Cheap Seats Football Retrospective: Part I, The 1990s

Back in March of this year, any column I would’ve written could’ve only been titled “Why I should’ve gone to [insert SEC school here].”

As I left Tobacco Road on Glenwood Avenue after watching yet another State basketball season mercifully end – like so many years before it – on the Thursday of the ACC Tournament, I decided I needed a break. I was burned out, drained. Last season was neither fun nor exciting, and I’d become so negative towards State basketball that, for the first time in my life, I wanted to be emancipated from it. So I went on a three-month hiatus: no SFN, N&O, or WRAL and no Sidney Lowe, Lee Fowler, or John Wall.

The problem is I’ve never been anything but a State fan. But more importantly, I want to be a State fan. Sometimes a reprieve is all we need, and right around the middle of May, right when I was (somewhat begrudgingly) cutting my check for my LTRs and season tickets, I realized I’m far more excited about the upcoming football season than is probably prudent, especially based on my lifetime of experience that suggests I should reign in my excitement and exchange it instead for cautious optimism.

Growing up in North Carolina you’re socialized to revere Tobacco Road basketball with what borders on spiritual awe, while football only seems to really matter when you’re winning – it’s like SEC basketball. State football has never enjoyed anywhere near the same religious fervor reserved for its storied, proud basketball tradition. My generation – I was born in 1979 (coincidentally, the same year as our last conference title) – has experienced even less success in football than basketball (however possible), so why do we continue to always have such high expectations before each season? It can’t be just the tailgating – can it?

The five-part series that follows is by no means intended to be authoritative. Rather, it’s nothing more than an incomplete, inconclusive, sometimes erroneous, while always biased retrospective of recent State football history. Part of this was based on nothing more than my attempt to answer the question so many of us are left asking year after year: How did we get here?

Part I: The 90s
1990s-helmetThe synopsis of State football during the 90s is actually quite succinct. We won games we shouldn’t have won and then promptly lost games we shouldn’t have lost, while Mike O’Cain committed the Seven Deadly Sins for any head coach at North Carolina State: he lost to Carolina seven times consecutively. And while the basketball program’s once proud tradition dissipated into oblivion during the 90s, the football program remained a steady but hardly-noticeable presence on the national scene.

Neither Dick Sheridan nor O’Cain had any sustained bowl success during the decade; the two combined for a bowl record of 2-7. Sheridan’s teams defeated Brett Farve’s Southern Mississippi 31-27 in the 1990 All American Bowl, but then toiled over the next few years; on New Year’s Day 1992, East Carolina mounted a comeback on the wet, natural turf of the old Fulton County Stadium to defeat State 37-34 in the Peach Bowl; a year later, somewhere mired within the New Year’s Eve fog of the 1992 Gator Bowl, Florida’s Errict Rhett rushed for 182 yards in a 27-10 romp over State. After Sheridan’s untimely retirement just a few weeks prior to the 1993 season, O’Cain’s first team was shellacked 42-7 by Michigan in the 1994 Hall of Fame Bowl, where Tyrone Wheatley rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns.

Terry Harvey in Peach Bowl

Terry Harvey in the 1995 Peach Bowl

Then in 1994 – fresh off a Thanksgiving Friday second-half rally in Charlottesville that locked up an 8-3 record (good for second place in the conference) – State earned a trip to the (first) 1995 Peach Bowl to face Mississippi State (also 8-3 and second place in the SEC West). I was only 15 that New Year’s Day 1995 in Atlanta, and beyond anything else that evening I remember those “damned cowbells” – one very cool tradition, by the way – that every Mississippi State fan rang non-freaking-stop all night, starting at the MARTA station, then in the CNN Center at dinner, and outside the Georgia Dome, inside the Georgia Dome, in the concessions lines, even in the restrooms. One fan delicately explained to us that they were making up for lost time; prior to the season, the cowbells had been included in the SEC’s ban on artificial noisemakers during conference games. They definitely made up for lost time that evening.

At least until State gave them no more reason to ring them.

State rallied late, tying the game at 21 going into the fourth quarter on a three-yard touchdown pass from Terry Harvey to Dallas Dickerson. On the ensuing drive, the defense – led by eventual game MVP Damien Covington – forced a quick three-and-out. State promptly finished the rally with a quick-strike four-play, 80-yard drive set up by a 62-yard reception by Jimmy Grissett, and then capped off by an 11-yard Carlos King touchdown. But it wouldn’t end without drama: Mississippi State added a late field goal to pull within 28-24, and then after forcing a punt within the final two minutes, quickly drove the ball inside the State 30. But amidst the threat of all the deafening, inharmonic clanking of cowbells, State’s defense held firm and secured victory by forcing a turnover-on-downs in the waning moments.

Finally, those “damned cowbells” had fallen silent. On the MARTA afterwards, one State fan cracked loudly that he didn’t hear any of those “damned cowbells” anymore. A few feet away, in a final act of defiance to the victors and loyalty to the defeated, a young boy rattled his cowbell one last time, which triggered uproars of laughter from both the victors and the defeated.

It would be one of only two watershed victories under O’Cain, who was unable to build on the promise of that Peach Bowl victory, and State football promptly faded again into the background after consecutive records of 3-8 in 1995 and again in 1996; State finished 6-5 in 1997, but out of the bowl picture, since that was back when only deserving teams were rewarded with a bowl (instead of any team with a .500 record and willing to go to Boise in December). But then, early in the 1998 season, we could finally sense the breakthrough we’d all been waiting for. After squeaking past Ohio University 34-31 in an uninspiring opener, O’Cain led State to the biggest win of its football history.

On September 12, 1998, a mere 20 seconds into the game, second-ranked Florida State’s Chris Weinke delivered a 74-yard touchdown strike to Peter Warrick on the first play from scrimmage. State responded with a long but fruitless drive that ended after a missed field goal. Then, on Florida State’s ensuing drive, Weinke had first-and-goal on the five.

Let’s pause here a moment, because without the proper context, the significance of this moment is lost. See, in the six games since Florida State had joined the ACC in 1992, the Seminoles had outscored the Pack 306-88, which translates to an average score of 51-14 (1992, 34-3; 1993, 62-3; 1994, 34-3; 1995, 77-17; and 1996, 51-17). The only outlier had been the previous year in 1997 in Tallahassee, when second-ranked Florida State was perhaps caught looking past us towards its hyped-up trip to Chapel Hill the following weekend to face fifth-ranked Carolina. The Seminoles pounced all over the Pack early, commanding a 27-0 lead after the first quarter. But then, as a freshman, I watched from my Owen Hall dorm room as over the next three quarters, Florida State got its first dose of Jamie Barnette and Torry Holt. The duo connected for five touchdowns, and it could have been more, if not for two Florida State interceptions of Barnette in the end zone. But State still lost 48-35, and so this game seemed nothing but an outlier.

So here we were in 1998, standing in the student section on a typical sweltering September afternoon in my sophomore year, early in the first quarter, and for those of us keenly aware of the history of this series, 14-0 and another blowout was a foregone conclusion – we’d be out at the truck eating Bojangle’s by halftime. Weinke was business-as-usual, poised to settle into his groove.

Fortunately for us, that groove was the State secondary. On first-and-goal from the five, Weinke connected with Tony Scott on the one yard line, and State never looked back. We responded with a staggering 10-play, 99-yard scoring drive, capped by Barnette’s 31-yard touchdown pass to Eric Leak (the original Owen Spencer, kids). Less than two minutes later, after the State defense forced a three-and-out, Holt unfurled that magnificent 68-yard punt return for a touchdown to give us a 13-7 lead after the first quarter. The rout was on. With 24 seconds left in the game, State led 24-7 and Bobby Bowden pulled his team off the field as a cessation of Florida State’s second conference loss as a member of the ACC.

I don’t remember exactly how long it took – it wasn’t long at all – but we helped topple the south end zone uprights and then marched them out of the stadium and across the fairgrounds before most of us fell out to go continue the celebration elsewhere. I don’t know how far the one upright made it exactly, but I remember hearing that it was found later that evening in the parking lot of the Hillsborough Street Waffle House, just the other side of the Beltline.

That win remains State’s biggest ever. Holt was again dominant, reeling in nine catches for 135 yards and adding another touchdown to his punt return. Meanwhile, Weinke was an abysmal 9-of-32 passing with six interceptions, three of which ended drives that had breached the State 35 in the fourth quarter alone. The sheer dominance of that defensive performance was only truly understood after season’s end, because Weinke didn’t throw a single interception the rest of the season and led Florida State to the Fiesta Bowl against Tennessee to decide the first BCS National Championship (although Marcus Outzen actually played in that losing effort, due to Weinke’s season-ending neck injury in November).

But true to the storyline that defines the N.C. State Saga, a week after beating Florida State (a game we shouldn’t have won) that same team suffered an embarrassing 33-30 loss to Baylor in Waco (a game we shouldn’t have lost); after an off week, on the first night of October – one of those perfect North Carolina early autumn evenings – we took down the new goal posts after defeating eighth-ranked Syracuse 38-17 in ESPN’s Thursday night game (another game we shouldn’t have won). The theme continued after we lost to Carolina in Charlotte (after a noble second-half comeback once O’Cain realized good things happen when you actually throw the ball to Holt) and then to Miami in the MicronPC Bowl, to finish the 1998 season at 7-5.

1999 NC State Football Helmet

Add some silver pants and you've got a horribly misguided impression of Georgia


The 1999 season served as the perfect microcosm of the entire decade: win a game we shouldn’t win (23-20 over Texas in Austin), lose one we shouldn’t lose (31-7 at Wake Forest), and once again lose to Carolina (10-6 in Charlotte). O’Cain was finished. We’d been mediocre for the entire decade and apathy had taken a firm hold, evidenced by the Carter-Finley attendance over O’Cain’s final five seasons, which was never above 90% capacity. For an athletic department hell-bent on multi-million dollar renovations to the facilities, it was essential that the next coach be able to usher in the new millennium by immediately refueling excitement and drastically increasing funding based on nothing beyond hope and rhetoric.

Chuck Amato was the perfect guy for the job. He reeked of rhetoric.

About LRM

Charter member of the Lunatic Fringe and a fan, loyal to a fault.

Flashback NCS Football Tradition

41 Responses to Cheap Seats Football Retrospective: Part I, The 1990s

  1. Broccoman 07/27/2009 at 8:08 AM #

    I remember the Syracuse goal post carry. Was one of the few games I ever got to go to. Also remember the police roughing up a friend of mine back then.

  2. Noah 07/27/2009 at 8:42 AM #

    I think you got the score of the ECU-State game wrong. I think it was 37-34 in the Peach Bowl.

    That Michigan game in 1993 was the first bowl game that I skipped out on. My family was going down and I refused to go. After losing 62-3 in the last game of the year, I had NO interest in watching it after driving for 10 hours.

    I stayed out late on NYE (I think I went to the Gregg Allman show at the Ritz) and then slept late on New Year’s Day. I remember waking up long enough to turn on the radio….and heard the score as something like 21-3…and promptly turned it off and went back to sleep.

    Michigan was probably the best 7-4 team in the history of college football. Three of their four losses were by less than five points. They had a bunch of injuries in the middle of the year and were JUST a little off.

    They outscored their opponents 342-160. In 1997, they won the national
    title and outscored their opponents 322-144. They had 21 guys off their two-deep roster who played at least one year in the NFL. And most of these were not the last guy on the NFL roster…

    Offense:
    Derrick Alexander, Jay Riemersma, Amani Toomer, Damon Jones, Jon
    Runyan, Thomas Guynes, Trezelle Jenkens, Todd Collins, Brian Griese,
    Mercury Hayes, Ricky Powers, Tim Biakabatuka, Tyrone Wheatley, and Rod
    Payne.

    Defense:
    Damon Denson, Buster Stanley, Trevor Pryce, Matt Dyson, Jarrett Irons,
    Steve Morrison, and Ty Law.

  3. LRM 07/27/2009 at 8:48 AM #

    Noah, you’re right, it was 37-34 — my error.

    Cool pics added by SFN. I looked everywhere for some 90s pics online, but most of the decade preceded digital cameras and the internet.

  4. Clarksa 07/27/2009 at 9:18 AM #

    “Barnette’s 31-yard touchdown pass to Eric Leak (the original Owen Spencer, kids). ”

    Hahahaha…so true, so true.

  5. GAWolf 07/27/2009 at 10:06 AM #

    Didn’t we beat Florida St again the next year? I remember watching a FSU victory in a back bedroom on a tiny tv during law school in Georgia where every big tv was on a different SEC game and they refused to turn on any lowly ACC game. Without looking I’m sure that game was likely also surrounded by disappointing losses to an undermanned opponent. That was undoubtedly a major part of the O’Cain legacy.

  6. highstick 07/27/2009 at 10:20 AM #

    I hated that helmet. If there’s one thing I’ll always thank Chuckie for doing is bringing back the correct Block S!

  7. BJD95 07/27/2009 at 10:26 AM #

    ^^ It was Syracuse that we beat two years running. We blew up two consecutive Donovan McNabb Heisman campaigns. The first game was the double overtime thriller in the Carrier Dome where we won on a two point conversion. That game ties the MSU Peach Bowl for the happiest I ever was with MOC. I was screaming at the TV for us to go for two, as I didn’t believe we would ever be able to stop Cuse from scoring in subsequent OTs (our defense was gassed and frankly, not very good). Thus, going for two was our best mathematical shot to win.

    I’m pretty sure O’Cain only beat the Noles once.

    Funny story on the FSU win. I was in Northern Virginia, and my in-laws were in town. I remember turning off the TV right after the punt return TD, so we could leave to show them around DC while I was still in a good mood (the game had all the feel of one that FSU would blow the doors off at any minute). We stopped by my office about 2 hours later, and my chin hit the floor when I pulled up ESPN.com. I was so sure we’d get thumped that I hadn’t even taped the game!

  8. VaWolf82 07/27/2009 at 10:29 AM #

    One of the links that every college football fan should have bookmarked is the College Football Data Warehouse:

    http://www.cfbdatawarehouse.com/data/div_ia_conf_index.php

    Scores versus FSU after that first win in 1998:
    1999 – Loss – 42-11
    2000 – Loss – 58-14
    2001 – Win – 34-28
    2002 – Win – 17-7

    ….more at the link

  9. VaWolf82 07/27/2009 at 10:39 AM #

    Good article.

    If not for the internet, I would never have known that there were State fans that wanted to keep MOC. He had some big wins, but they were too few and too far in between. Throw in his record versus UNC AND ECU….and I was not the only State fan that had given up on FB until MOC was finally fired by the chancellor.

  10. choppack1 07/27/2009 at 10:45 AM #

    The next year FSU thumped us pretty good and we were never really a threat to them.

    Then in Chuck’s first year, the team played as if Chuck had made Gods of FSU’s players – which based on his public comments, he pretty much had.

    It was Chuck’s 2nd year when we won AT FSU – becoming the first ACC team to do so!

    Regarding the MOC era – I remember when he was first hired, I told a good friend of mine, “We just lost to Carolina.” I didn’t figure we’d lose 7 times in a row to them!

    There were some good times in the MOC era, but his last 2 losses to UNC really cemented his fate.

    I don’t know if anyone remembers his last year – but we started out the year pretty strong and were a very respectable 6-4 going into the UNC game. Much like Sendek, he couldn’t inspire his guys consistently enough to get consistent results – and when his teams usually got to the bigger stages, they didn’t deliver. He obviously was a decent technician, but sports aren’t just about teaching.

  11. daughtry 07/27/2009 at 11:02 AM #

    If my memory serves me correctly…

    The goal posts were moving down Hillsborough st. towards the brickyard. But, police maced the fans carrying it near the Waffle House. The march didn’t just end but was stopped by force.

    There were quite a few articles and hubub about the goal posts being taken down. University officials were very outspoken about the high costs to replace them.

    Given the situation, I always wondered why this didn’t result in goal posts that the university could move to the brickyard themselves upon a monstrous victory.

  12. GAWolf 07/27/2009 at 11:15 AM #

    I’m an idiot. My first year of law school was 98. I graduated from State (or finished credits that is) in July and went straight back to school in August. It would have been the fall of ’08…or the game originally discussed herein that I watched on a 8″ television and broke the girl’s bed frame jumping on the bed with beer in hand. Thanks for the clarification.

  13. choppack1 07/27/2009 at 11:33 AM #

    I supported MOC during his last 2 seasons until the 2nd UNC loss.

    I learned a lot from that experience. My instincts had told me all along that he probably wasn’t the right man for the job – however, my opinion was changed by the stupid arguments/statements you’d see on the internet or hear from fans (the one that stands out most is the ECU-State game where we handed the ball of to Tremaine Stephens and some fan around me started complaining and probably missed him break the long run which won it for us.)

    What I learned that when a fan complains about the playcalling/offense or whatever, what they are probably really complaining about is the overall result – and when it comes to the results, they probably have a point. If they are complaining out the same things and the team consistently wins and beats its rivals – well, then they are unreasonable and foolish.

  14. SaccoV 07/27/2009 at 11:35 AM #

    The FSU game in ’98 will forever be in my mind because I was eating lunch with my high school buddy at the Village Inn (god I miss that place) and FSU went down and scored on it’s opening play. I made my buddy stay with me to watch the rest of the 1st quarter. We were both very surprised State responded with a touchdown. Anyway, we parted and I had to listen on the way back to Avent Ferry (got kicked out of my central campus dorm, you know), and my roommate and I got drunk and toyed with the notion of hitching a ride to the field or to Hillsborough Street to follow the caravan carrying the goal posts. I found out through an “eyewitness” that police stopped the crowd before they got to the beltline bridge. I’m still not sure whatever happened to that goalpost.

  15. GAWolf 07/27/2009 at 11:45 AM #

    That FSU game is what prompted me to seek out the old ACC Boards to somewhat be able to participate in the buzz surrounding the win way down in Georgia. Also, Mike O’Cain’s last two years is what caused my father to quit on nearly 30 years of WPC giving and season ticket purchases. The MOC era was initiated with the jilting of Buddy Green and the logic that strong defense had all but carried the successes of the Sheridan error (despite his propensity toward the prevent).

  16. peteavio 07/27/2009 at 12:35 PM #

    Which year was the year of the rubber band motivational bracelets……Snap it!

  17. choppack1 07/27/2009 at 12:49 PM #

    Peteavio – that would be 1997 – @ Syracuse was the first game w/ them.

    It’s funny that almost every era has its positives. The MOC era showed that we could compete w/ any program in the country. I don’t think that we had beaten a team like FSU (in 98) since the Holtz years. Any win @ Texas is huge.

    Of course, the sad reality w/ the MOC era was that you could lose to anyone – and he

    Sheridan’s era was great. We were always well-coached and never beat ourselves – and we were 6-1 vs. the Heels. However, he was never really able to win one of those games that told the college football world we’d be a force to be reckoned with. After the Peach Bowl w/ MOC – I was hoping we’d turned that corner…boy, was that question ever answered the next 2 years.

  18. GAWolf 07/27/2009 at 1:02 PM #

    Oh we’ve turned a lot of corners through the years, Choppack. A lot of corners…

    I remember thinking that when a college coach outsources his motivational responsibilities that it was quite troubling.

    I talked to two former players in Carmichael Gym playing pick-up ball one afternoon. I asked them about the MOC hire and what they thought of it. I will not put their response on this or any website, but it was quite telling about how differently things maybe could have been… for better and potentially for worse depending on how the chips fell if that hire had been handled differently.

    MOC’s very open relationship with Carl Torbush never really helped him much, either. But then again, we’re a school who hires an arch-rival grad to be our AD… so what did we expect?

  19. primacyone 07/27/2009 at 1:04 PM #

    Not to hi-jack the thread, but needing something to fill the void of NC STATE Sports the last couple of years, I started following Campbell pretty hard. I’m both a NCSU and Campbell Alum.

    Just saw in basketball news where Virginia Tech will be playing the camels this year IN Buies Creek. That may be of interest to some of you.

    http://www.gocamels.com/ViewArticle.dbml?DB_OEM_ID=15300&ATCLID=204763248

    Another tidbit of Campbell info. Campbell’s shooting guard Jonathan Rodriguez, who has been awesome and will probably be the conference player of the year this year, was Javi’s teammate and go to guy in high school.

    Carry on!

    GAWolf: I just blew drink on my desk. I thought you meant in FOOTBALL….

  20. primacyone 07/27/2009 at 1:12 PM #

    ^ Yes, I had a feeling that might happen and have now edited the post. Sorry.

  21. choppack1 07/27/2009 at 1:24 PM #

    Yea GA Wolf – I recall talking to one, and his response was:

    Nice guy, smart guy, decent man, but not a great head football coach.

  22. ryebread 07/27/2009 at 1:32 PM #

    The original post definitely brings me back through memory lane. I can remember all of those games given that I grew up a NC State fan and then was on campus from 95-2000.

    The high points of the MOC years were:
    - Wins against FSU
    - Wins against Syracuse
    - Win at Texas

    The low points:
    - The absolute shellackings by FSU that made the wins more special.
    - The Baylor games (both were awful).
    - The WTF losses against Wake Forest and ECU. We’d take a step forward only to shoot ourselves in the feet against obviously inferior teams.
    - Every UNC game.
    - Miami and Michigan Bowl games.

    O’Cain was a nice guy, decent tactician but a really bad head coach. Everything about our program seemed to reflect that. He took a consistent top 25 team (albeit one ranked 20th-25th) under Sheridan and turned that into a mid-major caliber program. Thank god we had MAF and not Fowler or we’d have been cursed with O’Cain forever.

    Now, at the risk of preempting the next post, when we hired Amato, I was thoroughly underwhelmed. We’d just suffered through years where we provided a head coach on the job training who had never been a head coach. We replaced him with a first time head coach (albeit an assistant from one of the nation’s dominant powers). I was shocked and disappointed, but really hoped Amato had learned enough from Bowden to be successful………

  23. Noah 07/27/2009 at 1:36 PM #

    Speaking of the O’Cain era, did you guys see that Jeff Snipes, one of our two co-DCs during that time, died recently from cancer?

    I thought O’cain was a great guy and a decent coach. The problem was we just couldn’t recruit well enough to move forward. In terms of talent, we were in the bottom third of the league.

  24. CaptainCraptacular 07/27/2009 at 1:42 PM #

    I was at the 99 followup 42-11 game in tallahassee. For those that remember 99 was the year ol Bobby finally got his undefeated season on. A nole friend somehow procured 50 yard line prime seats, so I was duly surrounded by nole fans ready for a big revenge game win. Although they were very cordial, one even correcting his kids who had gotten rude when they realized I had the audacity to be there in prime seats pulling for the wolfpack.

    I remember we had a bunch of turnovers in our own territory, that the noles converted into a bunch a field goals. So going into the second half we had played terribly but the defense had kept things close enough that there was still hope.

    I hated the nSc helmets also although the red one was to me a nicer alternative the the white one. But nevertheless it was a glorious day when the diamond was finally retired in favor of the block S.

  25. choppack1 07/27/2009 at 1:50 PM #

    Noah – his recruiting problems didn’t really explain why he could beat teams like FSU, Texas and Syracuse, but couldn’t beat UNC, why we lost @ Baylor to a horrid team, and why sometimes we just mailed it in.

    When I think of MOC’s shortcomings, 2 post-game quotes from players tell me a lot:
    1) We’d just lost to GaTech in rather uninspired fashion (it was either in 98 or 99). AFter the game, a Pack player said (and I’m paraphrasing here), “We really didn’t need to win this game to go to a bowl, so the loss isn’t that big a deal.” While the comment to a certain extent is true, to me, it was also proof that the team just wasn’t motivated to go out there and win the kind of games it needed to be a success.

    2) We played a game vs. UNC – I think it was MOC’s second year. In the post-game interview w/ a UNC PLAYER, he said. “They had a shot in the game at our QB, but he was on the sidelines, and the state guy just let up. I knew right then we had them.”

    Could he draw up good plays and recognize good talent? Yes. Could he effectively manage an offense? Yes. Does he know football? Yes.

    Was a good HC? Nope, not in the final analysis. He did have some solid seasons, but even those had a few WTF games.

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