UAA Athletics

1986: 3 years after his national title, 7 years before his death, Jim Valvano made us laugh

Originally published on Nov. 28, 1986.

Jim Valvano leaned against an airport wall wearing a tan overcoat over a black shiny sweatsuit, looking like a senior point guard and talking about, of all things, getting old.

This is something college basketball does not want to hear. Jim Valvano is supposed to stay young. How can he entertain us, how can he perform all those sideline histrionics if he gets old? It wouldn't look the same with a cane.

"I never thought about it before, but all of a sudden my daughter, who's a senior in high school, is the same age as my recruits," Valvano said minutes after landing at Anchorage International Airport, before getting his North Carolina State team ready to play in this year's Great Alaska Shootout.

"I'm as old as a lot of the parents. I go to their homes and sit down with mom and dad and I find out we have a lot in common. We listen to the same songs."

One of the secrets to Valvano's success — he led North Carolina State to the 1983 national championship — is the fact that he has a lot in common with the players he recruits and coaches. He looks like them, he talks like them. He is one of them. Now he's getting older. The gap is starting to show.

"It's a strange business," Valvano said. "Each year, I get older, but the kids stay the same age. When I first started, I was 21. All of a sudden I'm 41 and I say Holy Cow! I think I'm still a kid; I'm still boogeying down. At the Tip-Off Classic, I danced til 2 in the morning. I guess I'm not acting my age."


Casual fans, those who only tune in during the Final Four hysteria, see a crazy Italian guy jumping around and mugging with his players and they think, "Oh, he's cute. Is he a player?" But there's obviously more to Valvano than that.

Valvano is a master recruiter who has an innate feel for the game. He refers to a conversation between John Madden and Vince Lombardi.

"Madden asked what made a great coach and Vince said the difference between a good coach and a great coach is that a great coach knows what it feels like," Valvano said. "He knows when it's right. You look at Denny Crum. He knows what he's looking for and he knows when it's right."

Valvano doesn't feel it this year. He knows it's not right. It started when star center Chris Washburn found out how highly NBA scouts rated him. Washburn went hardship and was the third pick in the NBA draft. Then Charles Shackleford, considered one of the top three freshman centers in the country last season, broke some bones in his wrist.

The truth is, his team is hurting right now. Yet if there is one thing Valvano has learned in six years at N.C. State and 15 years as a head coach, it is not to expect too much of himself.

"I'm a better coach today than I was seven years ago," Valvano said. "Better than in '83. Seven years ago, if I had lost my center to the NBA and my other center to injury, I'd be thinking about jumping off Mount McKinley.

"I know what the fans' expectations might be, but I'm more realistic. I'm more mature. Early in my career, a loss would trigger the obligatory all-nighter. No more."

There is a troubling paradox here. If Valvano doesn't get as down after a loss, will he get as high after a win? That was always one of the more entertaining things about him; watching Valvano go nuts at the Final Four in Albuquerque in 1983 was almost as good as seeing his Cardiac Kids pull off that one last miracle.

Does maturity have to mean a watering down of emotion? Can he still dance til 2? Is he still having fun?

"The standard reply to that is no, I haven't lost any of the fun," Valvano said. "But I think what I've done is set my goals higher. I don't bleed over an early-season loss as much. … The postseason, that's the excitement for me now."

Valvano still jives with his players. That rapport is something he will probably never lose, even if he lives to be 90.

"I hope I haven't lost touch with the kids," he said. "We still make each other laugh. That's a prerequisite. Somebody should make somebody else laugh every day. If you don't make someone laugh, or someone doesn't make you laugh, it's a wasted day."

Tim McDonald covered sports for the ADN from 1986-89. This is an edited version of a story first published on Nov. 28, 1986.

Beth Bragg

Beth Bragg wrote about sports and other topics for the ADN for more than 35 years, much of it as sports editor. She retired in October 2021. She's contributing coverage of Alaskans involved in the 2022 Winter Olympics.