(This is a long and meandering road, stick with me)
There are grudges in real life, some justified and others not. But sports grudges are a different animal.
If you’ve been following NC State sports for as long as many of us have then you know why there’s so many reason to enjoy this 2017 football season. Years like this do not come around all the time, regardless of how it ends (but let’s hope it ends as great as it has started).
The 2017 Wolfpack are reaching heights not seen since Philip Rivers’ NC State career bright spot, the 2002 Gator Bowl team. Given the similarities, I thought it would be fun to take a trip down Sports Grudge Lane and examine what can make you dislike a team for hard to explain reasons. While we’re at it, let’s have a history lesson on NC State’s (other) best season in the last 20 years.
In Chuck Amato’s third season as NC State head coach, he finally put all the pieces together after knocking on the door for two years. We all thought that season was just the beginning for Amato (heavy sigh). The team started unranked but quickly moved into the top 25 after week 2, and blazed up the rankings while amassing a 9-0 start. Yada yada yada, the team finished the regular season with a 10 win season by defeating #14 FSU, and being selected to the Gator Bowl against Notre Dame.
People forget about this now, but first year coach Ty Willingham injected energy into a lagging program that Brian Kelly is now benefitting from. Bob Davie had an up and down tenure, winning 9 games twice in 5 years but never winning a bowl. This was followed by the controversy of hiring former GT coach George O’Leary, news coming out that he misrepresented his academic credentials. He promptly resigned within 5 days. The program was looking to avoid more controversy, and reassert their place among football elite. Enter Willingham, a buttoned up coach with an almost military mindset. He also happened to be Notre Dame’s first African-American coach, which for some reason turned into a “nontroversy”. Stories were written trying to paint ND in a bad light for waiting this long to hire a non-white coach, neglecting the fact that tons of other schools still haven’t. Anyway, he was the first ND coach to ever start their first year 8-0, and he went on to win coach of the year honors. But they struggled down the stretch (to put it mildly) to finish at 10-2, including a historic thwomping by USC 44-13. That game proved critical for the Fighting Irish, and being outgained 610 yards – 109 did not bode well for them. Carson Palmer proved that one huge performance late in a season can sway a Heisman race, 425 passing yards will do that for you.
The Plot Thickens
In the grand scheme of things, going to the Gator Bowl would not alter the national championship picture. But in the BCS era, it was a highly regarded second tier bowl for the teams that “almosted” the most. I had a Giants fan try to convince me that all bowls are a waste of time and should be gotten rid of in lieu of only a 16 team playoff. He is also a Rutgers grad, so yeah.
Both the Irish and the Wolfpack had 10 wins, and both had controversy surrounding their selection to the Gator Bowl. For the ACC, this bowl was usually reserved for the team finishing second. The Wolfpack, at 5-3, finished fourth. Technically, UVA had the right to think it would be selected. However, the Pack had a higher national profile, more overall wins, an NFL caliber QB (suck it, Matt Schaub) and a high profile win in the season finale (FSU won the conference anyway). The deciding factor? Wolfpack fans had the better reputation of traveling to support their team. More on that in a minute.
At the time, Notre Dame was more independent than their halfway version now. They had an exemption with the BCS where if they won 9 games they were eligible to be selected to a BCS game. ND ended up making two BCS games under Charlie Weis using this very exemption, in 2006 (9-2), and 2007 (10-2). Was it fair to have this rule? Probably not, but what can you do. We can at least thank Carson Palmer for bringing them to Jacksonville. That loss put some stink on the Irish, and more deserving teams were selected.
“Their fans travel so well”, aka where memory starts to blend with fact
After spending all season thinking “Notre Dame is back!”, the Fighting Irish fans were extremely displeased with being left out of the BCS. They felt they had earned it because they famously challenge themselves with a high strength of schedule every year, and they had four ranked wins. On the other hand, NC State fans were ecstatic to jump ahead of UVA and Maryland (suck it, Terps).
Leading up to the game, the News & Observer went HARD with NC State coverage, and I ate it all up. I read every single word that came to the house, in an actual newspaper that I held with my hands, printed with ink and everything. There were tons of stories about Notre Dame’s legacy, Touchdown Jesus, “Play Like a Champion Today”, “The Gipper”, Rudy, etc. etc. Much of what I know about Notre Dame’s football program comes from those articles.
Here is where things start to get a little fuzzy in my memory, nearly 15 years and two kids later.
I tried to find corroborating evidence of this, but it doesn’t seem like the N&O has online records going back this far (unless someone else can find it). The paper traded columnists for the run-up to the game. I believe Caulton Tudor started writing columns for the local South Bend paper, and they had someone write columns for the N&O. I haven’t been able to find this guy’s name, all I remember is I REALLY did not like this guy.
We heard endless stories about how well their fans travel far and wide to support their team. There were ND grads all over the country, after all, and these fans always came out. ALWAYS.
He wrote about how the Notre Dame fans felt like they had to “step down” to the Gator Bowl, and more specifically, were now stuck playing NC State. They deserved better, they’d earned more.
And then, things took a turn.
Again, I really wish I could find these columns as proof, but this guy started making “Mayberry” and “Andy Griffith” references, among other “jokes” that were at best in poor taste. I remember reading this thinking, “you’re from Indiana, who are you to make redneck jokes??” But maybe that’s why people make South Bend to Chapel Hill comparisons.
The tone of everything I was reading between these columns and elsewhere was telling a story of the Notre Dame fan turning down their nose at being relegated to playing a lesser opponent in NC State. It all left such a bad taste in my mouth that I simply could not wait to get down to Jacksonville.
The rest is history
The night before the game, the Pack faithful filled the town and there wasn’t a person wearing green in sight. The pep rally was a grand ole time. We all know what happened with the game. All hail Thunder Dan.
When we walked into the stadium that day, it looked like a home game at Carter Finley. It was just a sea of red. State players afterward said the same, and the presence of their fans elevated them in the game.
So much for the “have fans, will travel” talk.
It’s weird how certain things can stick with you long after the fact, and sometimes sports amplify the stickiness factor. I’ve forgotten things that happened in my personal life but I can recall the exact three plays the following season that to this day I will swear could have put the 2003 Wolfpack in the national championship game in Rivers’ senior year (I could do a youtube breakdown of these like the Zapruder film).
To this day I will equate Notre Dame fans with snooty UNC fans, and it’s top 4 on my list of schools I dislike the most. Add to that they’re an Under Armour school, blech. It’s like they took a school I already didn’t like, and added Maryland to it. Traditional rivalries against certain schools are one thing, but random grudges against teams your school has no past connection with are downright random. I understand this. It’s basically just me.. I think.
However, I can’t help holding on to the grudge, just like I will always boo Eli Manning. Believe me, this has made my interaction with Giants fans over the last decade-plus SO much fun! All this being said, the process of explaining all of this grudgery is very hard, and now I’m usually just like grumble grumble harumph. I was leaving my daughter’s soccer game the other day and saw a dad wearing a Notre Dame tshirt and almost talked some smack to him since I was wearing my State hat. Then I was like nah, he’ll know soon enough...
Am I crazy?? Am I the only one who remembers any of this stuff? What other random grudges do you hold against other teams?