August 5, 2002 RALEIGH - Chuck Amato gets a little defensive nowadays when people bring up his team's Charmin-soft schedule. It was one of the big discussions, and causes for snickers, at the ACC's Football Kickoff in Pinehurst.
North Carolina coach John Bunting is getting some good mileage with the baby-blue crowd by poking fun at the Wolfpack's list of opponents, which includes Division I-AA teams East Tennessee State and Massachusetts plus I-A Navy, which was 0-10 last year. ("I knew UMass had a good basketball program," Bunting said, "but I didn't even know they played football.") Perhaps Bunting never saw the teams the Tar Heels lined up to play during much of Mack Brown's tenure in Chapel Hill.
Anyway, the Wolfpack deserves every joke it gets about a lame collection of opponents only Herb Sendek could love. Quite simply, the schedule is a bad joke that might prevent the Pack from earning the respect it deserves this year as one of the ACC's best teams.
It may not matter, of course. If the Wolfpack wins its five non-conference games convincingly - only a road trip to Big 12 middleweight Texas Tech (6-5 last year) seems to be a real threat - then clueless poll voters will move State up week by week until it loses or gets into the top 10.
The problem with such a weak schedule is that any slip-up, whether it is a loss or an unnecessarily close victory over a bad team, will (and should) put lead shoes on any hopes this team has of reaching the elusive top 10. Since the AP poll began in 1936, the Wolfpack has spent exactly 10 weeks in the top 10, fewer than any team in the league except Wake Forest, which has never been ranked higher than No. 11.
That's the way it should be: If you are going to play a bad schedule, you should be punished for any misstep.
Neither Amato nor athletic director Lee Fowler takes any responsibility for the schedule, which they say was put together before they arrived, when Les Robinson was the athletic director and Mike O'Cain was the football coach. To a great extent, that is true.
When the NCAA approved a 12th game for all of its schools for this season, however, every team in the country went looking for a decent opponent. Those willing to spend money in a seller's market were able to find a team of some quality.
Notoriously tight N.C. State, however, didn't want to pay the $400,000 to $500,000 necessary to guarantee a home game against a Division I-A school. To be fair, the school had some budget issues back then, before its portion of the revenues from luxury box rentals at the Entertainment and Sports Arena started pouring in and before it started raising the $100 million needed to revamp decrepit Carter-Finley Stadium.
But, as with anything else, if you aren't willing to pay for quality, you have to be willing to deal with the consequences. That's why Amato shouldn't get so testy when the subject comes up. (Fowler, one of the more reasonable people in the ACC, simply explains his side of the story and accepts that others have different opinions.) The school opted for the scratch-and-dent bargain of two Division I-AA schools at a cost of approximately $360,000 instead of paying a half-million for a I-A team that would have left it with only five home games. Instead it got a two-for-one special, allowing six home games this fall.
That point was perhaps made moot when New Mexico was added for the 13th game, which will give the Wolfpack seven games at Carter-Finley Stadium this fall. That will generate even more income, obviously, which is all that really matters to the number-crunchers in the athletic department.
Of course, none of that gives Amato the right to snap every time the subject comes up. The school made the schedule based on financial considerations. The coach knew, or should have known, that such factors would come into play when he took the job. He can conveniently blame the end result on someone else, so why the antagonism?
"Whether I like it or don't like it, it doesn't make any difference," Amato said. "That is the schedule we have got. We're glad for it. We have to play 13 of them. Thank goodness it's not all on one weekend. You guys are so concerned about us testing our team against I-AA teams. Ö We had to get a schedule."
To the credit of Amato and Fowler, State has added quality opponents through 2012, including Ohio State the next two years. Virginia Tech, Tennessee and Notre Dame also will pop up on future schedules, along with lesser but decent opponents such as Louisville, Central Florida and rival East Carolina.
Tailback Spot Remains Shaky
Amato likes dropping little bombshells on his beat writers every now and then, like the tidbit he passed along during the ACC Kickoff. Out of nowhere, the coach casually mentioned that sophomore running back Josh Brown, a potential starter, had been shot during a visit to his hometown of Shelby, N.C.
The coach brushed it off and said he "didn't know the particulars"of the incident. What he did know was that the bullet fragment in Brown's hip wouldn't be removed. The coach insisted that Brown would be ready for the team's first practice on Aug. 3 and that he would not need further treatment.
"He'll be faster than a speeding bullet," Amato said.
Tailback obviously is a serious concern for the Wolfpack this season, which is why Amato moved Greg Golden, listed as a starting cornerback coming out of spring practice, over to offense. With both Cotra Jackson and Carlos Doggett potentially ineligible this season because of academics, and fellow veteran K.J. Stone previously falling prey to injuries/academics, the Wolfpack could be left without a tailback who has ever carried the ball in a college game.
Even if freshman T.A. McLendon is the next coming of Hershel Walker or Bo Jackson, as Amato has hinted, that's a scary proposition. (A tip for frothing Wolfpack fans: McLendon is about three inches shy of the 6-2 he was listed in high school, and he doesn't run the 40 in 4.4 seconds, but that doesn't mean he can't play.) Meanwhile, Brown's bullet wasn't a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but it left fans and media to wonder why the school needed to keep quiet about it for nearly three weeks.