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. 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.

  2. choppack1 07/27/2009 at 2:09 PM #

    CC – I was at that game as well – and your comment is spot on.

    Dan Kendra actually killed us that game. Wasn’t it rainy that day?

    I have been to Tally for several games. Saw them beat the Heels in the lead up to the “Game of the Century” (does the tarheel’s combo of ignorance and arrogance ever cease to amaze???), saw state play them in 97, 99, 01, 03 and 05.

  3. Classof89 07/27/2009 at 2:12 PM #

    The 1996 3-8 MOC team was absolutely horrible—one of the worst NC State teams ever. Six teams rolled up 40 or more points on us (Virginia, UNC, FSU, Clemson, Purdue–a team that finished 3-8 itself, and ECU). That team gave up 401 points—the worse season scoring defense in NC State history.

    LRM Note: Ironically, one of our most complete games under O’Cain was the 24-19 loss to #11 Alabama at C-F that October 1996. It was the game JB really started to establish himself. We scored with only a few minutes to play and then forced a punt, but as time ran out JB threw a pick and Bama ran out the clock.

    The 1995 3-8 team, however, was supposed to be pretty good going into the season (coming off the 9-3 year and the bowl win; preseason top 25 in some polls, IIRC). Second game of the year, they opened the ACC slate at home against a good Virginia team that ended up 9-4 that year. After scoring on a smashmouth drive in the 4th quarter featuring Tremayne Stephens (I think that was our back that year) tearing off huge runs against the tiring UVa defense to take the lead, we let them march back down the field and score with less than a minute left to win 29-24. The most heartbreaking NC State football loss I’ve ever personally witnessed. The next week was the 77-17 debacle at Florida State, and this team never recovered. Their only two Division I-A wins that year were Duke (3-8) and Wake (1-10). Year ended with a 30-28 loss to UNC at home (I think this was the one with the blown call by the refs on a two point conversion in the endzone at the end, wasn’t it?)

  4. Wulfpack 07/27/2009 at 2:41 PM #

    I am not that big of a fan of the Block S. I’ve heard many people mistake us for Stanford.

  5. CaptainCraptacular 07/27/2009 at 2:58 PM #

    Chop from what I remember that 99 game was very rainy before the game, I think we stopped and got some slickers, but turned out not to need them. It was just gray throughout the game itself. The next day on the way back to central fla I recall a tropical storm moving through.

  6. GoldenChain 07/27/2009 at 3:24 PM #

    Hanging in my office are three NCSU sports frames, one is a piece of the Wm Neal Reynolds floor, the next a SI featuring the ’83 “MIRACLE WORKERS” with ticket stubs from a few games, and the last……a Wolfpacker dated October 5th 1998 titled “WE Shocked The World” with my 50yd line ticket stub (before they re-vamped priority!!!!).

    However, knowing that WPN is the “thinking man’s blog” you can check this out:

    In 7 seasons MOC had wins over 9 ranked teams, 4 out of conference, a #2 being the highest: #2FSU ‘98, #16 Texas ‘99, #13 ‘Cuse ‘97, #11 ‘Cuse ‘98, #16 Miss St ‘94, #16 UVa ‘93, #22 Clemson ‘94, #18 Duke ‘94, #13 UVa ‘94.

    In 7 seasons CtC had 7 wins over ranked teams, one out of conference, #9 being the highest: #10FSU ‘01, #14 FSU ‘02, #11 ND ‘02, #24 GAT ‘05, #9 FSU ‘05, #20 BC ‘06, #17FSU ‘06.

    TOB in two seasons: #25 holes ’08, #15 ECU ’08, #24 Uva ’07,

  7. CaptainCraptacular 07/27/2009 at 3:36 PM #

    Another piece of history from that ’99 game at Doak. We lost the college football championship belt that week — after winning it from Texas a few weeks before:

  8. choppack1 07/27/2009 at 3:36 PM #

    Class of 89 – I think you are right on the year of that UNC game.

    That was one of the most bizarre games I’ve ever attended. UNC jumped on us pretty good in the first half. The weather took a turn for the worse. Late in the second half, there were so few fans, that those of us that remained, could literally follow the action down the field in the stands.

    I missed the UVA travesty because I had my employer had one of those manager meeting/retreats that weekend. (Those never fell on a good weekend – thank gosh we stopped doing them.) I caught just a few minutes of the game and it seemed like the Carter was rocking early in the 2nd half.

    The most painful losses in MOC’s era (and he’s had plenty) – had to be those UNC games in Charlotte. We had no business losing either one of those, we were favored in both, but we found a way to get the L.

    LRM Note: That game on Thanksgiving weekend in ’98 was especially tough to swallow because going into it we were 7-3 and had beaten Florida State and Syracuse and had a very real shot at a Peach or Gator Bowl. That game served as one more example of how O’Cain could quickly coach us out of a game. Carolina jumped all over us and led 24-3 at the half. For some inexplicable reason, we didn’t throw at Holt but like once the entire first half (the matchup between Holt and Bly had been really hyped). In the second half, O’Cain realized what everyone else already knew: Holt was probably the most dominant playmaker in college football and was too much for Bly to cover consistently. Holt finished the game with 9 catches for 180 yards with a receiving TD and a punt return TD. We trailed 31-10 going into the 4th quarter but forced OT after scoring 21 unanswered. We went first in OT, and as soon as we had to settle for a Deskevich FG, most of us knew it was over. Oscar Davenport connected with Na Brown for the winning TD and Carolina won 37-34.

  9. primacyone 07/27/2009 at 3:55 PM #

    The actually seats were a lot cheaper back in the 90’s. I remember my first year after graduation getting 2 season tickets for those metal bleachers above the hill for $110 a piece – for the entire season.

  10. CaptainCraptacular 07/27/2009 at 5:04 PM #

    This was a great entry BTW

  11. Greywolf 07/27/2009 at 6:50 PM #

    “State football has never enjoyed anywhere near the same religious fervor reserved for its storied, proud basketball tradition.”

    Wrong! It was just before your time. In 1967 I was in a packed Reynolds Coliseum watching State play Penn State in a pivotal football game on a big screen TV. We were 8-0 — we were ranked 3rd in the nation — and lost when PSU AA LB, Dennis Onkontz (sp), stopped Bobby Hall on 4th down on the goal line.

    A lot of us already had tickets for the Clempson game the following week. I dreaded driving down there and hated the drive home even worse as did a lot of other State fans. The wind played a big part in that game — blowing a gale force winds the first half — one of our punts only traveled about 15 yards down field and when it hit the wind blew it back for negative yardage. Clemson punted for phenomenal field position and even though we had the better team, the took a lead into the half time break.

    We had taken the wind in our face in the first half looking for the 2nd half advantage — bad idea but who could have guessed the wind would die down to nothing in the 2nd half. We had zero spirit or energy in that game. The Penn State lose cost us a true shot at No. 1 and cost us 2 games. (This happens to a lot of teams in these circumstances.)

  12. PackerInRussia 07/28/2009 at 12:17 AM #

    I guess this is as good of a post as any to put this:
    We were cleaning out our ESL office the other day and I came upon some old Sporting News magazines which are always fun to read (top 20 high school QB’s of the time; an article about Jerry Rice’s opportunity to mentor the young, talented WR Terrel Owens; stories of how my O’s stunk, stink, and will stink). Also in this issue dated September 13, 1999, they rank the 112 Athletic Departments. State ranked #36 and #6 of 9 ACC schools (ahead of Maryland, Wake Forest, and Clemson and ahead of current ACC members BC and Miami). The criteria were: Do we play fair? (grade of B+), Do we rock? (B), Do we graduate? (B+), and finally (drum roll)…Do we win? (grade of D). The comment next to the grades was: “Needs a postseason appearance in either sport to rise.”
    Anyway, in a post on the history of State, I thought this would be a fun (or sad?) addition.

  13. packgrad2000 07/28/2009 at 11:24 AM #


    Yeah, that last loss to UNC was especially painful in Charlotte, which I believe turned out to be his last game (or was there an ECU game the week later?). I remember UNC was horrible that season as well, and had lost something like 3 of their QB’s. I believe they started a RB at QB for the game with us. I remember one particular play in the first half with us on D, where they had a big play because one of their receivers was left completely wide open…nobody within 10-15 yards. I remember thinking, “Only we could let a 4th string QB make a big play like that.” It seemed like we were finally going to get a win against UNC, but of course didn’t. As a lifelong NC State fan, I don’t think I’ve ever been as frustrated walking out of a game like I was that day, and we all know there have been a LOT of frustrations in recent years.

    LRM Note: O’Cain’s final game was the following weekend in Greenville, but make no mistake, he was finished after that Carolina game in Charlotte. Carolina had lost seven straight going into that game, including a loss against Furman, and Torbush had flat outcoached him that night. The walk out of Ericsson left no doubt that O’Cain was finished — the ECU game was just a formality.

  14. 61Packer 07/28/2009 at 11:09 PM #

    I was at the ’98 home game vs FSU when the Pack won, 24-7, and the thing I remember most was that the crowd actually got larger as the second half continued. It was probably State’s greatest win at home.

    But State’s greatest football win to me came in October 1967, down in Houston. The game was on a Saturday night, radio only, and everywhere you went that night, people had that game on, listening to Bill Jackson and Wally Ausley on WPTF, recording history. At that time, this was the largest crowd ever to see an indoor football game (about 52,000 fans in the Astrodome, including my buddy Mike). Mike was stationed in the Army there and picked up a ticket from an Army buddy. Even though State was 4-0, they were given little chance against the nation’s #2 team, who had already blasted a highly-ranked Michigan State team, 37-7. However, Mike said that State’s line manhandled Houston with its size, erasing a 6-0 halftime deficit to prevail, 16-6. No one outside the State locker room that night saw it coming.

    It’s my opinion that State’s two greatest wins in sports came at the expense of the Houston Cougars.

    As far as whether or not football or basketball is the most revered sport at NCSU, until 1990 or so, basketball was clearly our sport. But not since, and the gap between the two continues to widen, despite the fact that football struggled under MOC and CTC. That alone should tell you how bad our basketball has been in the past two decades.

    I can’t wait for opening-day kickoff. As for basketball, I honestly wish we’d just go ahead and cancel the program until we get a new AD; I truly believe we’d be better off.

  15. choppack1 07/29/2009 at 8:08 AM #

    “We trailed 31-10 going into the 4th quarter but forced OT after scoring 21 unanswered. ”

    Actually, to me, the perfect illustration of how MOC had become was the final minutes of regulation of this game.

    *As you correctly noted, we had come storming back in the 4th quarter to tie the game. However, we managed to get the ball back w/ enough time to mount a decent drive for a FG in regulation. We took one shot deep down the field – the proceeded to play it conservative and go to OT.

    I’ll never know why MOC let his foot off the gas in that game. To me, that decision to play for OT probably cost MOC his HC job at NC State. He mounts a successful drive and scores – how does this change things?
    Having knocked the monkey off his back, we probably beat the Heels again the next year – and he has 2 pretty successful seasons in a row…Like I’ve said before, you can play these “what if” game for every coach (but Les Robinson).

  16. tcthdi-tgsf-twhwtnc 07/30/2009 at 10:50 AM #

    Not to make excuses for the Baylor game but wasn’t it 110 degrees on the field and reports of the bottoms of shoes melting? Didn’t state lose to Baylor again the following year during one of the tropical storm games?

    LRM Note: We lost at C-F to Baylor 14-0 in 1995. Perhaps you’re thinking of the South Carolina game during Dennis in 1999, although we won that 10-0.

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