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The Other Guys

My bags are packed, I’m ready to go. A few hours after this communication is posted, I will be heading out for my first road trip of the 2007 football season. I will be taking the scenic route, traveling from Danville to Roanoke, then setting out Friday morning for South Carolina, collecting fellow travelers from the Star City to the New River Valley. It might not be the direct route to Clemson recommended by Mapquest, but there will be all of those mountain views along I-77.

I have been devoting my primary football thinking to what horrors might be facing this flawed Tech team as they play in yet another Death Valley against yet another set of Tigers, this bunch eager to inflict a little payback for Tech absolutely wrecking their season last year. It can certainly be hoped that this game will cause this Death Valley to empty as fast as it did the last time Tech played there in 1998, when a thirty-point Tech halftime lead made it appear as if stadium officials were conducting a fire drill, but I have my doubts.

While Tech-Clemson is the ACC’s marquee game this week, as determined by ESPN’s prime time telecast of the contest, there are a couple more that should garner a little interest, not necessarily due to the quality of play to be expected, but because of who will be coaching against whom.

Coaches are the rock stars of college athletics. In the pro leagues the focus is on the players, but in the college games the players come and go every four years. The coaches tend to stay, at least as long as they are winning. The successful ones will not only be awarded very nice standards of living, but have their egos fed by the cults of personality that tend to form around them. It is all peaches and cream as long as the coach wins.

A prime example of what happens when the coach does not bring home enough wins to satisfy the masses will be on display late Saturday afternoon when NC State visits Florida State. While I doubt very seriously that he will be attired in his former trademark red shoes and cheap sunglasses, it shouldn’t be too hard to pick out FSU assistant Chuck Amato.

Chuckie, of course, is the former head guy at NC State. He was hired by the Pack back in 2000, one of the early ones when the ‘It worked for Tech’ method of hiring an alumnus to run the program became all the rage. Amato bounded onto the Raleigh campus promising to win a ton of games. State fans responded by handing over hundreds of millions for facility improvements that transformed State’s from the ACC’s worst to among its best.

Chuckie also was a very public figure in the RTP. He drew lots of attention to himself as a media hound who coveted attention from the Carolina-centric RTP outlets. He led a flamboyant lifestyle that included his garish fashion accessorizing along with tons of publicity surrounding that huge mansion he built in West Raleigh and his habit of tooling around town in a bright red Corvette. Chuckie had the Wolfpack at his feet; all he had to do was win. That proved a problem.

Chuckie won early with players left him by former fired State coach Mike O’Cain. They included all-world quarterback Phillip Rivers. Chuckie rode Rivers to his high-water mark, a ten-win season in 2002, Chuckie’s third, punctuated by RUTS of Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl. A year later Rivers was gone and so were Chuckie’s high times at State.

Without Rivers, Chuckie’s record got progressively worse, hitting rock bottom last year with a 3-9 disaster that left Chuckie week after week explaining at post-game press conferences that each succeeding loss was just one of those things, nine of them, to be exact, and that State was indeed a very good team, all evidence to the contrary, which meant that he was indeed a good coach. Important people thought otherwise.

The flamboyant lifestyle that was regarded with amusement when Chuckie was 10-2 became a further irritant when he was 3-9. The fan base, from not only the bottom-feeding message board loons to the high-dollar wolves buying those pricey luxury suites added to Carter-Finley Stadium, turned on Chuckie and he was gone. Tom O’Brien is now picking up the pieces.

Chuckie has ended up back where he was before his great State adventure, a top lieutenant to Florida State’s Bobby Bowden. He will be staring across the field at his players after spending a week game-planning how to beat them. There no doubt have been times this week and will be a few Saturday when he will ponder what might have been.

Earlier in the day in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels will take on the Canes. Butch Davis will tackle the place that gave him his first crack at the big time. The circumstances for Butch will be a bit different than they are for Chuckie.

In 1994, Miami had just played for the MNC, losing to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. Head coach Dennis Erickson then high-tailed it out of Coral Gables one step ahead of the NCAA posse and the probation that had been expected for about a decade.

In what has become SOP for Miami football coaching hires a number of coaches were offered the Canes’ job. They took one look at the infrastructure problems facing Miami football and turned it down. Deciding that things would be even trickier without a head coach, Canes AD Paul Dee finally offered the job to an obscure assistant on the staff of former Canes and then-NFL coach Butch Davis. The general reaction in South Florida was ‘Who?’

Unlike Chuckie, who was a big hit at least during his early years at State, Butch was never really popular at Miami. That was due in large part to the big winning that Miami had experienced under Howard Schnellberger, then Johnson, then Erickson, came to a screeching halt under Butch. The ten-win and championship seasons became a distant memory; by Butch’s third year, he turned in an unheard of losing season at Miami. This was not exactly how the other coaches had done it.

Butch’s standing was not helped by his constant public complaining about most everything surrounding the job, from the lousy facilities to the very mediocre fan support, huge chunks of which disappeared from the Orange Bowl as the records went south. The Miami fans that were left were not thrilled with not only the Canes’ decline under Butch, but the concurrent ascension of another Big East team, the previously-unknown one at Virginia Tech. Butch losing five times in a row to Frank did not exactly have the Canes contemplating statues of him outside the Orange Bowl.

Butch’s relationship with the guy that had hired him, then and now AD Phat Paul Dee, turned frosty. Butch’s complaints about his facilities were met with exactly the same response Phat Paul gave when another mostly fruitless coaching search was culminated by Dee last year with the hiring of former Butch assistant Randy Shannon: “I don’t care how bad the facilities are, win anyway.” Phat Paul certainly has a way with coaches.

Butch did finally win. In his sixth year, he assembled enough talent from South Florida to put a very good team on the field. He went 11-1, winning the Big East championship and finally beating Frank. There had been rumors all season that Butch was unhappy at Miami and was contemplating a move to the NFL. They proved true, as Butch left for Cleveland a day after holding a press conference to assure Canes fans that he would not. Few seemed sorry to see him go.

The Cleveland thing did not turn out well at all, but Butch has now popped back up coaching Carolina. Saturday he plays his former team, now coached by his former assistant Shannon. Butch no doubt is very happy for Randy, less so for Dee, who despite his announced retirement is still around and will be in Blue Heaven Saturday.

You can bet that no matter what he says publicly, this is the game Butch circled when the schedule came out. Not another crack at Frank, not next week’s tussle with Visor Boy, not even the battle with State. Butch REALLY wants to beat the Canes.

Two separate coaches, two separate situations. But, the presence of Chuckie and Butch on opposing sidelines from their former teams does make for interesting subplots Saturday. Hopefully, there will be a satellite dish in the Clemson parking lot bringing the two games in. And they say ACC football lacks drama.

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