples and oranges, really."

That said, Amato still pulled one of the biggest recruiting coups in the off-season. Not with a player, but a coach.

Amato was able to lure Brigham Young offensive coordinator Norm Chow, after 22 years with LaVell Edwards, to take the same position two time zones away at N.C. State. Despite Edwards approaching retirement, the 53-year-old Chow took the risk of going to a new program and living apart from his wife and 14-year-old son, Chandler, both of whom will remain in Utah until the new school year begins.

"I didn't know if I could get him, but you never know unless youask," Amato said. "For the last 20 years, BYU has moved the ball oneverybody and Norm has sure proven that he can coach quarterbacks. I don't care what offense you're in, if you don't have a quarterback,you're going to have a tough time.

"I interviewed other candidates for Norm's position. It's just that I always liked that BYU offense. It seemed like they know how to pick you and pick you."

The thing is, Amato didn't figure on picking Chow. He initially called Chow to ask about other candidates when the conversation turned in a different direction.

"We weren't actively looking to leave BYU, but we were looking," Chow said. "When Chuck called, he wanted to talk about some names. Then I said, 'Gee, Chuck, I thought you were calling for me.' He said he thought I'd never leave. I said, 'Try me.'"

It soon became obvious to Amato that Chow, like himself, was open to the possibility of a bold career move. Even when Chow got snowed in at a Greensboro, N.C. hotel after his interview, it didn't discourage him from leaving BYU. Amato had to arrange for someone to drive Chow in a four-wheel drive vehicle to get him back to the airport to catch his flight back to Utah.

"Then we got snowed in at the hotel, we were lucky to have Snickers bars in the machine," Chow recalled.

But the more he got to know Amato, whom Chow first met 20 years ago at a football speciality camp at the College of the Mines in Colorado when Amato was coaching at Arizona, the more Chow got to thinking about heading east.

Because of changes in BYU's administration, Chow knew he was no longer the favorite to replace Edwards, so why not take the risk of going elsewhere than gamble later on not being retained by BYU's next coach?

"It's not like we're taking over a 2-9 or 1-10 program," said Chow, who has called BYU's plays since Steve Young's junior year in 1982. "What concerned me more was the quality of the entire ACC, not just one team. But you talk to Chuck for five minutes and you pick up on his enthusiasm and zest for the game. His foresight, his dreams for the future, that gets you fired up.

"I had been in one place so long. Everybody needs to be rejuvenated. Chuck brought that on. We're all out of our comfort zone a bit. We could have probably spent the rest of our careers where we were at. But this is an exciting challenge. Sometimes life is taking a chance, living on the edge a little bit."

Of course, it didn't hurt that Amato's offer included a pay raise along with the freedom to run the Wolfpack offense to fit Chow's philosophy.

"It sounded like a good deal," Chow said. "The money was better. I told Chuck it would have to be."

Reaching the Next Level

Amato knows all about winning championships. In addition to the two national titles at FSU, he was also on the Wolfpack coaching staff when they won an ACC crown in 1979. And in '65, he was a linebacker on the NCSU team that got as high as No. 3 in the polls before an upset loss to Penn State took them out of national contention.

"We would have been No. 1 in the country, so I know it can be done,'' said Amato. "Nothing's easy. We have to roll our sleeves up.''

But college football's landscape is far different for the N.C. Stateteam that Amato, originally from Easton, Pa., played for a generationago under the late Earle Edwards.

Amato, who also wrestled for the Wolfpack, returns to his alma mater under less than ideal circumstances. Not only are the facilities behind several ACC rivals, but the expectations at N.C. State remain fairly high because O'Cain and his predecessor, Dick Sheridan, were able to keep the program fairly competitive the last 14 years despite significant obstacles.

"I think O'Cain did a commendable job here. Hey, they beat us," said Amato, referring to the 24-7 upset of FSU at Carter-Finley Stadium in 1998.

Chow boldly adds: "Sometimes people aren't patient. Mike O'Cain, at 6-6, should never have gotten fired."

But when a promising 1999 season, which began with a stunning win over Texas, disintegrated with November losses to North Carolina and East Carolina, the administration axed O'Cain despite a 41-40 overall record.

Sheridan went 52-29-3 in the seven years before O'Cain, who has since been hired as UNC's offensive coordinator.

Now Amato, who specializes on the defensive side of the ball, is being asked to produce at a school that must replace its quarterback and rebuild the offensive line. Compounding the difficult transition process is an N.C. State team that has 11 scholarship seniors.

However, a winning season is reachable thanks to a non-ACC schedule that includes Arkansas State, Indiana and Southern Methodist.

"It's a very young team here and we're going to have to be patient ourselves to make sure the players can grasp what we're doing," Amato said.

Other than FSU, which went undefeated in the ACC, and Clemson, which went 5-3 under first-year coach Tommy Bowden, the Wolfpack should have as much talent and depth as any team in the league. It's just a question of whether Amato can get it all to mesh together in a short amount of time.

"The N.C. State job is the job Chuck's wanted his whole life, so you can almost bet he's put a lot of thought and planning into what it'll take to work there," Scott said.

Amato has seen it work quite well in Raleigh, N.C., as a player and assistant coach. He spent four years under Lou Holtz when the Wolfpack went 33-12-3 and another four seasons under Bo Rein, which included an ACC title and a 27-18-1 mark.

But there's one huge difference from that bygone era: the 'Pack didn't have to contend with Florida State being in the ACC. Amato gets his first experience of what other league coaches have been dealing with since 1992 when FSU visits Carter-Finley Stadium on October 28.

With FSU returning quarterback Chris Weinke, who had a career-high six interceptions in the N.C. State game two years ago, Amato likely won't have the benefit of catching the 'Noles being uninspired for that showdown.

"Last year, we had the father-against-the-son game when Clemson played FSU," said Amato. "This year, it'll be like father against step-son."

Bowden's son appears to have Clemson's program going in the right direction. Now it's up to Amato, the surrogate son, to see if he can get N.C. State football to the next level.

"I was really afraid N.C. State would do like a lot of schools do when they are looking for a head coach: go after a big name," said FSU coach Bobby Bowden. "I knew they had a gem right under their nose in Chuck. They made a wise decision."

Only time will tell if the Wolfpack did the right thing in firing O'Cain and hiring a favorite son. One thing Amato knows for certain is there's no turning back. He's finally got the head coaching job that he affectionately referred to as "my Oscar."

The problem is, snatching the ACC Championship trophy away from Florida State may be as hard for any coach as winning an Oscar is for any actor. But if Amato was ever going to take his shot, it had to be now, at a school where his heart always remained.

"A decision like that, I was in a win-win situation," said Amato. "I spent as much time in Tallahassee as in my hometown of Easton where I grew up. That's home to my daughters. The biggest regret that I had was I couldn't address the FSU players about leaving because I didn't know anything official until after we got home from the Sugar Bowl and everybody was gone.

"The timing was right for me because we finally had that perfectseason and a national championship. It's nice to be on top of the mountain, but sooner or later, you have to make a decision on what you want to do in life."

Chuck Amato chose to return to his alma mater and challenge Bobby Bowden for ACC supremacy. He wants it to be a rewarding job. It sure figures to be a lot harder than the one he just left behind.


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