April 26, 2004 RALEIGH Julius Hodge not only listened to the good advice he got from his older brother. He swam with it. Hodge pulled off the surprise of the basketball offseason when he announced April 14 that he will return to N.C. State for his senior season. The reigning ACC player of the year delighted in all the speculation that he would declare himself eligible for the NBA draft, and he even teased reporters at the start of his press conference by saying he would do just that. But he yelled "Gotcha" and made Herb Sendek, who was sitting beside him at the time, one of the happiest coaches in the country. Hodge got counsel from Sendek and some NBA advisors, but the two voices he listened to the most were those of his older brother, Steve, and his mother, Mary. His mom wanted Hodge to stay in school to fulfill his promise of getting a college degree. Steve wanted him to stay in school to help resolve some lingering questions about his game. In the end, though, Hodge liked the idea of taking a different path, just as the McDonald's All-American from New York City did when he signed to play for Sendek three years ago. Everyone expected him to declare for the draft. Perhaps in some small part because of that perception, Hodge didn't. "I am not the type of guy who wants to test the waters," Hodge said. "If (basketball) is an ocean, I am in a pool. I can swim. I don't feel like I have to paddle around in the water and see if I can do it. I am confident that I can swim." Hodge also specifically said he wanted to return to N.C. State in hopes of finally winning some kind of championship for the Wolfpack. Each of his three years in Raleigh have ended in postseason disappointments, from the losses to Connecticut as a freshman and California as a sophomore to the more recent collapse in the final minutes against Vanderbilt, with Hodge watching from the sidelines after fouling out. "I want to compete for a championship," Hodge said. "Ever since I stepped foot on this campus, that's all I talked about. I remember the first media day, I told you guys that and everybody laughed. Now, I feel like it could really come true, because I feel not only with me on the team next year, but also the young guys coming into our program, we can do that." Indeed, Sendek could have the most talented team of his nine-year tenure at State. The incoming freshman crop of Cedric Simmons, Andrew Brackman and Gavin Grant is considered one of the top three recruiting classes in the ACC and one of the best in the country, if only because it helps address the inside weakness State has had for years. And don't forget about Tony Bethel, a two-year starter at Georgetown who sat out last year under NCAA transfer rules. He might be the most athletic player on the team. He's listed as a point guard, but he'll be a combination guy, like almost everyone else on the roster, and should be an excellent fit for Sendek's position-less system. Of course, competition will be even stronger in the league than last year, when the Wolfpack finished a surprising second to Duke in the ACC standings with an 11-5 conference record. But the return of Hodge gives the Pack at least a chance for even bigger things.
Rivers Victorious On Draft Day N.C. State's other reigning ACC player of the year, quarterback Philip Rivers, recently became the centerpiece in one of the more bizarre NFL draft dramas in memory, as he helped the San Diego Chargers stare down Team Manning and then make the New York Giants blink. Ever since the Senior Bowl in January, when San Diego coach Marty Schottenheimer guided Rivers' team, the Chargers have believed that the affable small-town guy with the funny throwing motion is every bit as good as Manning. The two were rated almost evenly on the Chargers' board, and neither Schottenheimer nor general manager A.J. Smith could contain his enthusiasm for Rivers and his unique intangible qualities. A proven winner and effective passer, Rivers also is grounded in his personal life, a guy who turned down a free trip to New York for the draft to stay at home with his family. From the outside, he couldn't be more different from the grandstanding Manning family. It didn't hurt that the Chargers' offensive coordinator is Cam Cameron, the former Indiana head coach who twice saw first-hand how Rivers' intangible qualities manifested themselves into wins on the field. None of this sat very well with Team Manning, which thought Eli ought to get his due as the draft's top quarterback. So its leader, former Pro Bowl QB Archie Manning, quietly told the Chargers not to worry about drafting Eli. He didn't want to bring his pure-blood talents to play there. That set off a flurry of activity, in which the Chargers were seen as the biggest collection of bumbling idiots this side of the L.A. Clippers, mainly because of the Ryan Leaf fiasco of five years ago. The Chargers took Leaf with the second pick of the 1998 draft, then quickly found out that he had a $10 million arm and a 10-cent head. What the New York-centric media seemed to forget is that Schottenheimer, who has more wins than any active coach in the NFL, wasn't a part of that disastrous pick. But he played a huge role in evaluating Rivers, and the coach made it clear that Rivers was the quarterback he wanted. The Chargers knew all along that the Giants desperately wanted Manning and would be willing to give up a lot to get him. And that's exactly what the Chargers made them do, even though negotiations for a trade broke down on the eve of the draft and the two teams failed to strike a deal to swap picks before NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue started calling out names. It appeared as if the Chargers were on the verge of another fiasco, especially after they chose Manning and had to deal with the worst draft-day photo-op since former Maryland basketball star Steve Francis was drafted by Vancouver in the NBA draft. But in the intervening 45 minutes, the Chargers made the Giants blink, getting rid of Manning for the player they wanted all along, plus three usable draft picks over the next two years. While the ESPN goofs were going on and on about how Manning had won, most post-draft analyses will show that the Chargers were the ones who will look brilliant. For Rivers, it was likely a $50 million day. His agent will negotiate as if Rivers was the first player taken. That means Rivers, if he shows the same humility and good sense he did throughout his Wolfpack career, should be financially set for the rest of his life. Perhaps even more importantly for Rivers, who set an NCAA record with 51 straight starts at quarterback, he'll get a chance to compete immediately for the top job with the Chargers. Current starter Drew Brees was benched twice en route to a 4-12 campaign last year and may be on his way out the door. In the end, Manning and Rivers will be linked forever during their NFL careers. Who will be better? It's too early to say at this stage, but the Chargers obviously believe that Rivers has enough special qualities that they want to build their franchise around him.