RALEIGH, N.C. – The NC State family suffered a loss last night, as legendary former Wolfpack baseball head coach and assistant basketball coach Sam Esposito passed away. He was 86.
Esposito served as the baseball coach for 21 years, leading NC State to 513 wins during his tenure – the most by any coach in Wolfpack history at the time of his retirement. He was also an assistant coach with the NC State basketball program for 12 years, helping Norm Sloan lead the Pack to the National Championship in 1974 and establish the Wolfpack as a national powerhouse.
“Coach Esposito was the Godfather of NC State Athletics,” said NC State baseball head coach Elliott Avent. “He was at the root of much of the athletics department’s success stories during the ’70s and ’80s. Almost every morning at around 5:30, coaches would gather in Coach Esposito’s office for counsel and advice.
“He and Coach (Jim) Valvano were extremely close and Coach V would tell you that a lot of the success he had here was because of the advice from Coach Esposito. He had a profound impact on all of the coaches and players from Monte Towe, Tommy Burleson, David Thompson, Ray Tanner, Tim Stoddard, Eddie Biedenbach, Chuck Amato, George Tarantini to Bob Guzzo. We owe a lot of gratitude and thanks to Coach Esposito because he was largely responsible for our success.”
Esposito guided the baseball team to its first appearance in the College World Series in 1968. He also led the Wolfpack to four ACC Championships, including the program’s first in 1968.
Under his direction, 69 players earned All-ACC honors and seven players were named All-American. Esposito also coached 12 future major leaguers, four of whom played for at least a decade in the big leagues.
Esposito’s career was more than individual achievements, however. More than anything, he lifted NC State baseball into the national spotlight and made the Wolfpack a national power in baseball for the first time. More importantly, he had a lasting, often lifelong, impact on his players.
“Coach Esposito was my teacher of life,” said South Carolina Director of Athletics Ray Tanner, who played four years (1977-80) for Esposito and was his assistant coach for seven more before taking over the program upon Esposito’s retirement in the summer of 1987. “Baseball was a part, but my journey through life always involved his touch. I never made an important decision unless he gave me guidance. From my first day as a freshman and throughout my professional life, he was my second father. The greatest coach ever–R.I.P.”
“He did so many good things for this university,” said former NC State football head coach Chuck Amato. “He was a great baseball coach and brought the program from mediocrity to what it is today. He was also a great basketball coach and a phenomenal recruiter, bringing in Monte Towe and several other great players helping them win a National Championship. On top of all that, he was a funny man that enjoyed life and we’re going to miss him. It’s a sad day; it’s a very, very sad day.”
The Pack went 11-11 in Esposito’s first year on the job, and has had nothing but winning seasons since. His second team went 25-9, won the ACC championship (which was decided based on standings) and finished third at the 1968 College World Series. He guided the Wolfpack to the first three ACC Tournament championships in 1973, ’74 and ’75.
He became the first coach in school history to win 30 games in a season when his 1981 team went 33-12. Three of his last four teams won 30 games or more, including a 39-16 mark in 1987. His last four teams compiled a .711 winning percentage (135-55).
For 12 years, Esposito worked as the baseball head coach and an assistant basketball coach, helping Sloan establish NC State as a national powerhouse. The Wolfpack won three ACC basketball championships from 1970-74. In 1973-74, Esposito won the national title ring he missed in 1953 at Indiana, helping coach the Wolfpack to a 30-1 record and the 1974 NCAA title.
Following the 1977-78 basketball season, Esposito left Sloan’s staff and began coaching baseball full-time. In the ensuing years, he continued to have a marked effect on both the program and on his players. In his last 10 years on the job (1978-87), Esposito’s teams won at a .677 clip (283-135), including a 32-8 mark in 1984, 35-15 in 1986, and 39-16 in 1987.
In those final 10 years, Esposito coached 22 first-team all-conference players and three All-Americans. He also coached nine future major league players, including Doug Strange, now a special assistant to Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Neal Huntington. Strange played for Esposito from 1983-85, then went on to play 10 seasons in the major leagues with the Tigers, Cubs, Rangers, Mariners, Expos and Pirates.
His son Sammy lettered as a catcher at NC State from 1999-2002.
Reflections from Former Players and Colleagues…
Legendary former NC State Wrestling Coach
“I’m very saddened to hear of Sam’s passing. I was his officemate and I thought an awful lot of him. He helped me a great deal when I first got here and I’m heartbroken.”
DOUG STRANGE (1983-85)
Long-time Major League Baseball Player, In his eighth year as director of player personnel for the Pittsburgh Pirates
“I’m saddened to hear about the loss of Coach Esposito. I have so many memories about him and our teams. Some are funny, some are eye-opening and most all are very meaningful. I would not be where I am today without Coach Esposito recruiting me to come to NC State. I won’t forget the impact he had on me personally, so it’s a sad day.”
Three-time MLB All-Star Pitcher, Broadcaster with MLB Network since 2009
“Sam Esposito was the most influential coach in my baseball career. Leader of men, knew when to slap you on the back and also when to give you an earful. He was passionate about doing things the right way. I can still hear him saying, “Geez, Danny, just throw strikes.”
TIM STODDARD (1972-75)
Current assistant coach at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, after 22 years at Northwestern University, one of two people in the history of American sports to win an NCAA basketball championship (1974) and a World Series championship (1983 with the Baltimore Orioles)
“Coach Esposito was the most influential man in both my basketball and (most especially) my baseball career. He really helped keep me focused on the now in sports and the things that you can control, not the thing that you had no control over. He made sure that I was getting baseball in during that season and basketball in during that season, not cheating one to get a step ahead of the other. I give him the credit for me accomplishing the things in baseball that I was fortunate enough to achieve.”
MONTE TOWE (1972-75)
Member of the 1974 men’s basketball National Championship Team, NC State assistant coach from 1978-80, 2006-10
“He was a tremendous friend, a tremendous coach and a tremendous person and we will all miss him. All of us that had the good fortune of playing for him or being around him are blessed because of that.”
TRACY WOODSON (1982-84)
Head Baseball Coach at the University of Richmond, Member of the 1988 Los Angeles Dodgers World Series Championship team
“I feel that everything I earned in my baseball career I owe a part of that to Coach Esposito. He handed out a lot of tough love but what I learned in my three years at State will never be forgotten. Our one-on-one conversations I have never taken for granted.”
MIKE CALDWELL (1968-71)
Freshman star of the 1968 CWS team and 1970 ACC Player of the Year, Long-time MLB pitcher who finished second in 1978 Cy Young Award race to NYY’s Ron Guidry
“Sam came in and showed the team how to approach the game like a professional. He kept the workouts simple and we played the game without a lot of trick plays. His game plan was 1, Catch the ball, 2, throw the ball, 3, hit the ball. He was simply a ‘no nonsense’ guy that had a great athletic life and was willing to share some of it with his players. He will be missed by all that played for him.”
BRIAN BARK (1987-90)
Former MLB Pitcher with the Boston Red Sox, Four-time All-ACC Selection
“It was truly and honor to play for Coach Esposito and represent the NC State baseball program, which he invested so much of his life to,” said Brian Bark. “He knew the perfect balance between tough love and encouragement to get the most out of all his players.”