Tuesday, April 01, 2014

The Pathos of Pack fans

I love N.C. State fans. Is there any other fanbase that so publicly wears its bad luck as both a badge of honor AND a festering wound?

Ah, the glorious life of an NC State fan. There are few endeavors in this world that build character like this. Want to develop a thick skin? Check. Want to learn how to handle* defeat? Check. Want to experience how to make the best of a crappy situation? Check. Check. Goodness, yes, check.

The Wolfpack men’s basketball team just completed what was, by ANYBODY’S account, a successful, overachieving season. Coming into the season, not much was expected from a team that had lost approximately 600 percent** of its production.  So it’s not surprising that we all did the Nae-Nae*** when State was literally the last team announced for the NCAA Tournament field. First Four or not, we were in.

Fast forward just as few days later to the game against Saint Louis. Here are some of the words used to describe the Pack’s 16-point, 8-minute collapse (“the most “NC Statey-ist” way to lose, one national hoops writer put it) that eventually led to an overtime loss.




“[More expletives.]”

And these were comments from State fans.

As the Billikens chipped away at State’s lead late in the second half – using Jim Valvano’s old fouling tactic, mind you – you could sense the overwhelming feeling of dread coming over Wolfpack Nation. “Here we go again.” “This is why we can’t have nice things.” And so on.

In short, fans have come to expect the worst. They have come to expect #NCStateShit to rear its ugly head.

That phrase, man. Gotta give it credit. It’s caught on. Heck, it warranted its own article on Grantland. It has its own Urban Dictionary entry.

This feeling of pending doom is not specific just to one game. You can pin #NCStateShit on State’s loss at Syracuse, at home against UNC, the football game two seasons ago in Chapel Hill. Pick a major sport during any season, and I can probably point to #NCStateShit making an appearance. Or three.

Fans expect it. For example, my buddy Tom watched the UNC game with a Carolina fan. As T.J. Warren went to the free throw line late with a chance to put State up by two, Tom recalls saying out loud, “Watch this. He’ll make one, miss the second and you guys will come down and hit a shot to win.”

After Marcus Page did just that, the UNC fan said, “How did you know that would happen?”

“Because,," said Tom, "that always happens to us."

It may be hard for younger Pack fans to actually understand this, but this feeling of despair wasn’t always the norm. There was a time – and it seems OH so very long ago now – that State was the big dog in the state. As a child growing up in North Carolina in the 1980s, I remember it was a state divided between State and Carolina. I even remember the UNC fans in my class serenading me with that old classic ditty, “Duke is puke/Wake is fake/But the team I hate/Is NC State.”

State was a major player. State was relevant. The Pack helped make the ACC what it was. UNC won a national title in 1982 with a team of James Worthy, Sam Perkins and a young Michael Jordan. State followed that up the next year with perhaps the most memorable national title ever. Yes, it was a “Cinderella” story – but people in Raleigh (and beyond) still expected great things from the Pack.

Longtime State fan and alum John Prichard is just old enough to remember the ’83 title and what it meant to this area. After the win over Houston, his father drove John and a friend to Hillsborough Street and to the Brickyard.

“I was almost 9 and will never forget it. The neighborhood went nuts and many people had their houses ‘rolled,’” recalls Prichard. “My mother took me to Reynolds that next day to welcome the team back. There were 15,000 people in Reynolds that day.”

Fast forward about, oh, six years. State was coming off an ACC Tournament title (’87) and an ACC regular season crown (’89) – and then the bottom fell out. Seemingly every media outlet in the world was coming after Jim Valvano’s program, smelling blood in the water. There’s never a good time to go through an NCAA investigation, but the timing, in NCSU’s case, could not have been worse. As State’s star was falling, Duke’s was on a meteoric rise just 20 minutes up the road. State was portrayed as the rogue, runaway program. Duke was the squeaky clean “real” school. Oh, and Duke was winning.

About nine hours away, another entity was coming into its own at this time. ESPN saw the rising prominence of Duke-UNC basketball and hitched its wagon to it. It worked. The ascension of ESPN’s influence coincided with the rise in prominence of Duke-UNC. State has been on the outside looking in ever since.

“I can honestly say there were NO Duke fans in the Raleigh area growing up,” said Prichard. “It was always State-UNC. That's why this Duke-UNC hype and ESPN crap really depresses me.”

Again, it comes back to being relevant. The “not our rival” stuff annoys State fans because it signifies a lack of relevance, a lack of significance.

To be fair, State hasn’t been good (and thus relevant) in a LONG time. Sure, there have been spurts. But that’s about it. To put it in perspective, consider this. No other major conference team has had a longer drought between Final Fours, tournament basketball titles, BCS football appearance or even football divisional championships. Just NCSU. If it weren’t for the baseball team’s run to the College World Series last year, this streak of mediocrity (is it even good enough to be described as “mediocre?”) would be even more remarkable. (Special thanks to Josh Goodson / @joshwgoodson for recently pointing out via Twitter just how bad State has been.)

But here’s perhaps the even more remarkable thing and possibly the biggest takeaway from this rambling post. Despite that abysmal record of futility (or would it be a remarkable record of futility?), Pack fans keep showing up – and in astonishing numbers. Carter-Finley Stadium is annually among the top four or five venues in the ACC, based on attendance. The same goes for PNC Arena. Forbes recently ranked the most valuable college basketball programs, and State came in 12th at a value of $17 million, a 30-percent change since last year. It’s even more remarkable when you look at the other teams on the list: college basketball’s royalty like Duke, Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky, Indiana.

“The Wolfpack's rapid ascension,” writes Forbes, “with the largest growth in value of any team on our list, ought to come as little surprise to anyone familiar with the school's recent financial success. NC State has nailed down a new multimedia rights deal (10 years, $49 million), agreed to a more valuable Adidas apparel agreement (four years, $7 million) and surpassed $1 million in licensing revenue for the first time in school history.”

But even when there is positive news like this, it’s hard for State fans to NOT see the dark humor. One prominent Pack blogger, Stephen / @AkulaWolf, had as his Twitter profile something that encapsulates what being a State fan is seemingly all about:

It's going to be a huge disaster; I'll get you tickets!

Do State fans have different expectations than other schools or teams? We first have to think about what being a fan means.

"Some psychologists claim that fan psychology is rooted in primitive times when we lived in small tribes, and warriors fighting to protect our tribe were true genetic representatives of ‘our people,’” writes Thomas van Schaik, a global PR director with Adidas. “In today’s society athletes play a similar role for a city, club or school in the stylized war on a playing field – as the theory goes. The athlete’s exploits helps reconnect the fans with those intense emotions that tribal warfare did for their ancestors.

"As Adam Sternbergh (@sternbergh) explains … being a sports fan allows you to feel deep emotional investment in something that has no actual real-world consequences. Sports are never guaranteed to end happily. In fact for some fans, most games end in a highly unsatisfying way. As a fan, you will feel actual joy or actual pain in relation to events that really don’t affect your life at all. It matters, deeply, and yet it doesn’t matter at all. It’s heartbreak with training wheels. The opportunity to experience and survive it is something to be valued, not lamented. It’s the one time you should really be grateful for deciding to be a fan.”

If you say so, Mr. van Schaik.

Call it an inferioriety complex, or call it just simple comparing and contrasting, but it’s almost impossible to think about State Fan Psyche without putting it up against the mindset of Carolina Fan. (I’m not gonna worry about Duke because, even though I’ve lived in North Carolina my entire life, I’ve really only known about five people who attended Duke.)

To accomplish this, I went to one of the most hardcore Heels fans I know: Jordan Rogers / @RogersWork.

I gave Rogers a similar scenario as the one my friend Tom faced: UNC is in a tight game late, maybe even down a couple points with about 15 seconds left. What do you think the typical UNC fan is thinking? Are they/you thinking that you will find a way to win?

“Well, let me stop you at one particular game. That could never explain the UNC fan psyche because the Tar Heel mindset is all about the story. It’s always bigger than one game,” said Rogers. “The school has been around in four different centuries, we’ve had basketball success for a while, and let’s face it, it’s an ‘old money’ school in the South — the UNC base is all about legacies and the past. So with that said, Carolina fans don’t necessarily expect to win that particular game, they just expect everything to work out in the end in the ongoing story about themselves, being told by themselves, about themselves.

“Does that sound self-indulgent? You bet it does,” Rogers continues. “Every UNC fan feels like UNC is starring in the movie they’re telling themselves, and who doesn’t make everything turn out alright in their own movie? To UNC fans, this is one long 1950s teen flick and UNC is going to get the girl in the end, cuz, of course. So even if we do lose a game, everything will always turn out alright next year.”

(Doesn’t that just piss you off?)

When a fan base has been so bereft of success for so long, it’s easy to starve for victories. In that case, it’s easy to compare Pack fans to those of downtrodden teams like the Cleveland Browns or Chicago Cubs. But it wasn’t that long ago that the Boston Red Sox were in a prolonged series of non-success. Then the Sox won. And won. And won. Did that change the nature of the fan base?

“The psychology of pre-2004 Red Sox fans was a little different than that of State fans because baseball fans can’t blame everything on the refs,” said Karl Knapp, a Boston native who went to Syracuse but lives in the Triangle and whose son is in the pep band at NC State. “Seriously, I think that the intensity of Sox loserdom was much less when I became a fan in the late 70s because of the nature of the competition.  Only four teams made it to the postseason each year and free agency was still relatively new.  Teams did not routinely spend to win and there was no expectation of annual postseason play. As the number of teams in the postseason grew and the owners set out to buy winning teams, the belief among fans that the Sox could and should win the World Series grew. Their ability to regularly make it to the postseason, combined with their spectacular failure to succeed in October led to a greater belief that the Sox were cursed. …

“How does all of this relate to Wolfpack Nation? First of all, it’s only been 31 years since you won a national championship, so the depth of your pathos ought not to be as great.”

(Editor’s note: ONLY 31 YEARS!!!???)

“That said, the increasing expectation that ACC teams should make it to and succeed in the NCAA Tournament probably has some of the same effect on State fans that the baseball playoff expansion had on Sox fans.  It is not enough to beat UNC and Duke during the season and make a good run during the ACC Tournament. For a season to be considered a success, State must get to the Big Dance as well, and go farther than their rivals.”

Ah, February 15, 2014. I remember that evening well. Enjoying a nice dinner with friends in Garner, keeping an eye on the State-Syracuse game, but not expecting much. Then it starts. The game is close. State’s making plays. DO WE ACTUALLY HAVE A SHOT TO KNOCK OFF UNDEFEATED SYRACUSE?

“We’ve seen this movie before,” one of us in the room said. (Hell, maybe all of us said it.) I even took to Twitter to say, “And here's the point where we State fans get too excited and forget what is about to happen.”

We know what happened. Epic. Monumental.


The original premise of this post was to be on admittedly a far-fetched notion: Has State’s lack of success over the past 25 years resulted in a fan base that just expects the worst? Or does this defeatist mentality actually trickle down to affect the play on the court, or on the field?

Now, I don’t really think the latter is true, but still, it felt worth exploring. I’ve seen many a game at PNC Arena where the opponent makes a run, the crowd starts to collectively groan, and the Pack gets tight. Maybe this happens everywhere; it just seems like the groan is more pronounced at State games.

Still, I wanted some insight on this chicken-or-the-egg question regarding NC State fandom.

“I don't think it's possible for the fears and worries of fans to impact the performance of players or coaches, no matter how outwardly they are expressed by the fan base,” said James Curle / @JamesCurle of the Riddick & Reynolds podcast and resident State Fan Barometer. “Coaches spend so much time with these players—and therefore the players spend so little time mingling with the students and fans—that a pretty thick layer of insulation exists between them and the outside world.

“Nevertheless, fans feel these fears and worries very acutely. It's tough to watch what happened against St Louis, for example, and not feel like it is further proof of some sort of rotten luck that only State's programs experience. But at some point, we reached a place where the successes are viewed with a diminished importance and more credence is given to the failures, like a double-sided vanity mirror where the concave side magnifies our warts and pimples and the convex side makes our attractive features seem smaller. “

Said Rogers, a “cluster of painful losses/happenings have befallen NC State in recent years, and the consequences are showing in the form of this #NCStateShit psyche. State fans expect the worst. But, I don’t think Wolfpack Nation actually takes more bad/painful losses than most other schools, I think it just feels that way.”

Damn right.

“Seriously. The ball bounces the wrong way sometime and it just has, a lot, here for State in recent years. I legitimately believe that. And, it intensifies that feeling,” Rogers continued. “Carolina’s loss to Georgetown in the ‘07 Elite Eight was just as ridiculously painful as St. Louis game (if not way more when you consider the ramifications). But like I said up top, UNC fans always have this burning hope that we’ll be back next year, because, well, who wouldn’t tell themselves a story that didn’t end that way? State fans lose that game and don’t have that made-up fairy tale to fall back on. Maybe they should make something up too?”

I’ve said it to friends over and over again: if and when State is a consistent winner again (and I do think it will happen), Raleigh will go bananas. It will mirror the highs that the folks who were around in the heyday of Pack basketball experienced. I would love to drive my kids to Hillsborough Street or the Brickyard to celebrate a national championship. By that time, maybe we’ll travel via jetpack. (See – I’m doing it again!)

When the Forbes rankings came out, Lou Pascucci of PackInsider.com wrote something that gives me hope:

“Does NC State look like an outlier to you? Well, if you’re stuck looking in the past and remembering how many poor seasons the Pack has endured over the past few decades, then, yep, that’s an outlier. But if you’re looking at the string of recent successes, and really examining the steps that have been taken to assure them, then you’d understand that is isn’t an aberration, but an evolution. NC State is generating excitement again. They are churning out elite players again and they’re breaking out of a mold that have held them down for a long, long time.”

So is there hope? You can always keep hope alive.

“If the Red Sox could will three titles in ten years after an 86-year drought, then surely State can rise to conquer the ACC once again,” said Knapp.

“I feel if we could ever get to taste some sustained high-level success in either major sport—a decade or so—then perhaps we could shatter those lenses we view our program through and accurately perceive the successes as not some sort of harbinger of future failure, and failures not as proof of these fears being justified,” said Curle.

“But seeing as how we've been waiting 30 years to reach that point, it's tough to put much faith in that day ever getting here. “

Spoken like a true State fan.

*"Handle" is a relative term.
**I’m admittedly horrible at math.
***I realize this post will be dated in about 3 … 2 … 1 …

(Photos courtesy of CNNSI.com, CoachK.com, NCSU Libraries, FenwayPark100.org, Syracuse.com and DallasNews.com)


Brian Bowman said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
TSnow said...

Great job here. Commenting in public about State is like talking about family. Fans can but outsiders better not. Having said that, I really wish someone would do a research study on the fan-bases of perpetually losing teams. There is no wonder everyone thinks we are crazy. We just might be. We've been through 3 ADs and 4 basketball coaches since Valvano and 4 football coaches since Sheridan. Our passionate fans sell out stadiums, we travel well for away games, we have incredible facilities, we are willing to throw money at whatever we think might need money, State is a great university... and yet we lose. And we lose spectacularly. I'd say we're the Cubs but even the Cubs make the playoffs every now and then. If I believed in such things I would swear that the PNC/RBC/ESA is built over an ancient burial ground but we all know that's not true. To me the most enlightening thing is the UNC fan's outlook. Without hyperbole I can honestly say that I am so far from that that I cannot even comprehend what it must be like. To expect everything is going to be ok? So simple. So American. So absolutely foreign.

M. Lail said...

Man, a psyche study like that could be Nobel Prize-worthy!

A.E. Jimmy said...

Fantastic analysis. Funny yet depressing - all at the same time.