Amato has been battling Miami for years

Originally Published: October 21, 2004
By Doug Carlson | Special to

During 18 seasons as a defensive assistant at Florida State, Chuck Amato earned the nickname "Coach Chest" for the 48-inch upper torso that appeared to arrive in team meetings 10 minutes before he did.

He wore his title -- and his chest -- proudly, with the matching personality of a man who wanted to be heard. Amato left the cerebral approach to other members of the staff, choosing to be the one ready to jump into the fight and show first-hand how he wanted the job done.

Five seasons since leaving to coach his alma mater, Amato is as eager as ever. Maybe never as much as this week, when his North Carolina State team plays Miami at home with a chance to make a mess out of the Atlantic Coast Conference standings.

Two decades spent recruiting in South Florida and the lessons learned at Florida State give Amato a unique perspective on Miami football. So what advice is he giving his players about the intimidation factor Miami so often uses to its advantage?

"'I tell 'em, 'I'll fight 'em,'" Amato joked.

Actually, he already has been fighting them. Amato is going deep into Miami recruiting territory, where he has maintained relationships built with South Florida high school coaches during his time at FSU. The objective, at first, was to elevate North Carolina State's team speed to a point where the Wolfpack could compete with ACC bully Florida State.

After losing to the Seminoles by 44 points in 2000 in his first season at NC State, Amato guided the unranked Wolfpack to a 14-point victory over 10th-ranked FSU in Tallahassee the following year. It's FSU's only ACC loss at home in 51 games.

Now along comes Miami, and Amato's best defense may be not just the Wolfpack defense that has learned to fly to the football and currently leads the nation in fewest yards allowed (203.1 a game), but a roster with 28 Floridians. Sixteen of them played high school ball in South Florida, nine of those with teammates who currently play at Miami.

If familiarity breeds respect, North Carolina State's hope is that it also shrinks it to bite-size portions.

"That whole Miami Hurricane mystique? That, 'Aw, man, the Miami Hurricanes?' I don't think we're going to look at it like that," said Wolfpack receiver Tramain Hall, a junior from Deerfield Beach, Fla. "We're going to look at it as playing that guy we played against in high school."

In addition to a confidence-stoking victory on par with the two over Florida State, a win on Saturday night would elevate North Carolina State into a first-place tie in the ACC standings with Miami, Virginia Tech and, most likely, Florida State and Virginia.

It also would further convince Amato to keep spending the vast majority of his out-of-state recruiting budget on that portion of Florida former Hurricanes coach Howard Schnellenberger referred to as "the state of Miami."

Amato went after South Florida's best when he was at Florida State, then set his sights on the ones not being offered by Miami after he first got to Raleigh. He's now back to sticking his chest out and going after the same players Miami seeks.

The approach worked in August when Miami signee Bobby Washington's admission to the school was delayed over a question about his college entrance exam score. Washington chose not to wait, instead getting a release and signing with NC State, where he could play a key role at tailback Saturday night if starter T.A. McLendon continues to have hamstring problems.

Washington is touted as one of the school's top recruits in this year's Miami football media guide (which had already been printed) as having "all the skills to become a top collegiate running back."

Amato said he realized he could be missing opportunities by not going head-to-head with Miami in recruiting season. "If we're going to play them, the worst that a young man can say is 'no,'" Amato said. "If he doesn't have the opportunity to say no, he can never say 'yes.'"

Amato has maintained other ties in Florida, as well, speaking to his former boss at Florida State at least once a week, according to Bobby Bowden, who will be openly pulling for his former assistant this weekend.

"You can bet your life with all the Florida kids he's got on his team he'll have 'em ready to play," Bowden said. "But when you play Miami it's do you have good enough material to beat them?"

Coach Chest doesn't have the answer to that question yet, just the master plan. It has worked against Florida State and, from the sound of it, appears to have his players in the proper frame of mind going into the biggest game of the season

Said Hall: "Our speed is just as good as their speed. Our players are just as good as their players."

Doug Carlson covers the ACC for the Tampa Tribune.