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Stormin’ Praise for Norman Sloan

Players from NC State’s 1974 NCAA Championship team gathered to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their accomplishment. Thoughts quickly turned to their coach, Norman Sloan, an NC State graduate who took the men’s basketball program to its greatest heights.

Members of NC State's 1974 NCAA Men's Basketball Championship team standing on the court of PNC Arena to be recognized for their accomplishment.

When the members of NC State’s 1973-74 NCAA championship team gathered on campus last weekend to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first team national title in school history, they appreciated the recognition.

As they now stretch into their 70s, however, players couldn’t help but shed tears for teammates and coaches who couldn’t attend the first gathering with so many players in years. Four playing members of the team — Morris Rivers, Bill Lake, Dwight Johnson and Bruce Dayhuff — have died, and one, Steve Nuce, was unable to attend for health reasons. Rivers, who died of a heart attack in November while being prepped for lung surgery, was the most recent loss.

Both head coach Norman Sloan and assistant coach Sam Esposito have also died.

All were wistfully remembered during a pre-game lunch and reception with Chancellor Randy Woodson prior to the current team’s win over Boston College at the PNC Arena Varsity Club.

Mostly, though, players’ thoughts turned to the tough-as-nails mentor who brought them together. Sloan, an original member of Wolfpack head coach Everett Case’s first recruiting class in 1946, was an old-school character whose World War II military background sometimes made him hard to love while coaching at his alma mater.

Norm Sloan coaching his players from the bench.

He was never completely comfortable with the “Stormin’ Norman” nickname he earned from the local and national media that he never held in particularly high regard.

“They just call me that because it rhymes,” he once said.

Yet his accomplishments over 37 years as a college coach were as impressive as they are now underappreciated by those same media members: a 624-393 overall record, a 266-127 record in 13 years at NC State, three Atlantic Coast Conference championships and a national title.

What’s not to love about that?

He could recruit, assembling perhaps the best team in ACC history, one that ended UCLA’s seven-year reign over college basketball by beating the Bruins in the 1974 national semifinals in Greensboro, then beating Marquette in the championship game.

Sloan cutting the net after the championship win in 1974.

That doesn’t mean he ran an easy program.

“He told us the day we got here: ‘Young men, the steak dinners and shrimp cocktails are over. You’re mine now’” said 7-foot-2 center All-America center Tom Burleson, whose four years on campus were closely monitored by Sloan. “He told us to follow the rules, or we were going go home. He told us the places we were not going to go.

“And he said, ‘You’re going to represent this university at the highest level it can be represented.’

“We all said, ‘Yes, sir.’”

Sloan didn’t need to do much training of two-time ACC Player of the Year, three-time All-ACC and 1975 National Player of the Year David Thompson, one of college basketball’s most versatile and talented players during the 1970s.

“Coach Sloan was a great man and coach,” said Thompson, a 1996 inductee into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and an inaugural inductee into the NC State Athletic Hall of Fame. “He got up early every Sunday morning and taught Sunday school, which is kind of hard to believe if you ever heard some of the things he said at practice and in games.”

That drew a big laugh from the crowd, but Sloan’s softer side was rarely on display to the public. Throughout his time in Raleigh, Sloan was a mentor to an inmate at Raleigh’s Central Prison, checking him out as a trustee on weekends to travel and visit with his family and his team.

Phil Spence reads a poem he wrote about Sloan at the luncheon prior to the game last weekend.

It was not something unnoticed by the players as part of his coaching duties.

“What he did was keep us all together,” Thompson said. “He wouldn’t let us join fraternities because he said our team was our fraternity. We all lived together in Sullivan dorm. He told us we had to have each other’s back, and that’s what we did.

“I think that’s why we were so close then and have remained so close through the years.”

For point guard Monte Towe, who teammates called “Lil’ Norm” because he was a coach on the court, Sloan’s unwavering belief in his abilities carried over to his post-playing days. He was an assistant coach at NC State and at Florida, where Sloan returned in 1980.

Towe is still coaching, currently at a high school in Gainesville, Florida. He left his team last weekend after leading them to a district championship so he could join his teammates here.

Sloan definitely softened in his days after coaching, which included some television commentary roles, a retirement in the North Carolina mountains and regular attendance at meetings of the “Ol’ Joe Hayes Club,” a loose organization of players and supporters who celebrated Case’s accomplishments at NC State.

Sloan, who died on Dec. 9, 2003, at the age of 77, is remembered in the Coaches’ Corner outside of Reynolds Coliseum. He’s in the Indiana Basketball, the North Carolina Sports and NC State Athletic halls of fame but has not yet been elected to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.

“I’ve been trying to make sure Coach Sloan gets into the Hall of Fame for a lot of years now,” Thompson said. “There are a lot of coaches with lesser credentials than him that are in the Hall of Fame.

“I don’t know what is taking so long.”

This post was originally published in NC State News.