Wolfpack Great Dereck Whittenburg ’83 Continues to Build a Legacy
By Caroline Barnhill
For Dereck Whittenburg, there’s still something very special about March.
“If anything, my interest in March Madness has only increased over the years,” Whittenburg laughs. “My final season was such a memorable one. For 39 years now, someone has reminded me of that championship game nearly every day. And I’ll never get sick of talking about it.”
Whittenburg, the star guard of NC State’s 1982-1983 championship basketball team, remains one of the university’s most celebrated alumni. As for that one magical night in March, Whittenburg became known for his presence – and for his absence. His solid performance earned him the title of the game’s most valuable player. However, the unforgettable clip of Coach Jim Valvano running frantically around the court searching for his star player to hug might be just as iconic.
It’s a scene that’s shown year after year in March Madness compilation videos. And just like it never gets old to college basketball fans, it never gets old to Whittenburg either.
There is a large part of me that will always be tied to Jim and to NC State.
“Watching it still makes me emotional today,” Whittenburg says. “Jim Valvano wasn’t just my coach; he was my friend. We had a special relationship on and off the court. I’ve spent 29 years on the board of the V Foundation for Cancer Research and I was a pallbearer at his funeral. There is a large part of me that will always be tied to Jim and to NC State.”
After graduating from NC State’s Poole College of Management in 1983, Whittenburg spent nearly 25 years coaching college basketball at universities across the country – including three stints as an assistant coach at NC State. Over the years, he also served as a college basketball analyst for ESPN, an NBA scout for the Utah Jazz, and even as an executive producer for the Emmy-award winning ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Survive and Advance – highlighting his team’s ’83 championship season.
“Sometimes bad fortune becomes good fortune. After I was fired from my coaching position at Fordham University, I spent some time thinking about what I wanted to do next. Around that time, a documentary highlighting the University of Michigan’s Fab Five was running. So I talked to my friend, director Jonathan Hock, and decided it was time for our story [NC State’s ’82-’83 Championship Team] to be told,” Whittenburg remembers.
He pitched his idea to multiple networks – only to be turned down. Finally, Whittenburg’s persistence paid off. After initially passing on the documentary twice, ESPN gave it the green light. Survive and Advance debuted in March 2013 and millions of viewers around the world fell in love with the story of the “Cardiac Pack” all over again.
“I think what resonated with the audience was that we were just a group of ordinary guys who achieved something greater than ourselves – despite the odds,” Whittenburg says. “It gave people hope. I received so many letters after the film debuted about how people found strength in watching us persist through the struggle. Everyone, in their own way, can connect with that.”
And of all the roles he’s held – player, coach, producer – it’s the most recent one that may be nearest and dearest to his heart. In 2015, Whittenburg and his wife, Jacqueline, launched the Dereck Whittenburg Foundation, which provides scholarship funds to college juniors and seniors facing financial hardship.
I knew I wanted to play basketball, but more importantly, I wanted to graduate.
“I’m a first-generation college graduate and the first person in my family to receive a scholarship to a major university. I knew I wanted to play basketball, but more importantly, I wanted to graduate,” Whittenburg says. “I’ve always believed education is the key to success in life.”
For Whittenburg, his desire to see others succeed, coupled with his wife’s deep love for people, made their foundation a perfect fit to give back.
And give back they have. To date, the Dereck Whittenburg Foundation has given out more than 160 scholarships totaling more than $500,000 to students at colleges and universities, including NC State, across the Triangle. Whittenburg hopes that when the foundation celebrates its 10-year anniversary in 2025, they’ll be able to announce they’ve surpassed the 200 scholarships and $1 million mark.
Your legacy is defined by how many people you’ve helped along the way and how you’ve used your success to enable someone else’s success.
“It took me 61 years to find my calling – but this is my calling. To empower people in their journey going forward,” he says. “Your legacy is defined by how many people you’ve helped along the way and how you’ve used your success to enable someone else’s success.”
As for Whittenburg’s legacy – a national championship is great. But helping hundreds of individuals cross the finish line and earn their degree? That’s something to truly celebrate.