RALEIGH, NC Duke's campus is so artfully designed that it uses specific "Duke Stone" for its buildings. The heart of the University of North Carolina's lovely campus is the Old Well, which once served as the school's sole water source.
NC State, meanwhile, has a train track running through the middle of campus.
I learned this within minutes of arriving here for the latest stop on my March Madness tour of NCAA Tournament schools. I had just parked the car and was standing in front of old Reynolds Gymnasium when I heard the familiar noise of an approaching train. And when I turned around, sure enough, there was a train chugging through the center of the campus. The trains go by several times a day, and students who live in the dorms closest to the tracks say they can actually feel the building vibrate when one passes by at night.
And I thought my old college roommate snored loud.
Of the schools I've visited on this tournament tour, NC State generated the fewest invitations to host me. Most students apparently agree with the one who wrote, "You would have a great time here, but we probably won't get past the first round." Who could blame them for being pessimistic? The Wolfpack is a No. 10 seed and hadn't reached the Sweet 16 since 1989.
Funny thing, though. NC State beat NC-Charlotte in its first game, then upset defending national champ UConn to advance to the second week. And now, Raleigh fans are hopping aboard the NC State train. If the Wolfpack beats Wisconsin on Friday night, it sets up the possibility of consecutive games against hated rivals North Carolina and Duke to reach the title game.
|BACK TO SCHOOL|
Jim Caple is turning back the clock and living the college life during the NCAA Tournament:
This week: Tobacco Road|
Day 1: Love and hate on Chapel Hill
Day 2: Duke isn't just a four-letter word
Last week: University of Illinois
Of course, that's getting way ahead of ourselves. The Badgers are no easy opponent; and even if NC State beats them, few would give the Pack much chance against North Carolina or Duke. But that's all right. NC State is used to being ignored along Tobacco Road.
State is easily the largest of the three schools in the Triangle, but it never gets any respect. When I visited Chapel Hill and Duke, students at both schools belittled the university, retelling the old joke, "If you can't go to college, go to NC State," and telling me that the Wolfpack campus doesn't have much to offer.
This is exceptionally unfair. Granted, there are no chocolate fountains or hot air balloons on NC State's brick-lined campus. And its many brick buildings are not especially pretty. In fact, walking across campus, the thought that comes to mind is: "Wow, they must have gotten a really good deal on bricks."
But NC State has one of the nation's top engineering schools, with excellent math, science, textile and veterinary departments as well. And the students with whom I spent Thursday night are no dummies Alex Summe is studying nuclear engineering, while the engaging Dave Patterson is a sort of human Google search engine.
Those two are among the students I met when Kasey Butler invited me in for what proved to be a very enjoyable night at the Bragaw Hall dormitory. There were no vats of Everclear and dry ice, no beer bongs and no drinking games. Just a few drinks shared among friends while watching the tournament, followed by a late-night food run to CookOut. In other words, it was a typical college night for most people who actually manage to graduate. Which was fine by me. After all, I didn't feel much like celebrating after watching my alma mater, Washington, humbly lose to Louisville.
And anyway, after two weeks of this tour, I've about reached my beer pong limit.
Plus, a relatively quiet evening was pretty much a necessity, given the way this horrendous cold is stubbornly holding on.
(Let me digress briefly. The human body is capable of many stupendous functions; but for my money, the most amazing of all is the amount of snot it can produce when you have a bad cold. You blow the equivalent of a Big Gulp from the left nostril. You blow another Big Gulp from the right nostril. You go through half a box of tissues wiping everything away. And then five minutes later, you're clogged up again and have to repeat the whole process. I ask you where does all this stuff come from?)
Until I visited NC State, I had spent time only at schools with No. 1 seeds; and I found the students here to be realistic about their tournament chances. They feel confident going into tonight's game against Wisconsin, but they aren't especially hopeful about the prospects of facing hated North Carolina on Sunday with the Final Four on the line.
"But who would have thought Bucknell would win?" Butler said. "Who would have thought UW-Milwaukee would get this far?"
For that matter, who would have thought NC State could win in 1983 when the Pack went up against Houston's Akeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and the rest of Phi Slamma Jamma? I still remember the thrill of watching Lorenzo Charles sink the game-winning shot that sent coach Jim Valvano racing around the court looking for someone to hug. That victory was one of the great moments in tournament history, and it still holds such an emotional sway at NC State that Butler recently gave a speech about it for one of his classes and he hadn't even been born when the game was played.
So maybe it can happen again, especially the way Julius Hodge has been playing. The thing is, you never know if you believe hard enough.
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Which is why we finished up the night at around 2:30 by trekking to NC State's Free Expression Tunnel, a long underpass below the train tracks where students are allowed to spray-paint whatever graffiti they wish. Students have been doing this for so long that the layers of paint are spongy in places and can be peeled back in thick rolls. Among the graffiti still visible are several painted notices announcing a visit by former NC State great, David Thompson.
We added our own message late Thursday night. There, above all the political slogans and advertisements, we climbed on each others' shoulders (I hope Doug Stefanski's rotator still functions in the morning) and spray-painted our own manifesto high atop the tunnel for all to see:
"In Hodge We Trust."
My team got knocked out of the tournament on Thursday, but NC State still lives, at least for the moment; and there's no reason Hodge can't stay hot and the Wolfpack can't duplicate the magical 1983 season. So hurry aboard; there's still time to jump on this train and see how far it can go.
Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His first book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," was recently published by Plume. It can be ordered through his Web site, Jimcaple.com.