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"But it went on and on, that insatiable desire to conquer the world. I was an arrogant son of a bitch. But it wasn't just arrogance. I kept thinking of those lines from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:
And indeed there will be time
"I wanted to dare. I wasn't afraid to show my bald spot, my vulnerability, by trying new things. I'd go to bed after watching TV on a Saturday night, and my mind would be saying, 'I should be the host on Saturday Night Live. I can do that.' I look back now and I see the truth in the Icarus myth. You know the story about the boy who's so proud of his wings that he flies too close to the sun, and it melts the wax and he falls and dies? What enables us to achieve our greatness contains the seeds of our destruction.
"Every season I had bronchitis, bad colds; twice I had pneumonia. The night we won the NCAA, I was sick as a dog. I was the Mycin Man all season—erythromycin, clindamycin. I wouldn't rest. I'd just pop the antibiotics and keep going. Who knows? Maybe I put my body in a position to get this. I've been reading books about cancer. They say it often occurs if your immune system is lowered, and then you have a trauma...."
Yes, a trauma. To hell with that basketball game; it was going to end just as it began, a Florida State blowout. Here was a man who lay awake every midnight, chewing on mortality—let him talk. Let him wonder out loud if a book published in 1989, and the 15 months of investigations and media barrage it set off, was his bullet...and then ivy not to wonder, try to shut that midnight whisper down and ignore the connection between cancer and personal trauma, because otherwise he would have to blame a few people—a writer, a local managing editor—for this nightmare he was living, and he would have to hate, and hatred and blame were the worst detours a man could take when he was locked in mortal combat to live. "I can't do that," Vee would say. "I've got to fill these days I have left with love and laughter and forgiveness. But I wonder...."
Jan. 7, 1989, the first headlines. A book entitled Personal Fouls, by Peter Golenbock, was about to appear, accusing Valvano and his staff of fixing grades, hiding drug-test results from authorities, diverting millions of dollars from the alumni club to the players and paying the players off with automobiles. One publishing house rejected the book; another one bought it, and the hammer blows began in earnest, usually starting with the Raleigh News and Observer and then ringing throughout the country, banging at the core of who Vee was. He called press conferences, he dug up graduation statistics, he demanded hearings by the North Carolina State Board of Trustees. But the Icarus are was now at work—his glibness becoming proof, to his critics, of his guile; his gargantuan appetite for life proof of his greed.
The NCAA investigation lasted eight months. In the end the investigators found no million-dollar diversions, no automobiles, no grade-fixing, no hidden drug tests. They found two punishable violations—players had sold complimentary tickets and complimentary sneakers—and the NCAA placed N.C. State on two years' probation, declaring it ineligible for the 1990 NCAA tournament. Dave Didion, the lead investigator, wrote Valvano a letter. "I wanted to let him know that he had cooperated with me more than any coach I had ever worked with," said Didion, "and that not everyone thought he was evil. I wanted to let him know that if I had a son who was a prospect, I would be proud to have him play for Jim Valvano. He wasn't the smart-ass egomaniac I'd anticipated. Yes, the graduation rate of his players was not good...but no one cared to look at the overall graduation rate at N.C. State. Yes, he probably shouldn't have recruited some of the kids he did. But if he hadn't, he'd have ended up playing against them and getting his brains beaten out by them, because everybody else wanted those same kids."
Then came the final blow: allegations of point-shaving a few years earlier that involved former N.C. State forward Charles Shackleford. No one believed Valvano had knowledge of it, and nothing would ever be proved, but the hammering had to stop. In April 1990 he was forced to resign. "The pain of that—having my mother, my brothers, my wife, my children reading the things that were written about me," he said. "I felt physical pain. There were things I should've done differently, but I knew I hadn't done anything wrong. The insinuation that I didn't care about the kids.... I hated that. To be lumped with coaches who cared only about winning and nothing about education.... I hated that. I majored in English, not P.E. I had two daughters on the dean's list. All but perhaps two of my players at Johns Hopkins, Bucknell and Iona graduated. I didn't change. I'll take responsibility, but that's different from blame. I didn't admit the kids to N.C. State who didn't graduate—our admissions office did. In hindsight it's easy to say who shouldn't have been recruited, but who knew beforehand? Sometimes kids from worse backgrounds, with worse high school grades, did better than kids from decent homes, with decent grades.
"Maybe I trusted the kids too much. The school wanted me to force education down their throats, and I wouldn't do it. They wanted me to say, 'You don't go to class, you don't play. I take away ball.' What does that tell a kid? That ball is more important than education! My approach was, If you don't study, you pay the consequences. You flunk out. I tried to excite them about learning. I had Dereck Whittenburg read King Lear and then go to the chalkboard and do a pregame talk on it. I wasn't one of those coaches telling them to learn but never reading a book myself. I lived it. They saw me reading Shakespeare on buses. They saw me trying things outside of sports all the time.
"I guess I was unrealistic to think I could change kids. I should've said to them, 'I love you, but I don't trust you yet. You have to do this and this your first two years here, and then I'll trust you.' And there's no way around it—I didn't have as much time to give them after I became athletic director. I tried to do too much. They couldn't just walk into my office at any time of the day, like before, and talk. It was a little less each year, especially for the 13th, 14th, 15th players. But each time, the change was imperceptible to me. It happens without your realizing it.