Saturday, January 31, 2015

Book Review: The 1974 Wolfpack Gets Some Love

Go to Google sometime and look up “NC State basketball national championship.” You’ll get link after link about the Wolfpack’s magical run to the 1983 NCAA championship, an event that has come to define NC State’s postseason history.

You’ll have to look much deeper than a cursory Google search to find coverage of NC State’s 1974 national championship, and that’s too bad because — and make no mistake about it — the 1974 Wolfpack was easily the best team in NC State history and maybe the best in Atlantic Coast Conference history. The 1974 Wolfpack’s best player, David Thompson, is still regarded as the greatest player in ACC history.

There are reasons the ’83 team gets all the love while the ’74 team falls through the cracks. A lot changed between 1974 and 1983. First of all, media coverage went from local to global. ESPN came into being in 1978, and began televising early-round NCAA Tournament games two years later. Within a few years, thanks in large part to the “Worldwide Leader,” the tournament morphed into “March Madness,” captivating the nation’s attention every spring. NC State’s 1983 championship run was a huge part of that transformation. 

Then there is the use of videotape, which goes hand in hand with the evolution of ubiquitous TV coverage. The ’83 team taped all of its games, many of them directly off the television. Within a few years, the bulk of that videotaped footage had been digitalized and stored on computers for easy access and replay. The ’74 team had to record its games on 16 millimeter film, a much more difficult and cumbersome medium. In the ensuing years, much of that footage has been lost or destroyed, or deteriorated so badly in storage as to be rendered useless, leaving precious little video history of NC State’s 1974 national championship.

Topping it all off is the improbable nature of NC State’s 1983 national championship. America claims to love underdogs — the popularity of the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys notwithstanding — and it got two of the all-time greatest underdog stories in a span of three years with the 1983 Wolfpack and the 1985 Villanova Wildcats. Couple that with the presence of Jim Valvano, arguably the most irrepressible and charismatic coach in the history of the sport, and it’s little wonder the Wolfpack’s 1983 championship became one of the greatest stories in the history of college basketball. No one should be surprised, then, that the 1983 team towers over the rest of NC State’s storied, if distant, basketball tradition.

Jim Pomeranz, who worked for the NC State sports information office and for the Wolfpack Club from 1977-87, has taken a most welcome first step towards bridging the appreciation gap between NC State’s two national championship teams. His new book, 1973-74, Reliving the NC State Wolfpack’s Title Run, captures the 1973-74 basketball season from the eyes of NC State’s student newspaper, the Technician. Pomeranz was sports editor for the Technician in 1974 and covered the ’74 Wolfpack as closely as anyone in the media that year. His book reprints most of the day-to-day coverage of that incredible season directly from the pages of State’s student paper.

A confession up front here. Prior to publication, I proofread and critiqued 1973-74 for Jim, offering a.) encouragement, but also b.) constructive criticism and suggestions that I thought might help make the book tighter and more cohesive. Some of my suggestions he accepted, and others he rejected. Fair enough. It’s his book, after all. Former Technician sports editor Ken Lloyd and Technician staffers Bill Moss, Steve Baker, Ray Deltz, Jim Brewer, Steve Wheeler, Howard Barnett, Louise Coleman and Jeff Watkins all made contributions, but Jim was the sports editor and did the bulk of the coverage himself. I made at best a modest contribution to this book, very modest. One hundred percent of the credit should go to Jim Pomeranz. The book was his idea, his own labor of love, and he alone brought it to fruition.

The entire text of this book came from a student newspaper, so be prepared. Jim was 22 in 1974. He and his fellow Technician staff members were inexperienced writers at the time. That’s why they were working for a student newspaper, after all, to learn. If you’re expecting Frank DeFord or Grantland Rice, they’re not here. With that said, however, as student newspaper writing goes — and this comes from someone who’s read a lot of student newspapers — the 1973-74 Technician staff was pretty good. Jim Pomeranz was very good. And the story they were chasing was off-the-charts good.

By 1974, NC State basketball was wrapping up a two-year run that went unrivaled in ACC annals until Duke’s back-to-back national championships in 1991-92. The 1972-73 and 1973-74 Wolfpack teams — led by the core nucleus of David Thompson, Tom Burleson, Monte Towe and Tim Stoddard — went an astonishing 57-1, won two ACC championships and a national championship. The ’73 team, on probation and ineligible for postseason play, was a perfect 27-0 and finished the year ranked No. 2 in the nation behind perennial national champion UCLA.

With the nucleus of that team back in 1973-74, anticipation built, especially when a neutral-site game between the Bruins and Wolfpack for early December was a late addition to the schedule. UCLA won that game in a blowout, 84-66, but the loss fueled NC State’s resolve. Led by the incomparable Thompson on the wing, Towe at point guard and Burleson in the paint, the Wolfpack did not lose again, despite a grueling schedule and many close calls.

Following that loss to the Bruins, NC State played 11 games against nationally ranked opponents, nine of them against teams in the top 10, eight of them against teams ranked in the top 5, and won them all. Over the course of the 1973 and ’74 seasons, NC State was 17-1 against ranked opponents: 14-1 against the top 10, 10-1 against the top 5, and 5-1 against teams ranked Nos. 1, 2 or 3.

The 1973-74 campaign was the next-to-last season when only conference champions went to the NCAA Tournament. The ACC boasted three legitimate national championship contenders in 1974. Only one of them would have a chance to play for the national championship, which is unthinkable today but a reality that only added to the pressure in 1974. You could make a strong argument that Maryland’s 1974 team was the greatest in that school’s history, while 1974’s North Carolina squad has to go down as one of Dean Smith’s best and most underrated teams. Maryland and UNC spent most of the 1974 season ranked in the national top 5. NC State beat them both three times in some of the greatest college basketball games ever played.

Most importantly, though, in 1974 NC State ended UCLA’s national championship dynasty, the greatest domination of any sport in the history of college athletics. The Bruins won the national championship in 1964 and ’65, then won seven national championships in a row from 1967-73 before falling in double-overtime to NC State in the 1974 national semifinals. ACC teams challenged UCLA several times during the dynasty and failed every time, until the Wolfpack finally broke the spell. The Bruins won one last national championship in 1975 — their 10th in 12 years — but the dynasty was broken the year before.

As 1973-74, Reliving the NC State Wolfpack’s Title Run shows, Pomeranz and his Technician staff covered the 1974 basketball season in depth, writing detailed game advance stories and recaps, player profiles, features and notes columns, capturing not just the nuts and bolts of the Pack’s national championship, but also setting the scene and providing context, both on and off the court.

As time rolls by and the 1983 team grows in stature and legend, the 1974 teams seems to shrink further and further from the public view, and that’s a terrible shame. No disrespect intended here for the 1983 team, which deserves all the attention to come its way. The 1974 squad was the best in school history, the best by a wide margin, and deserves its day in the sun. 1973-74, Reliving the NC State Wolfpack’s Title Run may not balance the scales, but it’s a great first step, and highly recommended.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Great Expectations? For NC State Baseball, Thanks But No Thanks

Forget about pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training. College baseball season begins in less than a month. For NC State, the 2015 season means that the Wolfpack’s Gold Dust Era is finally in the rear-view mirror. Good riddance.

With apologies to Charles Dickens, the last three years were the best of times and the worst of times for NC State baseball. With future first-round draft picks Carlos Rodon and Trea Turner constantly in the headlines, the Wolfpack found itself front and center in the national spotlight for the first time, with very mixed results. For three years, NC State experienced euphoric highs and disappointing lows. Now, the lights are off and everyone seems to be breathing a sigh of relief.

The Gold Dust Era began well enough. The Pack caught a lot of people by surprise when Rodon and Turner were freshmen in 2012, winning 43 games and advancing to the NCAA Super Regional before falling on the road to top-ranked Florida. Expectations ratcheted up significantly a year later, and NC State rode a razor’s edge of excruciating, low-scoring thrillers all the way to Omaha and the 2013 College World Series, ending a 45-year CWS drought. Rodon and Turner returned to headline a heralded junior class a year ago, and for a number of reasons the expectations became completely unrealistic. NC State found itself ranked No. 6 in the nation in the preseason, then barely limped into the play-in round of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament before failing to earn an NCAA regional bid for the first since 2009.

The glare of the spotlight brings unavoidable and unwanted distractions. With Rodon and Turner eligible for the 2014 draft, weekends at Doak Field became a side show. On many a Friday night at the Doak, fans rubbed elbows with national media members; major league scouts, cross checkers and scouting directors; MLB general managers and team presidents; and high-profile player agents along with their sycophants and entourages.

Those types of distractions are tough enough for good teams to overcome. For a struggling, overmatched and pitching-challenged team like the 2014 Wolfpack, those distractions added a surreal, almost science-fiction-like quality to what already was a nightmare of a season. A three-year era, one that began with such promise and included so many thrills, ended with a thud and a 32-23 record.

Although he’d never say so for public consumption, it’s a safe bet that no one was happier to see 2014 end than NC State coach Elliott Avent. Heading into the season, Avent had to know the preseason expectations for his team were absurd. While then-sophomores Rodon, Turner, Brett Austin, Jake Fincher, Logan Ratledge and Logan Jernigan got all the attention on that 2013 CWS team, Avent knew better than anyone that it was his senior class, not his sophomores, who were most responsible for the trip to Omaha.

It was seniors Tarran Senay, Brett Williams, Grant Clyde and Bryan Adametz who provided the grit, toughness and leadership — along with much of the production — in the everyday lineup. It was seniors Grant Sasser, Chris Overman, Josh Easley and Ethan Ogburn who pitched the bulk of the innings out of what was probably the best bullpen in the country, a bullpen that saved an underwhelming starting rotation over and over again.

With those seniors gone, Avent knew that 2014 was fraught with peril. Leadership proved to be an issue all season. The everyday lineup was top-heavy with Austin, Turner and freshman wunderkind Andrew Knizner doing almost all of the heavy lifting. The senior-laden bullpen of 2013 gave way to a patchwork of transfers, bandits, unproven underclassmen and true freshmen who threw hard but couldn’t throw strikes. It was a disaster waiting to happen. At times Avent did his best to downplay the expectations, but at other times he yielded to his inner child and boasted of possible parades in downtown Raleigh come July. That didn’t help, to understate the obvious.

And so the Wolfpack and its beleaguered head coach enter 2015 with a sense of relief and anticipation. Those who expected fall practices to be a train wreck had to have been pleasantly surprised. The 2015 Wolfpack will not feature the front-line talents of a Rodon or a Turner (although as Knizner’s transition to catcher continues, he could be a huge attraction a year from now). Instead, the Pack will be young, hungry and coachable, and will play with an energy and passion that fans should quickly recognize and appreciate. A promising but unproven pitching staff could be a work in progress deep into the season as new pitching coach Scott Foxhall sorts out the many talented arms at his disposal. The lineup won’t have an Austin or a Turner at the top, but should be deeper and feature more power, something Avent will welcome with open arms after the speedy but offensively challenged Punch-and-Judy offenses of the last two years. And this Wolfpack team should be one of Avent’s best defensive units.

Expectations, of course, will be the key. A year ago, the world expected nothing less than a return trip to the College World Series. For that team, 32-23 was a realistic but bitter disappointment. This time around, the Wolfpack may not be picked as high as No. 6 in the ACC’s Atlantic Division and definitely won’t be in anyone’s preseason rankings. Given those expectations, 32-23 might look pretty good.

Historically, Avent’s teams have performed best and overachieved when little was expected. That’s not to say this team will be in the NCAA Tournament come June, or even on the bubble when the tournament pairings are announced. There are far too many unanswered questions to make such assumptions at this point. But don’t be too quick to write this team off. After last year’s Fun Bunch, in many ways this team will have an easy act to follow.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Springsteen At The Agora Goes Over The Counter

As someone noted some time ago, the Grateful Dead had it right all along. We’re talking about bootlegs here, and the only surprise is that it took other artists so long to figure it out.

Bootleg recordings, especially jazz and classical bootlegs, have been around forever. Rock bootlegs came onto the scene in the late 1960s with Great White Wonder, a now-legendary Bob Dylan bootleg LP, and soon became a booming (if illegal) industry and remained so until the internet made free bootlegs downloads as easy as a couple of keystrokes.

While most artists cried foul and screamed bloody murder at the mere thought of bootleg recordings, the Grateful Dead quickly recognized that bootlegs weren’t going away and instead got ahead of the curve. The Dead not only encouraged their fans to tape their shows, but the group’s sound engineers often aided fans by showing them the optimal locations for microphone placement and the proper settings to get the best possible sound.

The Dead took matters a step further by releasing an avalanche of concert recordings from their own vaults, starting in the early 1990s with One From The Vault and following that with the highly successful Dick’s Picks series. The Dead’s back catalogue now features several lines of great sounding concert recordings.

It took a while, but other artists finally began to follow the Dead’s lead. Bob Dylan’s outstanding bootleg series is now up to 11 essential volumes with the official release of The Basement Tapes, recorded in 1967 with the group that eventually came to be called The Band. Beginning in 2002, the Allman Brothers Band started releasing several of their classic performances from the early 1970s, then began collaborating with Live Nation to make Instant Live recordings of their concerts available to fans shortly after the completion of each show. Neil Young began emptying his archives for commercial release about 10 years ago. There are many others.

Free online bootleg downloads altered the equation a bit, but the fact remains that bootlegs are still bootlegs. Whether purchased surreptitiously at a hip record store or downloaded for free online, lack of proper engineering means sound quality will always be an issue with a bootleg, even with a soundboard concert recording.

That was the thought that prompted Bruce Springsteen to start his own live download site — A vocal opponent of bootlegs in his younger days, Springsteen apparently mellowed his stance over the years, and when a staff member pointed out to him the number of his live shows available on YouTube alone, Springsteen’s very admirable response was, “Well, we can do it better than that.”

And indeed they have. Springsteen began by selling fully mastered downloads of his 2014 world and U.S. tour shows on his own website, Those links were removed late last summer, but they’re back, now available for purchase on The 2014 tour recordings are, in fact, the backbone of the site’s available downloads, at least for the time being.

In time, we’re told, will feature a wealth of classic Springsteen concert recordings, and there is a bountiful body of work to pick from, judging from the multitude of Springsteen bootlegs long in circulation. The first archived show made available was the March 9, 2012, show from the Apollo Theater in New York City, an excellent show broadcast live on satellite radio, but hardly one of Springsteen’s many essential vintage performances.

The second release, however, Aug. 9, 1978, from the Agora Theater in Cleveland, Ohio, is an all-out classic, a legendary performance from what many believe to have been Springsteen’s best and most musically intense tour, the Darkness On The Edge Of Town tour. The show from the Agora was one of five shows from the ’78 tour broadcast live on a regional network of FM radio stations. Not surprisingly, all five have been heavily bootlegged over the years. The others, for the record, were July 7 from the Roxy in Los Angeles; Sept. 19 from the Capitol Theater in Passaic, N.J.; Sept. 30 from the Fox Theater in Atlanta; and Dec. 15 from the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Look for some or all of those to make it to the live site at some point.

The Agora show originated on Cleveland’s WMMS-FM as part of the station’s 10th anniversary celebration and was simulcast all over the Midwest, as far south as St. Louis, as far west as Chicago and as far north as Minneapolis. Unlike the available bootlegs of this show, this official release is the pre-FM master, taken from seven 15-IPS reel-to-reel half-track tapes, transferred and engineered digitally using the same Plangent mastering process used on the recent The Album Collection box set.

The various Agora bootlegs were among the cleanest-sounding Springsteen boots in circulation. The sound was a bit thin, perhaps, and the organ and piano were mixed more prominently in places than the guitars and saxophone, which sounds a little weird, but the overall sound quality was extraordinary for a bootleg. The newly released version retains and even improves the clean sound from the bootlegs. The tapes were corrected for speed variation to eliminate any wow and flutter. The sound has more heft to it, and the stereo separation is much sharper with a wider soundstage. The keyboards still tend to stand out over the strings and reeds, but that’s the way the show was recorded. Not much can be done to fix that.

While the sound quality of this recording is excellent, the performance is nothing short of stunning. Cleveland, a hard-core blue-collar town, jumped on the Springsteen juggernaut early on, and the Boss played there frequently throughout the early and mid-1970s, developing a huge and devoted following. That following turned out en masse for the Agora show, and the chemistry between artist and audience is obvious.

Darkness On The Edge Of Town ranks with Springsteen’s greatest albums, a lyrical masterpiece by a lyric-driven artist. Yet over the years, Springsteen has expressed regret at the way the album turned out, saying that it wasn’t until two years later with The River that he and the E Street Band actually figured out how to navigate their way around the studio and get the same sound on record that they produced onstage. Springsteen insisted that the songs on Darkness turned out much better live on the ’78 tour than they did on the album itself. The band played six of the 10 songs from Darkness at the Agora show, and all six just sizzled with intensity. E Street drummer Max Weinberg said in later years that in his mind, the Agora concert was the best show the E Street Band ever played. That’s saying a mouthful, but there is no disputing that this was an electrifying performance.

Most bootleg download sites will pull the links to performances that are available commercially, thus avoiding legal hassles over mechanical royalties. Just as well, because the version of the Agora show now available on Springsteen’s live site is a considerable improvement over the bootleg versions in circulation.

All live downloads on are available as standard mp3 (256 kbps for $9.95) and FLAC ($12.95) digital files, high-quality CDR pressings ($23), and state-of-the-art 24-bit/192 KHz high definition audio (24.95).

It’s also worth noting that all of Springsteen’s commercially released albums are available as digital downloads on, including the remastered versions of his first seven albums, which debuted in The Album Collection box set last fall.