North Carolina State's basketball team had just completed its initial workouts under first-year coach Les Robinson and veteran guard Chris Corchiani was surrounded by a handful of reporters who had converged on Reynolds Coliseum to take a look at the Wolfpack.
The first couple of questions were the obligatory ``how are things going?' type, which Corchiani fielded and whipped back at the writers like a pass to the post.Then came the inevitable.
``How is it with Coach Valvano gone? Are things a lot different with Coach Robinson?'
Corchiani sighed a little and, as always, answered politely and insightfully.
``I stand by what I said,' the 6-foot senior began. ``I don't think Coach Valvano was treated fairly by the administration. It's not an open wound any more but it's definitely a scar. There's no reason to dwell on it. Coach Valvano was loyal to me and I have to be loyal to him.
``But it's been real enjoyable under Coach Robinson,' he said, his voice rising with a touch of excitement. ``It's been a smooth transition. It's enjoyable to go to practice. It hasn't been that way for a while. I feel rejuventated, like a freshman. I'm more excited about this year than I've ever been.'
If anyone had doubts about Robinson's ability to begin to make things right again at N.C. State after Valvano's scandal-riddled tenure and eventual dismissal, Corchiani erased them that afternoon. He had been one of Valvano's most vocal supporters. He had threatened to transfer but decided to stay.
And he obviously had been won over by Robinson, a likeable man who, like Valvano, loves to laugh and enjoys people.
Robinson, a 1965 N.C. State graduate, a part of the family, had been asked to come back and close the wounds. And it was evident from Corchiani's words that Robinson had gotten off to a good start.
But Robinson had begun to succeed mostly because he finally had the job that meant more to him than any other.
While he never dreamed openly about coaching at State, he knew that if the chance ever came, it would be hard to turn down.
``I've always wanted to coach at the highest level,' Robinson said. ``N.C. State is the highest level. But I learned a long time ago that you never set your sights to be the coach at a specific school.'
When he did get the call last April, it took him about two seconds to say yes.
But he came back with no illusions about the job being easy. He played at N.C. State and got his start as an assistant coach there. He cut his teeth on the intensity and the rivalries of ACC ball. Throughout his coaching stops since, he never lost the feel for what it takes to win in the ACC.
And he never lost his feel for his alma mater. Despite the poor academic and administrative policies under Valvano, the bad nationwide publicity, the agony of the last 18 months, Robinson never changed the way he felt about his school.
``I've never been ashamed to be a Wolfpacker,' he said. ``Never.'
Even during his days as a high school coach in Cedar Key, Fla., his struggles at The Citadel and the most recent building process at East Tennessee State University, Les Robinson's heart has never been far away from N.C. State.
When David Thompson, Tommy Burleson and Monte Towe led the Wolfpack past UCLA and Marquette to win the 1974 national championship, Robinson was there cheering for the red and white. The same was true in 1983, when Jim Valvano's modern-day Cinderella story ended in Albuquerque.
``I was very proud in Albuquerque, very proud in Greensboro,' Robinson said. ``State has always been a part of me. I boasted about it to a lot of my friends in the coaching business. I even reminded a few of them who've lost to State that they had their butts kicked by the Wolfpack.'
He's never been embarrassed by the program, not even with the circumstances that led to Valvano's ouster and his being hired to take over the program last spring.
He never read the book ``Personal Fouls,' an expose that focused on corruption in Valvano's program.
``I talked to some friends who read it,' Robinson said. ``I don't know what's in it and what's not. I don't want to waste my time with it. I felt bad for everybody involved. I felt sorry for Jim.'
That, he will tell you, is history, and ``it's just time to go on.'
He is not one to think that whatever rebuilding process is necessary is a major one. And it is not in his mind that there are hurdles too high to leap in Raleigh.
Because, considering where Robinson has been in his roundabout journey back to State, no problem is too tough to lick.
``I've spent my whole life with ups and downs,' Robinson said as he sat on a couch in his spacious office. A foot or so above his head was a picture of Everett Case, the coach who brought him to Raleigh. ``I've never been bothered by the ups and downs that much. That's the way life is. You just put yourself in a position to overcome them.'
Robinson grew up in St. Albans, W. Va., a community of 15,000 near the industrial center of Charleston. It was and is, he says, ``your average American town, a great place to grow up.'
Childhood was basically good to Robinson. His father and a goodly portion of his family worked in the chemical industry. DuPont, Monsanto, Union Carbide and other similar factories dominated the area near St. Albans.
Robinson's father and an uncle worked for Union Carbide, another uncle for Monsanto.
``I never thought about it much when I was growing up, but I can remember diving into a nearby river and climbing out with this blue stuff all over my body,' Robinson said, laughing. ``I never knew what it was.
``I used to joke that I couldn't major in textiles at N.C. State because I never took chemistry in high school. They didn't let us. They didn't want us to know what was in those rivers.'
But most of the time when his mother needed to find him, she'd look at the outdoor basketball courts near the bus station or in the National Guard Armory across the street.
Robinson honed his skills to the extent that he remembers being ``a pretty decent high school player.' He overcame a bout with meningitis prior to his senior year and played well enough to draw recruiting interest from West Virginia. But the Mountaineers offered only a one-year scholarship with no guarantee for more. N.C. State offered a four-year ride.
Somewhere between dips in the river, hoops at the Armory and N.C. State, Robinson decided he wanted to coach.
He was exposed to the game early by his father, who ran a summer tournament in the Armory. The list of players who showed up in St. Albans read like a Who's Who of college hoops in the 50s - Jerry West, Hot Rod Hundley, John Havlicek, Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor. Many of those players spent hours around the Robinson household talking basketball and shooting hoops at the backyard goal.
Robinson watched Cam Henderson's Marshall teams run the fast break. He marveled at West Virginia when coach Fred Schaus would turn West and Hundley loose.
``Coaches were always my role models,' Robinson said.
At State, Robinson worked his way up through the ranks. In the '60s, recruiting rules weren't what they are today. It wasn't unusual to have 20 players on scholarship. When Robinson got to Raleigh as a 17-year-old, he was one of 11 guards.
``I didn't kid myself,' Robinson said. ``I was probably number 11.'
But by his final season, Robinson had battled his way to number three behind Jon Speaks and Ken Rohloff.
``I guess Coach Case would have described me as tough and aggressive without a lot of finesse,' Robinson said. ``I was wild. When I played, you never knew what was going to happen. But I knew I wasn't supposed to shoot. I had that intelligence. I wanted to play and I knew if I shot it, I wouldn't. Coach kind of liked that.
``As a coach, I've found the same kind of players usually surface on your team and they're good to have around. I don't go out trying to recruit them, but they usually come along.'
And some of them generally wind up blowing whistles, drawing Xs and Os and beating the bushes for 17-year-old kids who can play the game.
When Case fell ill during the early stages of the '64-65 season, Press Maravich was elevated to head coach and Robinson became coach of the freshman team. He also recruited, scouted and called a few plays.
That situation existed for a couple of seasons and might have lasted longer. But the administration, seeing a good thing, didn't want to elevate Robinson to a full-time assistant's post. They could get the long hours and hard work for a graduate assistant's pay. But Robinson was married and needed more money.
One year after coaching at one of the top college programs in America and being part of an ACC championship team, he took the job at Cedar Key, a dot on the Florida map known for fishing, not basketball.
Robinson arrived at the Florida school the same day as Hurricane Alma. He survived that disaster and two years at a high school with 23 boys in grades 9-12. His record was 43-9 in two years and he helped the tiny community fall in love with the game.
While he found himself falling in love with Cedar Key, he knew he wanted to coach at a higher level and couldn't stay.
After another year as a graduate assistant, this time at Western Carolina, he spent 11 years as an assistant at The Citadel and five as its head coach, going against impossible odds, including trying to recruit at a military school in the post-Vietnam years.
Robinson found it difficult to leave the beauty of the South Carolina coast, but he understood he had done all he could at the military school.
Robinson took the job at East Tennessee, a situation described by some as a dead end. To Robinson, it was a program with potential. And he survived there despite running smack into an NCAA probation similar to what he faces at N.C. State. He turned ETSU into a winner. The players he left in Johnson City could elevate the Buccaneers to top 25 status this season.
There is a common thread at every stop for Robinson in which he has found adversity that hasn't been easy to overcome. And in every case, Robinson has won and learned.
``I love the route my career has taken,' Robinson said. ``I wouldn't trade it for anything. I think if I had it to do it over again, I'd take the job at Cedar Key. You learn so much about yourself and what it takes to be a coach.
``No matter where I've been, the jobs have been very fulfilling. I was happy at Cedar Key, The Citadel, East Tennessee. When I'm coaching, my heart beats the same way whether it's at Cedar Key or N.C. State.
``I've thought about what would have happened if I had stayed at N.C. State the first time. Who knows? I may have wound up the head coach earlier. But I learned there's more than one route to a destination.'
On that same, beautiful, October day when Corchiani fielded questions about the coming season, Robinson stood near a point on the Reynolds Coliseum floor where years earlier he had received one of the biggest scares of his life.
Everett Case, ill and dying, called his coaching staff together.
Just a couple of games into the season, Case was giving up coaching. His frail body couldn't stand it any longer. By April of the next year, just a few days after the Wolfpack won the ACC championship, he would be dead.
Robinson stood there on the hardwood, not knowing what to expect and not really believing what he was hearing. Just that quickly, he got his first promotion from freshman assistant to head freshman coach. He was, he said, ``scared to death.'
And now, Robinson said, he comes into his new job ``with eyes wide open,' wide open at the thought of building a program in the ACC.
When he was introduced as the Wolfpack's head coach last spring, Robinson compared it to a woman who wants to be Miss America - a dream.
And his had come true.
``There's no other job I'd rather have than this,' he said.