By Dave Glenn and staff, ACC Sports Journal
May 5, 2003 RALEIGH Now starts the cruelest season of all for N.C. State fans: the wait for the first kickoff of what should be the most anticipated football season in school history. From the moment the Gator Bowl ended and the victory over Notre Dame was secured, the Wolfpack football faithful knew 2003 would be unlike any year they have ever experienced. They looked into the future and saw the return of their record-setting quarterback (Philip Rivers), their punishing tailback (T.A. McLendon), their star receiver (Jerricho Cotchery) and loads of depth at linebacker and in the secondary.
At the time, fortunately, they still could look forward to a little basketball and a lot of spring practice. That ended with the annual spring game in April, when an impressive crowd showed up to see a limited lineup. (No official records are kept for such things, but some veteran writers suggested that the estimated 14,000 who turned out at Carter-Finley Stadium represented the largest spring practice crowd in the history of the state.) The fans didn't seem to mind that some star players only watched from the sidelines because they got to see, for the first time, heralded but previously unseen players such as back/receiver Tramain Hall, offensive lineman Derek Morris, wideout Richard Washington and defensive end Mario Williams.
Then the NFL draft passed, with rather disappointing results, as only first-team All-ACC safety Terrence Holt (fifth round, Detroit) and reliable offensive tackle Scott Kooistra (seventh, Cincinnati) were selected from the Wolfpack in the seven-round event. Some analysts had projected Holt as a second-rounder. Six other NCSU products signed free-agent deals: tight end Sean Berton (Minnesota), linebacker Dantonio Burnette (Pittsburgh), defensive tackle Terrance Martin (New York Jets), wideout Bryan Peterson (Tennessee), defensive end Shawn Price (Carolina, as a linebacker) and offensive lineman Shane Riggs (San Francisco).
Now there are a good four months to sit around and do nothing but anticipate what will happen when the Wolfpack opens its season against Western Carolina and Wake Forest, then goes to Columbus, Ohio, on Sept. 13. The matchup with defending national champion Ohio State will be billed by many as the biggest game in N.C. State football history. Even if that's a bit of an exaggeration, it's difficult to remember another early season Pack game that generated as much anticipation and excitement so far in advance.
The message boards and chat rooms will be active, and the phones will be lively between now and then, but nothing will really happen not for public consumption, at least until players return for pre-fall practice in August.
Meanwhile, coach Chuck Amato is making his rounds with the Wolfpack Caravan, in part trying to temper the wildly optimistic (but largely justified) expectations for the upcoming season. It's not that he doesn't appreciate the support NCSU fans have turned out en masse for the spring Wolfpack Club fund-raisers, which also feature basketball coaches Herb Sendek and Kay Yow but no smart coach wants expectations to soar unfettered without giving some dose of reality to balance them out.
Back in Raleigh, Amato has moved into his fancy new digs at the Wendell Murphy Football Center, the Wolfpack's gleaming new $45 million operations center in the south end zone of Carter-Finley. The public eventually will be allowed in to see portions of the Pack's latest entry into the facility-enhancement arms race.
So it's going to be a long summer for Wolfpack fans, dreaming of what may come, but that's OK. This fall N.C. State will become really relevant again on a national level, perhaps for the first time since Jim Valvano's 1986 basketball team was only minutes away from beating Kansas and advancing again to the Final Four.
That's a lot of pent-up anticipation that's been percolating. It should be ready to boil over by September.