Sports TV does not get much better these days than ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary series. It's latest installment appeared on Sunday with "Survive and Advance", the story of the 1983 North Carolina State Wolfpack's unlikely run to the NCAA title win against the University of Houston.
The film is a fun look back at a time when college basketball had players who went to more than four classes. We think. The movie mostly centered on the late Jim Valvano, and a handful of the players from that '83 team. The movie did briefly cover Valvano's demise at NC State, when he was fired after the NCAA penalized the program for a lack of institutional control, which was prompted by the publication of "Personal Fouls".
No way was this film, which was made by ESPN, where Valvano became such a popular figure, going to trash the memory of this man. Since his death, and specifically his "Don't give up" speech and the V Foundation's success at raising millions for cancer research, we have forgotten he was a human being with flaws. As is often the case, in death Valvano has become a deity among college basketball coaches.
In the mid '80s, author Peter Golenbock wanted to write a book about the late Len Bias and interviewed his former Maryland coach, Lefty Driesell. Instead of writing that book, he was handed some evidence that suggested Valvano's program was not so clean and he pursued that project instead.
What he wrote changed NC State, and Valvano.
"My God - do you know how long ago that was?" Golenbock said when I reached him on the phone on Monday.
Shortly after the book was published, the chancellor of NC State resigned. Eventually, the NCAA knocked on the door and that was it. As charming as Valvano could be, he was eventually fired as the head coach and athletic director.
I read that book as a teenager, and it was the first time I realized just how corrupt big-time college athletics really are, and how much power a money-hungry college coach can wield in an effort to keep people buying tickets and making donations.
Golenbock did not want to trash Valvano's reputation today, and specifically mentioned the millions his foundation has raised.
He also said he has zero regret about the book, and stands by every single sentence in its pages.
"What I learned from that was that big money had corrupted college sports entirely," Golenbock said. "There were two groups of people who listened to the book's message - the people in power, who did everything to discredit me. I got death threats. The others were the educators who were grateful for what I wrote. ... I have no regrets at all. I'm sorry it wasn't taken more seriously by more people."
A great deal of the damning accusations came from a student manager, who said Valvano was going to let him walk on to be a player but essentially turned him into his own personal gopher. The other claims came from former players who had transferred out, but did not want to put their names on the most damning material.
"They thought it was going to hurt their chances at the NBA; that Valvano will make sure they didn't get into the pros," Golenbock said. "What I wanted to say was, 'You barely made it in college, why do you think you are going to make it in the pros?' As a journalist, I had to respect their wishes, even though I knew I was going to take a lot of heat for it. It wasn't terribly difficult to find those people, though. It was the guys who had left."
Golenbock said he has not watched the documentary, which includes some of fallout of the book's release. It also includes an interview with the NCAA investigator who claimed most of what they found were players selling tickets and shoes, and none of the other things which the book portrayed - a program that brazenly skirted academics to get players.
"Let me tell you - those (blanking-blankers) didn't interview a single player I talked to," Golenbock said.
NC State received two years probation in December of 1989.
When the book was released, Golenbock received a lot of threats from NC State alums and there was conisderable outrage that never could such things occur under Jim Valvano at NC State.
"I think the difference is today is that the same things go on and nobody cares and it's the way it is," Golenbock said. "(To find things that go on inside programs today) you have to find someone that is on the inside who is willing to talk, and that is damn hard."
What Golenbock discovered is that what Valvano was really good at was PR, and making money.
"Valvano was not about basketball. He was about making money and he made a ton of it," Golenbock said. "What is so beautiful about this guy is after he is fired, the people at ESPN saw that this is the greatest PR guy in the world and they hired him to be their No. 1 basketball guy. He was fabulous. He could go on press row and talk about how important an education was, and none of his players graduated."
Today, Golenbock resides in Florida and remains an active writer and also teaches at the University of South Florida.
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