May 24, 2004 RALEIGH You have to believe that any time Dick Sheridan and Mike O'Cain hear from old friends in Raleigh, they have to wonder: Where is N.C. State's football program getting all of its money? In the last four years, the school has invested more than $100 million in improvements, upgrades and renovations at Carter-Finley Stadium alone. What Sheridan wouldn't have given for that kind of cash to improve his consistently successful program, which had little trouble with playing four quarters on Saturday but rarely could find two quarters to rub together during the week. The answer is complex. There is additional revenue the N.C. State athletic department is getting these days from rent on luxury boxes at the RBC Center, plus other new income that has put AD Lee Fowler's bean-counters in good shape in recent years. But a huge chunk of the financing for the renovation project was taken out in loans, and they are now being called in, thanks to the recent thumb-screwing by the Wolfpack Club to get fans to buy lifetime seating rights. The thing is, Wolfpack fans snapped up the costly rights to buy the football season tickets. With Miami, Florida State and Ohio State all coming to Carter-Finley Stadium this fall, momentum (if not achievement) continues to grow for Chuck Amato's program. The most recent push ended with a May 14 cutoff, and now all 23,000 seats that had been allotted have been sold. The surge netted the Wolfpack Club about $3 million to pay on its $50 million debt toward the stadium improvements. Wolfpack Club director Bobby Purcell is correct in saying that fans now are paying for the stagnancy of the past, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. To have nice toys, you have to be willing to pay for them, and N.C. State has had a long history of relegating football to the status of a Red- And White-headed stepchild. There was little done to Carter-Finley Stadium between its opening in 1966 and Amato's arrival in 2000, despite persistent public and private pleading by Lou Holtz (1972-75), Bo Rein (1976-79), Monte Kiffin (1980-82), Tom Reed (1983-85), Sheridan (1986-92) and O'Cain (1993-99). Long-time NCSU athletic director Willis Casey was so obsessed about the financing for the stadium, he poured just about every available dollar into paying off the debt, which he did about 25 years earlier than required. But the athletic department suffered because of it, and the infrastructure was crumbling long before the problems that were recreated by the basketball program's well-chronicled troubles with the NCAA in the early 1990s. Now, Amato basically has demanded that the school have one of the nicest facilities in the country in order to compete nationally in recruiting, and supporters, who had nearly three and a half decades of a free pass, are being asked to finance the improvements. Selling the lifetime seating rights is not a new program. The school started peddling them at Carter-Finley Stadium and its unbuilt basketball arena in 1991. But sales lagged until Amato's arrival in 2000, doubling after his first year and then topping out this spring. Critics say the program, which is loosely modeled on the Carolina Panthers' permanent seat license concept, leaves out the casual fan and those without the means to make a 20-year commitment, since buying lifetime rights can be an expensive proposition. Participation at the highest of three pricing levels would cost someone $280 per month for 10 years, including the seating rights, two season tickets, membership in the Wolfpack Club and a season parking pass. At the lowest pricing level, it would cost someone about $100 a month for 10 years for two tickets in the end zone. The Wolfpack Club has a payment program that allows fans to pay for the seating rights without interest for 10 years. But membership in the Wolfpack Club is required, and not everyone who buys a season ticket necessarily wants to be a part of a booster club. Say what you want about trampling all over the little guy with the policy, but it's a creative if slightly controversial way to generate the money the school and its supporters should have been spending years ago in upkeep and improvements. In the end, those who want to play with the big boys must pay like the big boys. Pitching Aces Quietly Outstanding What's a guy or team gotta do to get noticed in North Carolina? Besides play football or basketball, of course. For years, the state's revenue-sport-centric daily newspapers have virtually ignored the sport in which the ACC is as successful as anyone in the country in producing professional superstars. Do the names Nomar Garciaparra, Kevin Brown, Jason Varitek, Paul Wilson, Doug Mientkiewicz, Kris Benson, Billy Koch, Matt LeCroy, Khalil Greene and Brian Roberts ring a bell? During the summer months, especially, they should. So on May 15, two N.C. State pitchers, redshirt sophomore Michael Rogers and senior Vern Sterry, pulled off one of the most amazing athletic achievements in recent school history, combining to pitch a pair of three-hit shutouts at Texas, which at the time was the No. 1 college baseball team in the nation. The achievement, which may be the chief reason the Wolfpack gets its second consecutive bid to the NCAA Tournament, was arguably as impressive as anything reigning ACC players of the year Philip Rivers or Julius Hodge ever did on a single afternoon. It was the first time in the 108-year history of the Texas baseball program that the Longhorns were held scoreless in both games of a doubleheader, and only the fifth time in school history that the team had been dealt back-to-back shutouts. The two Wolfpack pitchers, who have been frustrated all year with a lack of offense, were masterful in the two games at Disch-Falk Field. Rogers managed to get himself out of several jams, after allowing leadoff singles in three of the first four innings. But he stranded three Texas runners at third, and he completely out-dueled Texas All-American J.P. Howell, perhaps the best player in college baseball. Sterry was completely dominant in his game, allowing only one runner past first base. Combined, Rogers and Sterry pitched 18 innings, allowing just six hits and one walk. Last year, Rogers and Sterry nearly carried the Wolfpack to the College World Series for only the second time in school history, losing a heart-breaking Super Regional series against Miami. The two pitchers have been even better this year, thanks to some outstanding defensive work behind them. The Wolfpack is ranked seventh in the nation with a 3.10 ERA and fifth in fielding percentage at .976. But there are no clutch hitters such as Colt Morton or Joe Gaetti, the two guys who always provided the punch the Pack needed last year to win a sub-regional championship. As a team, the Wolfpack had only 20 home runs heading into the ACC regular-season finale series with North Carolina, or four fewer than NCAA leader Billy Becher of New Mexico State had hit by himself at the same point. Rogers and Sterry clearly are one of the best one-two pitching combinations in the country, but they haven't really gotten much recognition, even in their own backyard. Little wonder the ACC Tournament was such a disaster during its four-year stint at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in the 1990s. At least the performances against the Longhorns earned the two aces national co-pitchers of the week recognition by Collegiate Baseball. It also got them six whole paragraphs on page 12C of their local newspaper.