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Herb Sendek Love

By Al Featherston

Do you want to make an N.C. State fan REALLY mad?

Just bring up Herb Sendek and point out how much better off the Wolfpack was under their former coach than they are today.

I've been amazed how many national broadcasters have used Sendek like a stick to poke at the Wolfpack Nation. It comes up every time N.C. State is on national TV. During ESPN's telecast of the State-UNC game in Chapel Hill, the network flashed a graphic comparing Herb Sendek's last five years at N.C. State with Sidney Lowe's first five years at State, along with some misguided commentary by Mike Patrick suggesting that Sendek was forced out at State to make room for the more popular Lowe.

Even worse, Fox Sports announcer Tim Brando was on David Glenn's radio show trashing State fans for running off Sendek, a point of view supported by a warped view of ACC basketball history in which N.C. State has "only occasionally" been good. I suspect Brando's perception was shaped by his broadcast partner, Mike Gminski, who made a similar observation during a telecast from the RBC Center a few years ago.

The worst assault was a recent article by Gary Parrish of CBS that was titled "N.C. State Must Realize It's the Ugly Duckling."

Parrish repeats the same glorification of Sendek, although he doesn't make the Patrick mistake of claiming he was fired. No, instead he writes "N.C. State fans were so tough on Sendek after five straight NCAA tournaments that he decided to walk away and escape a scenario where he would very clearly never win enough to please the majority."

If that makes State the worst high-paying job in the country (as Parrish claims), where does Boston College rank? Al Skinner was FIRED after leading the Eagles to seven NCAA Tournaments in 10 years. He produced four ranked teams to one for Sendek. He had a .600 winning percentage to .591 for Sendek. He had a .500 winning percentage to .450 for Sendek.

Yet, he was fired while Sendek decided to leave because he wasn't appreciated enough.

Which school - N.C. State or Boston College - has the most unrealistic expectations?

The implications of all this is that - N.C. State is a second-rate basketball program that should have been content with Sendek's modest - and it was VERY modest - success. The Pack's current misery is a fair punishment for the program's delusions of grandeur.

Is that a fair argument?

Might I suggest that we need to look at several key issues behind the debate:

(1) Was N.C. State better off with Sendek than Lowe? How good a coach WAS Herb Sendek?

(2) Did N.C. State run Sendek off?

And most importantly:

(3) Are N.C. State fans delusional to think their program should compete at a level with Duke and North Carolina?


The one part of the Brando/Patrick/Parrish (not to blame just these three guys, since that view is shared by many in the media … but allow me to use them as shorthand) argument that is clearly correct is that N.C. State is in worst shape under Sidney Lowe than it was under Herb Sendek.

Make no mistake, the Pack is in bad shape. Over the last five seasons, under Lowe, N.C. State has been the worst program in the ACC. Lowe's teams have not finished with a winning season in the league, haven't qualified for the NCAA Tournament and haven't won a title of any kind. Overall, since Lowe's arrival, N.C. State is last in cumulative ACC play (though Feb. 1):

  1. . Duke 51-20
  2. UNC 48-22
  3. Maryland 42-29
  4. Virginia Tech 40-31
  5. (tie) FSU and Clemson 39-32
  6. Wake Forest 33-37
  7. Boston College 33-38
  8. Virginia 29-44
  9. Georgia Tech 27-44
  10. Miami 24-47
  11. N.C. State 22-49

Sendek was much better than that. During his 10 years at the Wolfpack helm, he was 191-142 overall. He didn't win any titles during that span, but he reached the NCAA Tournament five times, winning five NCAA games (one Sweet 16, three second-round exits and one first-round knockout). He finished in the top 25 once - No. 15 in 2004.

Most importantly, his overall ACC record was 72-88 (.450 percent), which is significantly better than Lowe's 22-49 (.310 percent).

However, there's a problem with evaluating Sendek. His 10-year tenure should be divided into two parts - his first five years and his second five years.

In his first five seasons, when he struggled to rebuild a program shattered by NCAA probation and (far worse) some draconian self-imposed sanctions, Sendek's record looked a lot like Lowe's. This is the graphic you never see on ESPN:

Sendek's First Five years:

  • 1997: 17-15 (4-12) - ACC Tournament runnerup; 1-1 NIT
  • 1998: 17-15 (5-11) - 1-1 NIT
  • 1999: 19-14 (6-10) - 1-1 NIT
  • 2000: 20-14 (6-10) - 3-1 NIT
  • 2001: 13-16 (5-11)

Total: 84-74 (26-54 ACC) - 6-5 ACC Tournament; 5-3 NIT

Lowe's First Five Years:

  • 2007: 20-16 (5-11) - ACC Tournament runnerup; 2-1 NIT
  • 2008: 15-16 (4-12)
  • 2009: 16-14 (6-10)
  • 2010: 20-16 (5-11) - 1-1 NIT
  • 2011 (through Feb. 1): 12-9 (2-5)
  • Totals: 83-71 (22-49) - 5-4 ACC Tournament; 3-2 NIT

Those two records are astonishingly similar - even down to the coincidence of an improbable first-year run to the ACC title game. Even more coincidentally, both ACC Tourney runs started with an upset of Duke and ended with a loss to UNC.

Of course, Sendek followed his Lowe-like first five years with five significantly better years:

  • 2002: 23-11 (9-7) - ACC Tournament runnerup; 1-1 NCAA
  • 2003: 18-13 (9-7) - ACC Tournament runnerup; 0-1 NCAA
  • 2004: 21-10 (11-5) - 1-1 NCAA
  • 2005: 21-14 (7-9) - 2-1 NCAA
  • 2006: 22-10 (10-6) - 1-1 NCAA

His ACC record for that stretch was 46-34 - which was actually two games better than UNC's 44-36 during those five years (thanks to Matt Doherty's 10-22 stretch in 2002-03).

That's a respectable level of success.

Of course, during that same five-year span, neighboring Duke was winning four ACC championships (beating State in the 2002 and 2003 title games), going to five Sweet 16s and a Final Four. UNC didn't win any ACC titles, but won the 2005 national championship.

Head-to-head, Sendek was still struggling against his two biggest rivals. For his career at State, he was 3-21 against Duke and 5-17 against UNC. Those numbers didn't get much better in his five "good" years - 2-9 vs. Duke and 4-6 against UNC (with all four wins coming in Doherty's two down years).

Looking at Sendek rationally, how good a coach was he? In his first five years, he was almost exactly as unsuccessful a coach as Lowe. In his last five years - his five "dynasty" years - he was competitive in the ACC, but still clearly inferior to his neighbors … to his rivals.

Should N.C. State fans have been happy about that, satisfied to be above-average in the ACC, but clearly the third best program in the Triangle?

Would Duke fans accept that?


The biggest single untruth in the entire debate was Mike Patrick's assertion that Sendek was forced out at N.C. State to make room for the more popular Lowe.

That's untrue on two levels - first, Sendek was not "forced" out … secondly, at the time of his departure, Lowe was not on the Wolfpack coaching horizon.

It is true that Sendek was unpopular with a large portion of the Wolfpack base - a group of fans who had grown weary of his boring style of play, his boring public persona (one-on-one, Herb could be quite engaging and personable … but put him in front of an audience or a microphone and he became a cliché-machine) and his modest "success."

Whether that segment of the fan base was a majority or merely a large minority, I don't know. But I do know that Sendek still had the strong support of the program's biggest boosters and of athletic director Lee Fowler. His five-year contract was going to receive its normal one-year rollover after the 2006 season.

He was not forced out. I'm sure the unrest of his fan base played a role in his decision to travel more than 2,000 miles across country to Arizona State.

Unpopular? Unappreciated? Yes - but "forced out" no.

When Sendek left, Lowe was not on Fowler's radar. Instead, the Wolfpack AD made a run at Texas coach Rick Barnes and when that fell through, he pursued Memphis coach John Calipari. Fowler had a deal worked out with West Virginia coach John Beilein that ultimately fell apart due to a buyout issue. He also touched in with Kentucky coach Tubby Smith, who was thinking about leaving Lexington (and he did soon afterward, but to Minnesota, not N.C. State).

Fowler's long and public search turned into an embarrassment. Not only did the media pick up on the futile pursuit of coaches such as Barnes, Calipari and Beilein, they kept throwing in names that were never on Fowler's list - LSU's John Brady tried to portray himself as a candidate (he wasn't) and ex-UNC assistant Phil Ford was invented as a candidate by an enterprising columnist.

Lowe, a respected NBA assistant coach with absolutely no college coaching experience (even as an assistant coach), ended up being a fairly desperate reach by Fowler. The former Wolfpack point guard might have had shaky qualifications for the job, but he was a popular choice for fans who remembered him as the point guard on N.C. State's miraculous 1983 NCAA title run.

But winning the press conference (as Fowler did) is not the same as making a great hire.


Did N.C. State fans get what they deserved for not appreciating good ol' Herb Sendek? Should they have been happy to settle for his modest success between 2002-06 and to have buried those dreams of competing with Duke or North Carolina?

To answer that question, you actually have to know a little basketball history.

Contrary to the assertions of Brando and Gminski, N.C. State's periods of success are far from "occasional". For almost a half-century after World War II, the Pack more than held its own with its Tobacco Road neighbors.

Let me sum it up as simply as I can.

Before Everett Case's arrival in the spring of 1946, N.C. State was a very average basketball program. The Pack had won one Southern Conference title in its history (1929 - beating Duke in the title game) and was generally outperformed by UNC, which was the best program in the state in the 1920s and 1930s, and Duke, which took over the dominant role after building its Indoor Stadium in 1940.

Case changed the basketball landscape overnight.

We don't have to go into how he popularized the sport in North Carolina. What's important that he started winning when he first stepped on campus and he established a level of performance that continued until the resignation of Jim Valvano in 1990.

In that 44-year span, compare the three Triangle programs:

UNC: Two national titles, 11 conference championships; 952-316 (450-110 conference), 49-20 NCAA

Duke: No national titles, eight conference champions; 859-414 (368-235 conference), 35-11 NCAA

N.C. State: Two national titles, 16 conference championships; 890-376 (370-225 conference), 25-14 NCAA

UNC had the best record and the most overall NCAA wins, but N.C. State won more championships. Duke and State had remarkably similar overall and conference records - the Blue Devils had a better NCAA record, but no championships.

The perception of State's greatness is somewhat obscured by the switch from the Southern Conference to the ACC after the 1953 season. Case won six Southern Conference championships in the first seven years that State (along with Duke, UNC, Wake Forest, Maryland, South Carolina and Clemson) belonged to that league.

Those titles should not be discounted because the Southern Conference is today a mid-major. In that era, it included seven of the eight teams that would initially make up the ACC (joined by independent Virginia), along with such powers as West Virginia, George Washington and Furman (and the latter two were powers in the late '40s and early '50s).

Just a note about Southern Conference championships. I've sometimes seen people try to list "regular season" championships for the Southern Conference as if that means something. Well, when you're talking about the first 50 years of the ACC, when everybody played a balanced schedule, it could be argued that the regular season was a fairer test of strength than a three-day tournament.

However, that's not true about the Southern Conference because that league played nothing like a balanced schedule - not even the close approximation of one that the ACC plays today. Teams played wildly different numbers of league games and with a 17-team league, it was possible to build a formidable record without playing anybody that was any good. Just one example - in 1952, West Virginia finished first in the regular season without playing its chief rival, N.C. State. The Mountaineers played third-place Duke once in Morgantown. West Virginia fattened its record against the league's patsies, while N.C. State played a far tougher slate and finished one game back in the standings. One season during Frank Selvy's time at Furman, the Paladins came within a half-game of compiling the best regular season record in the league - but played just two games against the top eight teams in the league (losing both of them!). No, there's a reason that the tournament champion was designated as THE conference champion in the Southern … a practice that carried over, even when the ACC began to play a balanced schedule in 1955.

Case won nine conference titles in his first 10 seasons - a run that neither Mike Krzyzewski nor Dean Smith ever matched. It shouldn't be downgraded because six of those titles came in the Southern Conference.

The other problem with State's record is that it's too often perceived an ancient history. But while it's true that the Pack's period of greatest dominance came in the late 1940s and 1950s, it's not like the program's success ended with the Kennedy Administration. N.C. State won three ACC titles and a national championship in the 1970s. The Pack won two ACC titles and a second national title in the 1980s.

In fact, in the 1980s, Duke and N.C. State had EXACTLY the same ACC record for the decade (74-66). Both won two ACC titles in the decade. Jim Valvano, hired a week after Duke hired Coach K, actually had a winning record against the Blue Devils for his 10-year run - 14-9.

Decade by decade, State performed at a consistently high level (measured by conference records):

  • 1950s - 107-29 (first in the Southern/ACC by a wide margin)
  • 1960s - 70-70 (fourth in the ACC)
  • 1970s - 75-49 (second in the ACC)
  • 1980s - 74-66 (tied for third in the ACC)

The dip in the 1960s is not unlike the dip in the 1990s - it was predicated on self-imposed sanctions imposed after the point-shaving scandal of 1961. And it should be noted that N.C. State recovered from those 1961 penalties much faster than UNC, which faced the same recruiting/scheduling restrictions.

Now, admittedly, the time frame I selected is arbitrary and is picked to illustrate the period of State's greatness. But it IS a 44-year period. I didn't pick and chose a couple of good stretches. I simply recorded nearly a half-century when N.C. State was every bit a comparable basketball power to Duke and UNC.

Since Valvano's departure - and the imposition of strict in-house sanctions during the tenure of Les Robinson (which were lifted before his departure) - N.C. State has been a different program.

Compare the three Triangle schools from 1991-2010:

  • N.C. State: no championships; 330-292 (120-198 ACC), 6-6 NCAA
  • North Carolina: three NCAA championships, six ACC championships; 510-176 (189-109 ACC), 52-14 NCAA
  • Duke: four NCAA championships, 10 ACC championships; 568-176 (235-83 ACC), 55-13 NCAA

The point is that as of 1990, N.C. State was competing on a reasonably equal basis to UNC and Duke. In terms of championships won, you had to go back to the 1920s - and that's REALLY ancient history - before UNC could match State's trophy case. The Tar Heels had been more consistent over the ACC era (that's thanks to Dean Smith's legacy), but State and Duke had endured very similar ups and downs.

Obviously, that's changed over the last 20 years. Duke and UNC have taken their programs into the stratosphere while N.C. State has fallen to the bottom of the ACC heap. The literal bottom - nobody else in the ACC has a worst cumulative league record since 1991.

That's got to be difficult for a proud fan base that grew up on the glories of Case, Sloan and Valvano to swallow. They don't deserve to see their history distorted and diminished for the glorification of Herb Sendek.

They don't deserve to be sneered at by national commentators who tell them they should have been happy with Sendek's mediocrity.

Just because Sidney Lowe hasn't worked out is no reason to consign N.C. State to college basketball's dustbin. There is no reason that State can't compete at the highest levels of the sport - up there with Duke and UNC. The school has great facilities (I'm not talking about just the RBC, but also about the Weisinger Brown practice facility), a passionate fan base, no unusual recruiting restrictions. They play in a great conference and they're always on TV.

And they have a great history of success, even if guys like Brando and Patrick don't know it.

Obviously, N.C. State has its share of delusional fans who thought that Rick Barnes would jump at the chance to replace Herb Sendek and who now think the Pack can lure Jamie Dixon or Jay Wright or Mark Few. But every school has fans like that. Just because new AD Debbie Yow is unlikely to hire a proven BCS-level winner does not mean she can't make a great hire … maybe a mid-level Division 1 head coach such as the guys Duke, N.C. State and Georgia Tech all found in the early 1980s when they picked up Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano and Bobby Cremins from Army, Iona and Appalachian State, respectively.

She just has to find the right guy.

By the way, I wonder if the headline writer for Parrish's story actually knows anything about the "Ugly Duckling" fairytale. Think about it - in the Hans Christian Anderson story, the ugly duckling grows up to be a beautiful swan … more beautiful than any of the ducks it was compared to.

Considering the potential of the currently ugly Wolfpack program, that might not be such a bad characterization after all.