Amato feeling the heat for Wolfpack's struggles

The coach in the shiny red high-tops and white, plastic wraparound shades isn't afraid of drawing attention to himself.

Good thing, too, because all eyes are on Chuck Amato these days at North Carolina State.

Hired away from his job as linebackers coach at Florida State a few days after the Seminoles defeated Virginia Tech to complete a perfect season and win the 1999 national title, Amato was supposed to bring some of that swagger to Raleigh, where the Wolfpack was hungry to move up in the league's football hierarchy.

Now in his sixth season, and with nothing better than some fourth-place finishes in the ACC to show for it, the swagger is mostly Amato's, and getting more difficult to justify. After a second consecutive loss to neighborhood rival North Carolina, (the Tar Heels are only 2-2, but do have a popular and likable coach in John Bunting) Amato is being put on the defensive about the direction his program is taking.

Entering Thursday night's game at Georgia Tech, Amato is 20-22 against ACC competition, comparable to the 26-30 mark that helped get former coach Mike O'Cain fired after his seventh season.

One big difference is the enormous investment being made in the football program at NC State that coincided with and continued after Amato's arrival. With it has come increased expectations for boosters who are footing much of the bill, while getting little return on the investment, save for a Gator Bowl victory over Notre Dame in 2002 which capped an 11-3 season and a final No. 12 ranking.

Since then, the Pack has lost 11 of 18 in the conference, while also stumbling to a 5-6 record and eighth-place finish in the ACC a year ago.

This season began, once more, with high expectations. The bulk of a defense that led the nation a year ago in fewest yards allowed returned, along with a more experienced quarterback in Jay Davis and a healthy offensive line.

Amato, pointing to his team's near-upset of Virginia Tech in the season opener, remains defiant as he prepared for the Yellow Jackets. He said he's not going to let outside perceptions that the program is in trouble affect his players, or himself.

"They know they played the No. 3 team in America in this stadium shoe to shoe,'' Amato said.

"They know we're so close, but we're not playing horseshoes. They also know we've got to win a football game … and they know we're a dadgone good football team. I wonder if Lloyd Carr is getting that question asked of him up there at Michigan?"

Probably not. But, then, Carr has won five Big Ten titles, including the last two. And he doesn't wear red shoes.

And Carr doesn't pain himself to incite the media, as Amato appears to do.

Even when the Wolfpack appeared to be ready to soar under Amato, who won two ACC titles as a wrestler at NC State in the mid-1960s, he constantly engaged in petty diatribes against the local writers, lashing out in his belief that basketball received preferential treatment and coverage.

Now that the fan base is growing impatient, Amato isn't going to find many in the media willing to stand up for him and argue his case. In fact, the opposite may be true. The Raleigh News and Observer, on the front page of its Web site, features an animated cartoon entitled "Chuck Dynamite'' that depicts Amato as a dim-witted bully, and furthers the perception of the man as a caricature of himself.

Amato isn't budging.

"When adversity strikes, you can do one of two things with your jaw: You can sag 'em and frown or you can smile and stick your chest out and you can walk around like you know you're a winner," he said.

Amato, commonly referred to as "Coach Chest'' during his days at Florida State, has that part down pat.

The part about knowing you're a winner? There's still time, starting with Georgia Tech, which owns four consecutive victories over NC State. But Amato has got some convincing to do these days in Raleigh.

His wardrobe, it seems, isn't the only thing in need of an extreme makeover.

Doug Carlson covers the ACC for the Tampa Tribune. He can be contacted at dcarlsonespn@hotmail.com.