Football coaches often lament the idea of one game weighing in importance more than another. All games count the same in standings, they claim.
Without taking these coaches to task philosophically, let’s agree that certain games over a coach’s career are pivotal, either to his success or detriment. One such pivotal game is approaching for N.C. State and its coach, Dave Doeren.
Doeren enters his fifth season of a rebuilding project with a 25-26 record that includes a 9-23 mark in Atlantic Coast Conference play. The season-opener against South Carolina in Charlotte carries all the earmarks of a game that could steer N.C. State’s season and Doeren’s program in one direction or the other, depending on the result.
Every coach in N.C. State’s modern history has faced a similar pivotal game in his stay at the helm of the Wolfpack. Here are those games, beginning with Earle Edwards, who took over the program in 1954, the second year of play in the ACC.
Earle Edwards (17 seasons: 77-88-8)
After Edwards’ first three teams produced a 9-20-1 record, including a dismal 2-10-1 mark in the ACC, the Wolfpack opened the 1957 season at North Carolina. From the outset, Edwards mined football talent in Pennsylvania, and his first class of recruits were veterans by his fourth season.
Led by the Pennsylvania backfield “touchdown twins” Dick Christy and Dick Hunter, the Wolfpack held off UNC, 7-0, and never looked back. N.C. State recorded five shutouts that season, went 7-1-2 overall and won the ACC championship with a 5-0-1 mark.
Over 17 seasons as head coach, Edwards’ teams won or shared four more ACC titles.
Al Michaels (1 season: 3-8)
Michaels was elevated from defensive coordinator to head coach when Edwards retired one month before the start of the 1971 season. In his first game as N.C. State’s head coach, Michaels dropped a 23-21 decision to lowly Kent State, which finished with a 3-8 record.
The Wolfpack also went 3-8 that season, and Michaels returned to his defensive coordinator position the following season under new coach Lou Holtz.
Lou Holtz (4 seasons: 33-12-3)
In his four seasons at N.C. State, Holtz’s teams managed a sterling 33-12-3 record that included a perfect 1973 ACC season and league championship. Yet it was a loss in his first season in 1972 that proved instrumental in his later success with the Wolfpack.
Not much was expected of Holtz’s first team despite a season-opening tie against Maryland and a victory over Syracuse. Next up was UNC, which carried a 2-0 record into its home game against N.C. State. This Tar Heels team would finish the season 11-2.
A failed two-point conversion at the end left N.C. State with a crushing 34-33 loss. Still, Wolfpack fans were impressed, cheering wildly as the team departed the Kenan Stadium field knowing it could compete with any opponent.
Bo Rein (4 seasons: 27-18-1)
After a disappointing 3-7-1 record in his first season, Rein and the Wolfpack suffered a season-opening loss to East Carolina in 1977. Then N.C. State rebounded with a five-game winning streak that culminated in a 17-15 victory at Auburn, which entered the game with a 3-1 record that included consecutive wins over Tennessee and Mississippi.
Although the Wolfpack split its remaining six games that season, Rein proved to be one of the bright young coaches in the game when N.C. State went 9-3 in 1978 and won an ACC championship in 1979.
Monte Kiffin (3 seasons: 16-17)
The turning point of the Kiffin era was not when he rode a horse into Carter-Finley Stadium dressed as the Lone Ranger. Rather, it was shortly after halftime of N.C. State’s game at UNC midway through Kiffin’s first season, 1980.
Despite a 3-2 record, N.C. State still held a No. 15 national ranking. UNC entered the game with a 6-0 record and No. 8 national ranking. The Tar Heels led 14-0 at halftime when Kiffin elected to open the second half with an onside kick. UNC recovered the kickoff, drove the field for a touchdown and ultimately strolled to a 28-8 victory.
UNC was on its way to an 11-1 record. N.C. State never recovered, going 6-5, 4-7 and 6-5 in Kiffin’s three seasons.
Tom Reed (3 seasons: 9-24)
After going 3-8 in his first season, Reed and the Wolfpack opened the 1984 season with a resounding win over Ohio. Then Dick Sheridan brought his upstart Division I-AA Furman Paladins to Carter-Finley Stadium and escaped with a 34-30 victory.
When Furman again defeated Reed and N.C. State the following season, 42-20, Reed’s days were numbered, and Sheridan was brought in as his replacement.
Dick Sheridan (7 seasons: 52-29-3)
Seven weeks into his first season in 1986, Sheridan’s Wolfpack already had defeated 13th-ranked Maryland and 18th-ranked UNC. N.C. State was ranked 20th with a 5-1-1 record when 16th-ranked Clemson brought a 5-1 record to Carter-Finley.
The day was huge in many ways. Brent Musburger provided the play-by-play for a regional TV audience, and Jim Valvano was in the press box bragging about a point guard he had signed that day, Chris Corchiani.
N.C. State rolled to a 27-3 win in a steady rain, and the Wolfpack was on its way to the first of four seasons in which Sheridan-coached teams won at least eight games.
Mike O’Cain (7 seasons: 41-40)
Following a 9-3 record in 1994, N.C. State fans were excited about Mike O’Cain’s third team. A matchup against top-ranked Florida State in the third week of the season was supposed to be a measuring stick for the Wolfpack program.
FSU demolished N.C. State, 77-17. O’Cain’s teams went 24-30 the remainder of that season and over the next four. FSU also ran up a 70-26 thumping of Duke and a 72-13 whipping of Wake Forest that season.
Chuck Amato (7 seasons: 49-37)
Consecutive losses early in the 2003 season spelled doom for Amato’s program.
The Wolfpack entered that season with high hopes, a No. 16 national ranking and a Heisman hopeful at quarterback in Philip Rivers. Everything was in place for N.C. State to enter the national spotlight with a showdown at No. 3-ranked Ohio State in the third week of the season.
But the ACC threw N.C. State a curve that season when it moved a conference game at Wake Forest to the second week. Perhaps the Wolfpack was looking ahead one week, or maybe it simply did not take Wake Forest seriously. Whatever the case, Wake Forest won, 38-24.
Then N.C. State fell in three overtimes, 44-38, to Ohio State. Amato’s teams, which were 27-14 to that point, went 22-23 thereafter. The Wolfpack would lose five more times at Wake Forest before winning in Winston-Salem in 2014.
Tom O’Brien (6 seasons: 40-35)
O’Brien steadily built the Wolfpack program to respectability in his first five seasons at the helm. With a 9-4 record in 2010 and 8-5 record in 2011, N.C. State appeared on the cusp of greatness.
Then came the 2012 season-opener against Tennessee in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta. It was not a great Tennessee squad, but a win over an SEC opponent was important to lifting the N.C. State program.
Tennessee, which finished the season 5-7, prevailed 35-21, and O’Brien was gone at the conclusion of a 7-6 season (He did not coach in the bowl game).
Now Doeren takes on another mid-level SEC opponent in the season-opener in a game that could prove to be equally pivotal to his program.