October 26, 2005
RALEIGH - Only one college football program in America encountered a situation this fall in which the school's athletic director felt compelled to write a letter to the fans, in a move that seemed to some to both chastise them and beg them not to jump off the ship.
That program was N.C. State.
The whole thing said as much about the state of the program six years into coach Chuck Amato's reign as anything that had been said in a press conference or analyzed by ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit (who mocked the team's lack of discipline) or written in a newspaper.
In a letter published on the athletic department's website after the 31-10 nationally televised loss to Clemson, NCSU athletic director Lee Fowler urged fans to rally behind the team and also took some pointed shots at Amato's critics.
It was not well-received by many State fans. The AD's critics said it was full of the type of denial that permeates the football program right now. They said it came off as arrogant and antagonistic to a fan base that has footed the bill for a lot of stadium improvements in recent years. In the long run, it even could wind up increasing the hostility toward the program and widening the gap between the various factions.
Of course, the team's performance in a 27-19 loss at Wake Forest in its first game after the letter didn't make matters any better, either. State fell to 2-4, 1-4 in the ACC, and now it must win four of its last five just to become bowl-eligible. By losing to Wake, State sat alone in the Atlantic Division cellar, with trips to Florida State and Boston College looming in its next two league contests.
A non-conference home game against Southern Mississippi could loom as bigger than either Ohio State game in terms of importance to the program. A loss to Southern Miss at this juncture, in this atmosphere, could send State's fatcat alumni and every-day fans over the edge. A loss to Southern Miss would all but assure a second straight losing season and likely would bring out the boo-birds like nothing Amato has ever seen.
Fowler's letter certainly was well-intended, but it probably was ill-conceived on several fronts.
"I ask you, our partners, and those who have invested so much in our football program, those of you who love N.C. State, to resist the urge to criticize, to become doubters and faithless about our program," Fowler wrote. "Let's rally around N.C. State and our coaches and team as only our Wolfpack nation can do. Let's refuse to give in to cynicism and pessimism."
One translation: Keep drinking the Kool-Aid. Amato's program has been built on hype and hope from the start, and this is another blatant example. Under the circumstances, it came off as something straight out of The Wizard of Oz. It had the same tone as the Wizard saying, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."
It's like Fowler was pleading: Overlook all of the problems of the program and just keep sending in your money.
But Fowler wasn't exactly patronizing the fans to keep that support. He took some bold shots at those who booed during the Clemson debacle.
"When Coach Amato's appearance on the jumbotron was met with boos and jeers from the crowd, I was amazed by the irony of it all," Fowler wrote. "I thought, if it weren't for the excitement that Coach Amato has generated for our entire program (and to which our Wolfpackers have generously responded), we might not even have a jumbotron, or a Vaughn Towers, or a Murphy Center - facilities that are the finest in the nation."
One translation: Amato built these facilities. But Fowler is getting things mixed up. The facilities were built with money from alumni and fans, people who bought into Amato's spiel on blind faith at the time they made their financial commitments. To suggest that fans shouldn't boo Amato now simply because he once got them to pledge money is ludicrous.
Fowler also played on emotions in the letter.
He wrote: "Maybe there was a time in your life when a friend, or boss, or a family member stood by you when you were struggling. They stood by you with an attitude of patience and perseverance. I'm asking you to extend that same gift of support to our coaches and student-athletes, to be part of the solution."
The only problem with that is, most people who go through tough times show a little humility. Some even admit their problems openly and ask for help.
Amato is not acting like a wounded bird with a broken wing. He has summarily dismissed his critics in the past as nothing more than the lunatic fringe. He has had disdain for anyone outside his program, on the premise that nobody knows what's really going on except the people in the locker room.
There's a clear sense right now that Amato is not wanting support as much as he is waiting to throw this all back into people's faces if he gets things turned around. His first words to the media after the win at Georgia Tech were: "Sorry to disappoint you." That attitude doesn't do much for soliciting compassion.
In the eyes of many NCSU fans, there was another extremely disconcerting part of Fowler's letter: "The support you give now, when it is needed most, may well determine the outcome for the rest of the season."
One translation: If you keep booing and complaining, it'll be your fault if the team continues to lose.
Everyone agrees that this is no time to be laying any guilt trips on the fans. Certainly, teams would rather have their fans cheering wildly for them. But to suggest that the fans may somehow determine the outcome of the rest of the season is ludicrous.
State fans may have outnumbered Wake Forest fans at Grove Stadium, but that didn't stop Jay Davis and Marcus Stone from throwing interceptions that were returned for touchdowns. State fans were as supportive as they could be, but that didn't stop Amato from trying a thinly veiled fake punt that proved to be the final nail in the coffin. Fans are fans, and they're going to react to what happens on the field, not dictate what happens on it.
Some Wolfpack fans actually liked Fowler's letter. But many others believed that their AD botched it every which way he could.
The critics viewed it as typical of what is going on with the program. Just another turnover. Just another botched play. Sadly for State fans, it probably won't be the last.