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.

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