Amid the chaos surrounding V's departure from Iona, the administration announced the news before Valvano had a chance to explain himself to those players to whom he had grown so attached. The closest was Ruland, a junior who soon was discovered to have an agent and was declared ineligible for his senior season. Subsequently, rumors of improprieties surfaced, alleging free meals, taxi rides and phone calls for the Iona players, but nothing was proved. Valvano says he never knew anything about Ruland's agent. "When you have the truth on your side, you don't worry about it," says V, who follows Ruland's pro career with the Washington Bullets, checking out the box scores every day. But Ruland has not spoken to Valvano since the coach departed from New Rochelle.
N.C. State's Casey (remember the old fat guy in the Chariots of Fire slo-mo?) initially wanted DeMatha High School's Morgan Wootten as coach, but Wootten wouldn't bite, so Valvano ripped off his coat and tie in the interview with Casey and began: "Here's the premise...I...want...this...job.... I...can...win...the...national...championship.... At...North...Carolina...State."
Three years later, sure enough.
As if Valvano's outrageous wit was not enough to disguise his bench acumen, the Pack's incongruous storybook trip to all the marbles in New Mexico—CHARLES IS NABBED FOR PINCHING PIZZA...WHITT CRACKS AN ANKLE, OUT FOR YEAR...PACK FALLS TO 9-7...VALVANO SIGNS 10-YEAR CONTRACT...WHITT RETURNS...STATE FINISHES SEASON 4TH IN LEAGUE...PACK UPSETS HEELS...STATE TOPPLES RALPH, ACC CHAMPS...MIRACLE COMEBACK STUNS PEPPERDINE...V AFTER VEGAS SURPRISE: "THE DREAM CONTINUES"...WOLFPACK ENDS SAMPSON CAREER...CHARLES DUNKS, IT'S OVER—became so compelling that it seized the emotions of even the most jaded among us and left Valvano's astounding coaching performance lying there practically hidden in the New Mexico sagebrush.
In Wooden's cherished letter to Valvano, which V had laminated and put up on his office wall, the UCLA wizard says, "...your effort in the tournament this year and that of Don Haskins in 1966 are the two finest NCAA tournament coaching jobs I have ever seen." With all due respect to Texas El Paso's Haskins, as well as to the Rupps, Woodens, Knights and Smiths, the truth is simply this: No man ever cajoled, connived, whipped, sawed, laughed, sobbed, held together, led and willed his young wards to the national championship in precisely the manner Valvano did. No one ever won the thing strictly by coaching as much as this man. In the ultimate coaches' sport, V was the ultimate. No question about it. Never has a mentor used the rules and the personnel at his disposal with such effectiveness. In the regular season the three-point basket and the 30-second shot clock were twin six-guns that V spun out of his holsters. In a preseason game the Wolfpack had taken 23 shots from three-point range and made 13. "I'm not saying 19 feet is too close," V said, "but at halftime my mother came down and hit three of four from there." In their last regular-season game the Pack scored 130 points against Wake Forest (including 16 of 25 three-pointers), the most points for any college team in a game all season. In between, State used the various clocks to control the tempo and limit Louisville, West Virginia and Memphis State to fewer than 60 points each and Michigan State and Missouri to fewer than 50.
Whittenburg's midseason injury dictated that Valvano coach three separate and unequal teams in one season: running and guard-oriented; half-court, no transition and set up inside; then a mishmash of both. The mishmash went 10-0 and won the title, but Valvano's best job may have come after the Pack lost four of its six games following Whittenburg's injury. State then won seven of eight against the canine likes of Georgia Tech. Duke and The Citadel. Plainly, State itself was a bad team. But playing well. Being coached brilliantly.
V was somber. The day after Whittenburg went down, V read A.E. Housman's poem To An Athlete Dying Young to the squad. "Here it was, it was happening," V says. "The name died before the man. Wow, heavy."
V was also sardonic. "Cozell McQueen, Big Co, our center, what a surprise!" he said. "Co's from Bennettsville, South Carolina. I couldn't believe we got him. I asked Co why he wanted to come to State. He said, 'Coach V, I always wanted to go to school in the North.' "
Valvano is the hot-blooded Italian loudmouth, right? At State he has never been assessed a technical foul. In two enormous games last year, two techs called on North Carolina's revered Dean Smith and one on Virginia Assistant Jim Larranaga reversed the momentum drastically, leading to a Valvano-coached State team's first-ever win against archrival Carolina and the Pack's ACC tournament championship victory over UVA. By that time Smith not only was borrowing V's lines—"Uh, heh-heh, looks like Jimmy's foul-shot defense again"—he was stealing that very strategy. Except that Valvano fouled only when behind. In the ACC semis Smith had his Tar Heels foul State while ahead. Six points ahead. It didn't work, and the Wolfpack pulled off another upset.
"Dean was smart," V says. "Hey, the guy doesn't win 400 games every year or get a statue of his head put in an eight-million-seat arena by having Cream of Wheat upstairs. Hey, with that three-point sucker staring you in the face, don't think I didn't mull fouling on the lead. Give up two to get a three, or two to get back a deuce, it's a push. Hope they miss and you don't. Hey, I want the rock. I want control. Don't let the other guy hold it and take the last shot. Foul 'em. Immediately. I got to have the jewels to put you on the line, put the winning run on base. Then I get the ups. You don't determine the game, I do. Listen, this is not a complicated game. It's simple. No question about it. Coaching is treatment of players—putting your guys in position to win. I dig into the anatomy of the game. That's the kick, the rush. From there it's execution, and I got no part in that. But getting there. Yeah. I want the hammer. We had two automatics at the ends of games. Foul fast, don't waste any time on the clock. And foul the guy who missed from the line before. If you missed, we tackled you. No question about it. The rule? [In the off-season the NCAA rewrote the end-of-game foul rule, making all fouls within the last two minutes of the game worth two shots when the bonus rule is in effect. Call it the Valvano Equation.] If the other was such a bad rule, why didn't anybody ever foul us back? Fast?"