Lauren Brownlow

NC State Stuff: Defining the phenomenon

Posted February 14

— As kicker Kyle Bambard lined up a 33-yard field goal attempt to give NC State by far its biggest win in the Dave Doeren era at No. 3 Clemson in October, everything looked good. It was a straight-on look for Bambard, who struggled at times this season but was essentially attempting an extra point.

NC State had outplayed the Tigers on that day. They were more physical than Clemson’s vaunted defense. They out-executed the Tigers, except in the red zone. Running back Matt Dayes ran with purpose, and quarterback Ryan Finley was efficient and made plays.

All he had to do is kick it straight through the uprights for an NC State win, one that felt deserved rather than like a fluke.

Two weeks later, I was on the concourse before NC State played Florida State. I asked a couple fans what was going through their minds when Bambard was getting ready to kick.

“I was listening to it on the radio. When I heard they were getting ready to kick a field goal, I was like ‘he’s going to miss it’. I just knew it,” a middle-aged gentleman told me. “The art of being an NC State fan is if you have no expectations, you can’t get disappointed.”

I asked another one, this man a little older. Surely he would feel differently.

“They’re gonna miss it,” he said. He then laughed, wryly and humorlessly. “They’re gonna miss it. And they missed it. It just always happens that way. I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t know how to explain it.”

That feeling of dread in what should have been a moment of excitement is one that lives in the belly of NC State fans. That dread is known as “NC State Stuff.” The notion that something is always going to go wrong for the Wolfpack.

Bambard did miss that kick, and NC State lost that game to Clemson in overtime. Clemson went on to win the national title. NC State had a fine end to its season, winning at North Carolina and in its bowl game, but that gut-punch of a loss lingered.

It was written off as a footnote for Clemson, like, ‘hey, you always need a break along the way to win a national title!’ But there’s always a team on the other side of that break. All too often, State fans feel, it’s them.

Lifelong Pack fans never stray

NC State Stuff has a feel, too. NC State could be up 30 on some random out-of-conference opponent it should crush, and all it takes is some 8-0 run by said opponent before the arena starts murmuring and the feeling noticeably changes. Like somehow, that run by the opponent is going to result in the comeback to end all comebacks.

It doesn’t, of course. Not in that random game against random MAC team. Except sometimes, it does. And that’s enough to justify it.

A lot of weird things happen in games to teams, or even unfortunate things that swing momentum. Plenty of teams are able to regain that momentum. But not NC State - at least, not if you believe in NC State Stuff.

NC State Stuff is often better known by an obscenity. And why not? It’s what comes out of the mouths of most NC State fans as they witness said Stuff happening yet again, and can’t do anything about it. Even knowing it’s coming doesn’t make it any easier.

James Curle, who formerly hosted the Riddick and Reynolds NC State podcast, has been an NC State fan for as long as he can remember of his 39 years of life. His grandfathers, he said, both NC State alums, got to him early, bringing him NC State gear that he would either wear or decorate his childhood bedroom with.

Neither of his parents went to NC State, but his grandfathers got him hooked for good. He never knew anything other than loving NC State.

“I can’t think back to a time when I wasn’t a State fan. I went to State (1996-2001),” Curle said. “It’s something that I’m very passionate about and it’s deeply tied to my identity, for better or for worse.”

Growing up in North Carolina, no matter where your parents went to school, you had to pick a side. It’s Duke, North Carolina, NC State or Wake Forest. And of course, your parents and your family members influence you, but the first two are obviously the more popular choices.

Not everyone is blessed with the ability to attend college, so many native-born North Carolinians pick a side and pass that choice down through many generations. Some just choose one for themselves, and naturally the more successful programs at the time would be the most popular. And that hasn’t always been Carolina and Duke.

Even when Curle had a choice, he not only continued to choose NC State - he doubled down.

“As a teenager, it probably amplified because it gave me something to argue with other people about,” Curle said. “I grew up in a rural part of the state where most everybody was a Carolina fan. There were very few Duke fans at that time. K was just getting things going in the late 80’s and early 90’s, so you were either State or Carolina. In the rural part of the state, even though there was a lot of farmers in the communities where I grew up, a lot of them were Dean Smith-era Carolina basketball fans.

“And so it gave me something to argue about and have a flag to plant in the ground and say, ‘You know what? You’re wrong, I’m right. This is where I stand.’ As a kid, if you needed something to latch onto that was counterculture at that time, NC State was a good one to go to.”

To Curle, NC State Stuff and an idea of a curse are not the same thing. He doesn’t believe in a curse, of course. And to him, it’s all framed in a lack of success - at least in the last 20 or so years. All of the remaining original members of the ACC have at least one league title in football or basketball since 1990. NC State’s last title in either sport came in basketball in 1987.

There are a variety of reasons for that, and those will be explored. But since the early 1990s, when Jim Valvano was forced out as head coach, nothing has gone right for NC State.

A curse of timing?

Former NC State quarterback Philip Rivers - one of the best quarterbacks in ACC history - never got a chance to play with a dominant defense, which NC State had the very year after Rivers left. In 2004, a floor-wiping technical foul called on the NC State bench in the ACC Tournament semifinals helped spur Maryland back from a double-digit deficit.

“The sense of dread that I feel when I experience a moment watching a game that might be classified as NC State Stuff is not the dread of the individual thing, but it’s the collapse that follows afterwards. Like, ‘this is going to be what unravels us. This is going to be our undoing that stands in the way of...dot dot dot,’” Curle said.

Former NC State head coach Everett Case basically established ACC basketball as we know it today. Although they never won a national title, his teams dominated the ACC. In fact, North Carolina doesn’t hire Frank McGuire (who hired a young assistant from Kansas named Dean Smith) without being pushed to do so by NC State’s sudden excellence in basketball.

Then it was Norm Sloan and David Thompson (a 1974 national title), then Jim Valvano (a 1983 national title). Both Valvano the personality and his teams remained relevant until self-imposed punishments ravaged the school’s basketball program.

“For the modern fan base, for the fans that are on social media and complain about NC State Stuff, I think it’s about trying to get back to that window of time from David Thompson to ‘83,” Curle said. “That is what we’re all longing to do, and every opportunity where we get close or have something where we’re on the edge of achieving it again, something seems to happen to unravel it all. I think that is best what describes NC State Stuff.”

Josh Rattray came to Raleigh back in the summer of 2013 to serve as NC State’s sports information director. He grew up in Indiana and had been serving as Butler basketball’s assistant sports information director, so he has seen plenty of craziness in college sports, including being front and center for both of Butler’s improbable runs.

He did realize pretty quickly, though, that there might be something different about NC State.

“I think it’s hard because I think in any sport, in any game, with any team, there is some kind of contagious feeling, whether it’s from the crowd or from your teammates or from an official or a big play from the opponent. For whatever reason, NC State sometimes has trouble shaking some of those things,” Rattray said.

He experienced perhaps the most potent recent example of NC State Stuff in basketball in recent memory.

NC State squeaked into the 2014 NCAA Tournament as one of the so-called “First Four” teams that have to play their way into the Tournament in Dayton. NC State beat Xavier 74-59, then found itself facing No. 5-seed St. Louis and in control late, up 59-45 with 5:03 to go.

“All of a sudden, this guy’s missing a free throw and this guy’s missing a free throw,” Rattray said of the collapse. “There is some kind of contagion, but I think that’s overarching. When it rains it pours, and it really, really rains sometimes at NC State.”

NC State would go 9-for-21 from the foul line in the final five minutes. ACC Player of the Year T.J. Warren and Cat Barber (who would contend for that title two seasons later) combined to make 5 of 12. It was a parade of misses, each more ill-timed than the next. It felt surreal as it was happening, and yet it also felt oddly inevitable, even as Tyler Lewis got a great look at a potential game-winner that just rattled out as regulation ended.

Once the collapse was complete, overtime didn’t matter as much. The collapse led to the loss. There was no strange thing - bad call or otherwise weird event - that led to the collapse, but the collapse itself is what NC State Stuff is.

The math of mediocrity

Steven Muma, who runs the NC State blog Backing the Pack at SB Nation, is a math guy. He’s too rational to really believe in NC State Stuff. But he can define it. The collapse can happen independent of the strange event, he said, but the strange event rarely fails to result in a collapse.

“It can go either way in terms of just a collapse or some strange event, but it always feels like those two things are tied together, somehow, someway, cosmically,” Muma said.

His definition of it is, in his own words, the “no-fun” way to explain it. Because to him, and to plenty of State fans, it’s a coping mechanism.

“The ‘no-fun’ way to define it I guess would be to say that if you’re on the certain end of the spectrum - if you’re Rutgers or Alabama, say - you’re probably not going to be in too many close games where one play or one particular thing maybe sticks out as something that defines that game or alters it in some way,” Muma said.

“But when you’re more in the middle like NC State is in football and basketball, you tend to be in more close games, so there’s a greater chance that something weird or strange can affect or appear to affect the outcome of a game. It’ll happen more frequently just out of sheer odds. Eventually, these things just kind of add up and become like a mental psyche that everyone kind of just assumes.”

See? Math.

The whole point of NC State Stuff, though, is that it seemingly transcends math and logic and any perceived rules of the universe. It’s not randomness - it’s a vindictiveness that somehow follows the Wolfpack around in the universe, and has been for the better part of 25 years as they struggle to climb out of mediocrity.

“I think it’s key to note that I don’t think many NC State fans truly believe, in their heart of hearts, that there is a mystical force at play,” Curle said. “It seems that way and it’s fun - it’s almost a weird, perverse sort of gallows humor-type fun in being like ‘Oh god, really? Only us.’ But I don’t think anybody goes to their graves thinking that they want to tell their son, ‘do whatever you can in your power to end the curse’ or have seances or some sort of weird thing to try to undo it.

“It’s hard to, with a straight face, claim that those things are real. It’s just in the moments when it happens, you’re like, ‘Maybe there is something to it,’ but that quickly fades.”

The ghost of Valvano

But Robin Simonton, executive director of Oakwood Cemetery, has noticed that there are at least some fans who embrace at least some mystical aspect of it. Every March that NC State makes the NCAA Tournament, she said, fans come to the historic Raleigh cemetery and ask to know where Valvano’s grave is.

“They’ll come in with their sweatbands and their headbands and their NC State clothing, and you can’t help but say, ‘Oh, what are you visiting for?’ A lot of times, people will say they’re here to reverse the curse. It’s not a hidden secret - it’s just people coming here to get some good vibes from him,” Simonton said. “They just ask him to do whatever needs to be done to help NC State basketball.”

Seeking to understand NC State Stuff is what led me to Oakwood, and not for anything having to do with Valvano, either. But enough about that for now. To know the history of NC State Stuff, you have to know what it is first. That’s Step 1.

Step 2? The history. Next week.

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