The Road to Madness: How the 1973-1974 Season—and the NC State Wolfpack—Transformed College Basketball

In an era when only one team per conference could compete, the dramatic defeat of coach John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins by the North Carolina State Wolfpack ended a decade of the Bruins’ dominance, fueled unprecedented national attention, and prompted the NCAA to expand the tournament field to a wider range of teams. 

The following is an excerpt from The Road to Madness: How the 1973-1974 Season Transformed College Basketball by J. Samuel Walker and Randy Roberts, originally published in 2016, and now available in paperback from your favorite bookseller. Take 30% off purchasing direct during our American History Sale using promo code 01UNCP30.


The ACC team experts viewed as the best bet to end the conference’s sixteen-year drought in winning a national championship was the Wolfpack of North Carolina State, which placed second in the wire service polls and in other preseason ratings. In the AP survey, two of the participating forty-one writers and broadcasters denied UCLA a unanimous number-one rank by voting for NC State instead. Under the guidance of head coach Norm Sloan, NC State had gone undefeated the previous season while winning the ACC championship. But because it was on probation for recruiting violations, it had been ineligible to play for the national title in the NCAA tournament.

Sloan had taken over at NC State in 1966 after highly successful tenures in every college coaching job he had held. A native of Indiana, he had played college basketball at NC State under legendary coach Everett Case. He graduated in 1951 and found a job as head coach of basketball and golf and assistant football coach at tiny Presbyterian College in South Carolina. Five years later, he became head basketball coach at The Citadel, a military school with requirements that made recruiting especially difficult. In four seasons, his teams went 57–38, and he was named Southern Conference Coach of the Year. His record at The Citadel led to an offer from the University of Florida, where he quickly turned around a floundering program. In six years, he won eighty-five games against sixty-three losses and earned recognition as Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year. When NC State hired him to replace Press Maravich in May 1966, Sloan said that going back to his alma mater was “something I’ve always dreamed about.”

The Road to Madness: How the 1973-1974 Season Transformed College Basketball
By J. Samuel Walker, Randy Roberts
book cover image, photo of UCLA playing NC State basketball teams

Sloan began his career at NC State with a lineup that was decimated by graduations and injuries and that finished the season in last place in the ACC. But he soon led his teams back to the winning ways that were a well-established tradition at the university. In the semifinals of the ACC tournament in 1968, he slowed the pace against a Duke squad that was ranked sixth in the country and pulled off an improbable 12–10 victory. The press derided the contest as “The Refrigerator Bowl,” but Sloan was unapologetic. “I’m hired to try to win,” he told reporters. Two years later, he again used a slowdown strategy in a matchup against powerful South Carolina. NC State won the game and the ACC championship, and Sloan was named the conference’s coach of the year. By that time, he had clearly made NC State a force to be reckoned with in the highly competitive environment of the ACC.

Sloan was perhaps best known to casual fans for the loud plaid blazers he wore at games and for his volatile temperament. The jackets were a temporary measure he adopted as a good-luck totem in 1973, but his displays of fury were a permanent fixture. Sloan had a notoriously short fuse, and when it detonated, he expressed his dissatisfaction in graphic terms to players, coaches, referees, his own bosses, and others. In one case, he challenged an NCAA official during a hearing on allegations of recruiting violations by saying that the tactics the organization used in its investigation were “despicable.” He then continued his protests in strong language that included “some profanity.” This was, Sloan later acknowledged, “an example of where I’ve made mistakes in my life because of my openly combative nature.” In a road game one of his Florida teams played against the University of Georgia, he erupted after unruly fans showered him “with cups and obscenities” as he left the court. The campus policeman assigned to protect him did nothing, and Sloan growled at him, “You’re a gutless little fucker, aren’t you?” Sloan called members of the press corps the “worm brigade” and detested the nickname they gave him, “Stormin’ Norman.” But he later admitted that his antics justified the label. “I’m an intense person and I guess it shows,” he said.

He had clearly made NC State a force to be reckoned with in the highly competitive environment of the ACC.

Although Sloan was renowned for his flashes of temper, his players and others close to him were well aware that his anger was usually short-lived. While he held lingering grudges against some administrators and rival coaches, particularly Dean Smith, he was more likely to quickly put his wrath behind him and move on. Eddie Biedenbach, an all-conference performer at NC State during the 1960s and an assistant coach on the 1973–74 team, recalled that Sloan “would chew you out and the next day everything’s fine.” More surprisingly, Sloan treated referees in much the same way. Hank Nichols, a highly regarded college official who was later elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame, commented: “Norman was such a volatile guy during a game. [But] from a referee’s standpoint, you could deal with him. You’d call your technical, he would take it, holler at you, and then go back to coaching.” Despite his reputation as a hothead, Sloan generally kept his composure during games. Monte Towe, who was a star player on the 1973–74 squad and subsequently an assistant coach with Sloan, explained that his mentor was “very emotional on the bench, but … in complete control of the game.” Towe added that “he had a great feel for the game, and that’s really what it’s all about.”