For the Love of the Game: Former North Carolina State Football Coach Speaks of Lou Holtz, Bobby Bowden, Philip Rivers and Russell Wilson
Chuck Amato discusses the game of football and his Catholic faith.
“Amato” is the Italian word for “beloved.” In the case of former North Carolina State head football coach Chuck Amato, his last name can be used to describe his love of the game.
Born in Easton, Pennsylvania, Amato was part of both the football and wrestling teams at North Carolina State in the 1960s. As a linebacker, he helped the Wolfpack win the ACC Championship in 1965, and, as a wrestler, he won two individual ACC titles, one in 1966 and the other in 1968.
Amato worked for two of the most successful coaches in college football history: Lou Holtz and Bobby Bowden. In his first stint at Florida State from 1982 to 1999 as a defensive line coach and then associate head coach, he helped Bowden to 15 bowl wins, including two national championships.
Amato, who turned 75 on June 26, spoke of his love for the game of football and for his Catholic faith, in anticipation of the 2021 season opening for North Carolina State on Sept. 2 against the University of South Florida.
How did you get into coaching?
Coaching is the next-best thing to playing, so when my playing days ended in the late ’60s, I transitioned quickly into coaching. I went back to Easton High School as an assistant, and then it was back to NC State for graduate studies and assistant coaching for almost a decade.
That stint was partially under Lou Holtz. What do you remember about him?
I was driving Lou somewhere, and, being very goal-oriented, he asked what my goals were. I said, very generically, that I’d like to continue as a graduate assistant, then become an assistant coach, then a defensive coordinator, and then a head coach.
After my basic answer, I asked Lou what his goals were. Without hesitation, he responded that he wanted to get a 10-year contract in which he’d be paid $1 million per year. Then he’d work very hard the first year and get fired. In other words, he wanted a nine-year vacation in which he’d be paid $9 million.
Lou had a great sense of humor, but an even greater sense of success. He is one of the winningest coaches in college football history, so he didn’t have much time to rest, like he joked about wanting.
You must have learned a lot from Lou.
I did. He was focused, upbeat, persevering and team-oriented. One of the things I remember him saying often was “What are you doing now?” In other words, you can complain about a bad call or a fumble or whatever, but the important thing is not what just happened, it’s what you’re doing about it now. Now is the only time you can do something, so do something good.
Bobby Bowden, who had even more wins than Lou, taught me a lot, as well. Even though he didn’t have tons of plays for the offense to run, he could surprise people with what he did have. The defenses weren’t sure what would be coming their way. Despite the element of surprise, Bobby was all about consistency, which was reflected in his 377 career wins.
Something else Bobby and Lou helped me to understand was that there’s a difference between hearing and listening. You can have good hearing, but not internalize what is heard. The key to communicating well with a team is to express things in a way that will encourage them to actually listen.
Much has been made of Florida State’s success, but when you were the head coach at NC State, you signed two of the best QBs ever.
I think one of the reasons North Carolina State signed Philip Rivers and Russell Wilson is that I actually enjoyed recruiting. Most head coaches hate recruiting, but I genuinely liked to travel around and meet people.
As much as I enjoyed recruiting, I have not always used my brain when doing it. With Philip, I just assumed he was a Baptist or other sort of Protestant, since he was from northern Alabama. We were able to sign him anyhow, but it probably would have been even easier if I had known he was Catholic beforehand.
Another time I didn’t use my brain — or, I should say, I didn’t need to use my brain — was when recruiting Mike Shula. On the way to Don Shula’s house, I thought to myself, “What on earth am I going to impress him with?” I couldn’t do much in that category, but I got to listen to what he and Mike had to say.
Mike ended up at Alabama, but the most important thing was the Catholicism of the Shulas. I got to see the church that Don would attend daily Mass in, and it became clearer to me that life doesn’t have to be a choice between success and faith.
You weren’t able to stick around for Russell’s college career, but what were the other reasons you were able to sign Philip?
At NC State in 2006, we went 3-9, and I guess you could say we had a personality surplus in the athletic department, so I was shown the door. Then I went back to Florida State for the last three seasons of Bobby Bowden’s career, while Russell was playing at NC State.
On the question about Philip, though, there weren’t too many schools going after him. One wanted him as a safety, another as a tight end. This is the guy who ended his Division I career in 2003 with the second-most passing yards and then ended his NFL career with the fifth-most passing yards ever. He’s ahead of Aaron Rodgers, Dan Marino, John Elway, Drew Bledsoe, Joe Montana and others, yet most coaches didn’t think he could play QB.
In defense of those other coaches, Philip’s throwing motion was very unusual. When Norm Chow [former NC State offensive coordinator and QB coach] and I were first watching Philip throw, we had to laugh to keep from crying. It was the most unorthodox throwing motion we had ever seen.
We showed some tape to Mike Holmgren, who was the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks at the time. He watched and, despite acknowledging the throwing motion as being very strange, said to Norm not to change a thing.
The rest is history.
And it really didn’t take long for that history to start. On the first day of practice, Philip was our third-stringer. On the second day of practice, he was our second-stringer. On the third day of practice, he was our first-stringer, and the other two QBs left the school.
When did you learn that Philip is Catholic?
It was a holy day of obligation — probably the Assumption in August of 2000 — and Philip asked if he could go to Mass with me. He had heard about or seen me going to Mass, so we went together for the Assumption. It was kind of ironic, since I had made the assumption that he was not Catholic — although the word Assumption is meant in a different way for the holy day.
Anyhow, it was great to be able to attend Mass, then, after that with my QB. Football can bring people together, but the Church can do that in a more profound way.
I told my wife, Peggy, before we were married in 1974 that my last name meant “beloved” in Italian and that my mother’s maiden name, which was Amore, meant “love” in Italian. Considering that, I told Peggy that if she were to marry me, her life would be filled with love.
Some people might say I was full of something else, but at least my example didn’t prevent Peggy from becoming Catholic. She converted about seven years after we were married — when I was coaching at the University of Arizona.
Since most student-athletes already have a full schedule, were you worried that Philip getting married in college would distract from football?
Philip, who was only about 19 at the time, came to my office and asked if it would be okay for him to get married. I was fine with that, but before I let on, I asked what he would do if I said “No.” There was a dramatic pause, and I could see the sweat developing on his forehead.
Finally, Philip broke the tension and said something that really surprised me but which shows how much class he has. He indicated that if I said “No,” then he would not get married. He had committed to the team, and if I didn’t think marrying would allow him to give his best to football, then he would wait to get married.
Well, I let him off the hook. I told him it would be fine with me if he got married. As everyone knows now, that was a very productive decision — not only from a football standpoint, but from a family one. Philip threw for many yards, and, along the way, he has had, what, nine children?
Really, if you make it a combined average of yardage and children, I’m sure Philip is the most productive QB in the history of football — at least when you’re talking about one woman involved.
Kellen Clemens has said that even when Philip increases the volume of his voice, he does not venture into vulgarity, a problem in sports.
Philip has been known to yell a time or two, but he doesn’t actually say anything bad. I can attest to the same thing Kellen did: In my four years with Philip, I never once heard a bad word issue forth from his mouth.
The same can be said of Gerry Faust. When I was coaching at [the University of] Akron from 2012 to 2017, we would meet every Thursday for Italian food. He was delightful to talk with — not just about football, but life in general.
I once asked Gerry what he did as he drove to various speaking engagements around Ohio. Rather than listen to the radio, he told me he would pray the Rosary in the car.
That can be done, even without a full set of rosary beads in hand. The prayers can be counted mentally, and a recording can even lead the way. That’s what I’ve recently been able to do with the help of Vin Scully. He leads the Rosary on a CD album from Catholic Athletes for Christ.
Anyhow, similar to Philip, I never heard Gerry say anything bad. If only I had that same discipline when I was coaching.
You had trouble with foul language?
I’ll answer that with a long-winded account of language in my family. …
My grandfather was not a tall man, but he was a strong man. He was only about 5 feet six inches, but he was physically powerful because of his work on the farm. His fingers were so thick that if he were to wear a ring, it would probably be size 23.
Anyhow, he was from Sicily, so he would try to teach me some Italian. I was slow on the uptake as a little kid, so didn’t pick up much of the language. My grandfather said, “You dummy, you can’t learn Italian.” I responded with the simple indignation of a 5-year-old by blurting out: “You dummy.”
Well, before I knew it, the back of my grandfather’s hand was on my face, and then the back of my head was on the floor. That’s harsh to us now, but it was characteristic of that generation (which took very seriously how the Fourth Commandment applied even to grandparents), and it was enough for me to keep my mouth disciplined in the house from then on.
My twin daughters never heard me say a bad word, but when they visited once on the practice field, I realized that I needed to curb my tongue there, too. Maybe if I had someone smack me around on the football field, like my grandfather did in the house that day, I would have spoken better there, too.
God might have been the one “smacking you around” when you were diagnosed with throat cancer in 2009.
That’s a good way to look at it. He gave me the gift of speech and might have been telling me emphatically to use that gift better. He can give and take away as he pleases.
Despite the medical treatments that followed my diagnosis of cancer, I found that the best treatment was receiving Holy Communion. Jesus is the best remedy for any problem, even if it’s physical, and we have Jesus in a most special way in the Eucharist.
I know, too, that before sacramentally receiving Jesus, we have to confess any mortal sins we may have committed. Some people might wonder why they should go to confession if they’ve used bad language — or done something else bad — and might be likely to go out and do it again.
That question — and many other common ones — is answered in a booklet called Confession: A Little Guide for the Reluctant from TAN Books. Patrick O’Hearn, the new editor at TAN, sent it to me, along with some other booklets that TAN produces.
One of the benefits of confession is that we’re given the ability to overcome the temptations to the sins we have confessed. Who knows, maybe someone with a particularly bad mouth might develop a particularly good mouth.
Reciting the Psalms is a way to transition to good language. They have some pretty intense complaints and worries expressed, but they end up praising God. Despite all the troubles of life, God is always there to lead us to victory over sin and death.
I heard you met Patrick O’Hearn once at the new Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Yes, that’s a big, new cathedral shaped like a cross. It’s great to see something like that built these days. It’s a continuation of older church architecture rather than making up a different style. The one thing I’d add, though, is a little more color on the inside.
Maybe like the ceiling of St. Alphonsus Church in Chicago, or the ceiling of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Peoria, Illinois, both done by Daprato Rigali Studios.
Sounds like my kind of thing: colorful art done by Italians. That’s what Italian churches are known for: using every color to convey the importance of the life of Christ and the development of his Church in the lives of his saints.
Catholics don’t just see the natural world as it is; they see it in terms of being redeemed and transformed. Building beautiful churches is an obvious example, but I’ll give you a less obvious one.
My grandfather would take olive pits and place them in a vice, shaving them down flat on the sides. Then he’d take a really fine drill and make a hole through the pit. This is how he prepped the pits for cords to go through them, and then made complete sets of rosary beads.
I cherish those rosaries, which are currently hanging on the crucifix in my bedroom. The crucifix is another example of taking materials and transforming them. Before, it was just wood and metal, but now it reminds us of the sacrifice of our Redeemer.
Jesus himself is the Divine Artist, since he took the “raw material” of humanity and sanctified it in his divinity. You can admire other men for various reasons, but if you really want a role model, Jesus Christ is the prime Person to look at.
Do you have any advice for Philip as he starts his coaching career at St. Michael Catholic High School in Fairhope, Alabama?
Before Philip got to NC State, he learned a lot from his father, Mike, who was his coach in high school. Even before high school, Philip would roam the sidelines of his father’s games, taking notes on what to do in certain situations.
Philip enjoys the challenge of figuring out defenses and moving the ball past them, but I think the real reason he has excelled in football for so long is his love, not just for the game, but for his father. It’s a rarity for a top player like Philip to get into head coaching immediately after his playing days are over, so it shows how deep his love, not only of the game, but of his father, is.
Boys see in their fathers their own future, and if that looks good to them, they follow along with confidence — especially if the women in their lives are encouraging, too. That’s the route Philip took while playing, and I think it will be the one he takes while coaching.
It’s also the route of Russell Wilson, even though his father died over 10 years ago. I think there’s still a strong father-son connection, and Russell is very smart, like Philip. They share the same mindset, which can be summed up in the phrase “We’re going to win.” No matter how short Russell is or how goofy Philip’s throw is, they still press forward and get things done.
While I can’t offer new advice to Philip, I will offer a prayer that is especially suited for him and myself, since we share the same middle name of Michael: “St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle …”
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.
His book Fit for Heaven (Dynamic Catholic, 2015)
contains numerous Catholic sports interviews,
most of which have appeared in the Register.
His latest book is Apostolic Athletes.