October 10, 2006
RALEIGH -- There is a multitude of plausible explanations for N.C. State's dramatic turnaround in the early stages of this season, one that already has gone from back-to-back losses to Akron and Southern Miss to back-to-back wins over nationally ranked ACC foes Boston College and Florida State.
The easiest and most tangible one to identify is the emergence of sophomore quarterback Daniel Evans. He took over for junior Marcus Stone late in the blowout loss at Southern Miss, played well, and proceeded on with storybook performances against BC and FSU.
Quarterback obviously is the key position for any football team. Evans is a significant upgrade over Stone already, because of his field awareness, his grasp of the system, his poise, his ability to establish the pass and make big plays in the passing game, and his knack so far for bringing the best out in those around him.
A far less tangible element to the turnaround -- and one that is incredibly intriguing -- is coach Chuck Amato's impressive ability to get his teams off the mat and back on their feet.
The history of Amato's seven-year tenure at State is that when times have been the toughest, somehow, at some point, Amato has been able to stop the bleeding and keep his team from tossing in the towel. Every coach worries about the possibility of losing his team when things go sour, and while Amato loses lots of assistant coaches and unhappy players from time to time, he never has truly lost his team.
How can that be? Amato has one explanation. He recruits kids who are resilient and stick together and never give up.
"It's about togetherness," Amato said. "It's about us. They want to make people proud of them. And we're not going to quit. We're not going to quit. I mean, the Lord only knows what's going to happen tomorrow or whatever, but we're not going to quit. It's just constantly staying on them. People who come to practice know I don't have a voice when I talk after practice.
"It's funny. That's the great part about being a coach -- watching kids develop, watching kids believe, and believe they can do something other people don't think they can do."
This is the essence of Amato. Whether you love him or loathe him, whether you shudder at some of his comments or rationalize them in some way, whether you like the play-calling or disagree, whether you consider him an underachiever or whatever, whether you drink the Kool-Aid or not, here's the deal: When the program comes to a crossroads, as it clearly has in the past two seasons, Amato's players definitely have consumed the Kool-Aid.
Sometimes they don't like the taste of it after long, grueling practices, or during team meetings when egos are bruised. But, usually, they keep drinking until they do like the taste again.
AMATO OFTEN INSPIRES LOYALTY
One thing that is rarely pointed out is that Amato recruits players who are predispositioned to drink the Kool-Aid.
There are a few, like Evans, who grew up dreaming of playing at State regardless of the coach. There are a few who chose State over smaller programs because they wanted to play in the ACC, or some other factor.
But the vast majority came because they liked Amato and his style and his sales pitch. They liked the sunglasses and the shiny red shoes. They liked his cockiness and his aspirations. They liked being allowed to call him "Chuck."
Many are players who were passed over by other programs, and Amato has used that to inspire loyalty. He told them from early in the recruiting process that they are better players than some others believe. That has instilled the notion that he believes in them, and that they really can be good if they believe in him.
Then, amazingly, he seems to win a game or two at precisely the right time -- by skill, luck, an opponent's gaffes, whatever -- and that serves as positive reinforcement. One of the things he preaches to his team is that good breaks and bad breaks eventually even out if you continue to work hard, and that may be truer today in college football than ever.
Amato uses many of the standard motivational tactics. He has shown films of old Jim Valvano speeches, or film of previous games. On the eve of State's win over FSU, he made everyone close their eyes and picture making big plays and envision what the scene would be like walking off the field after winning.
He has never been afraid of striking fear into his better players, either.
The best example ever may have been last year, when Mario Williams was not anything close to dominant in the early stages. Williams was destined for the NFL on size and raw ability no matter what, but there came a time when it was pointed out how much money Williams was blowing if he didn't finish strong. He was a terror from there and wound up being the No. 1 pick in the draft, when a bad second half could have dropped him perhaps even to the middle of the first round -- and millions less in signing bonuses.
The best example so far this year involved senior defensive tackle Tank Tyler, who got benched for the first quarter of the BC game and has been a terror since. Tyler got an on-field ejection against Southern Miss and has a legal issue to deal with off the field. Only Amato and Tyler know what has been said about both matters behind closed doors, but the results on the field are pretty startling.
A lot of things are said behind closed doors, and they stay behind closed doors. That's another example of the players' loyalty to Amato, or their fear of him. But some things don't stay behind closed doors, and that's one of the most telling things about Amato's ability to keep the players believing. The media constantly is amazed that the players echo the same themes Amato stresses during his dealings with the press. They say the same things, and with conviction.
Amato's best motivational ploy, the one that ties it all together, is this: He harps on the notion that nobody really knows what's going on inside the program except the players and coaches. You hear it time and again, from him and his players. That keeps the bond tight, and it prompts the hard work that eventually produces positive results.
That might not keep State from losing games it shouldn't lose, or being overwhelmed at times, but it does keep them getting back up off the mat.