Sometimes I don’t understand my brethren in the sports media.
Why do so many prominent journalists hate N.C. State?
I’m not talking about criticism – some very justified – of the way N.C. State has handled its basketball program in the last few decades. It’s reasonable to argue that Herb Sendek should have been more appreciated or that firing Mark Gottfried before the end of the 2017 season was a bonehead move.
No, what baffles – and often angers – me is the contempt that so many journalist have for one of the historically great programs in college basketball history. Many prominent writers and broadcasters – from Gary Parrish to Tim Brando to Jay Bilas to Mike Patrick to even the normally insightful Mike Gminski – seem to take it as a personal affront that N.C. State – and Wolfpack fans – aspires to be a championship basketball team.
The prevailing attitude seems to be that they are “delusional” to think that N.C. State could ever challenge Duke, UNC and the rest of the national elite. They ought to be content with mediocrity – especially the mediocrity that Herb Sendek brought in his decade at the helm.
The last time N.C. State had a coaching search, Parrish wrote an article for CBS Sports titled: “N.C. State Must Realize It’s the Ugly Duckling” and argued that Wolfpack fans should accept their second-class status and be grateful for an occasional NCAA appearance.
Last week, after the dismissal of Gottfried, Parrish was back at it with an article titled: “This Should Temper Expectations for N.C. State: I Wouldn’t Touch That Job”. The subtitle read: “If Mark Gottfried Can Be Fired with His Track Record, Why Would Somebody Better Be Interested.”
Parrish repeats the attack he launched in 2011, when he tried to make Herb Sendek sound like Adolph Rupp. Now it’s Mark Gottfried rushing towards the Hall of Fame in Parrish’s eyes – after four NCAA appearances (and two Sweet 16s) in six years. No matter than his program is currently in collapse and the prospects for the near future in Raleigh are horribly bleak (at least they would be in Gottfried stayed).
I don’t mean to pick on Parrish, who is just one of the chorus of haters.
It’s funny, but I didn’t hear anybody calling the UNC coaching job “toxic” after the Tar Heels fired Matt Doherty after just three seasons. He did have one losing season and one NIT season, but he was also AP national coach of the year in 2001 and he recruited the team that would win the national title in 2005.
Was UNC delusional for thinking it could do better than Doherty?
Was Duke delusional in the early ‘70s for not appreciating Bucky Waters? In four seasons at Duke, Bucky was 63-45 and 27-25 in ACC play. He played in the NIT twice, back when the NIT was worth playing in (both his 1970 and 1971 teams would have been NCAA teams under the current NCAA format).
Were Duke fans delusional or arrogant to think they could do better?
Go back to March 8, 1987.
On that glorious Sunday afternoon, Jim Valvano and his underdog Wolfpack team cut down the nets at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md., after winning the 1987 ACC championship.
You could argue that as of that moment, N.C. State was historically a better program than Duke – and very close to UNC.
At that point, N.C. State had two national titles and 10 ACC championships – exactly the same as UNC and two more in each category than Duke. N.C. State had won multiple conference championships in five straight decades.
Between the first AP poll in 1949 and Valvano’s 1989 ACC regular season championship, N.C. State finished the season ranked 19 times and compiled a total of 14 conference championships (seven in the Southern Conference), seven regular season championships, three NCAA regional championships and those two national titles – 1974 and 1983.
Since 1989, N.C. State has finished ranked just once in the final AP poll (15th in 2005). The Wolfpack has not won a single conference title – either regular season or tournament – and has not come close to winning a regional title, much less a Final Four.
In that time span, neighbor UNC has won eight ACC titles, 10 regular season titles, 10 regional titles and three national championships.
And the Tar Heels have been surpassed in that span by State’s other rival – Duke. Since N.C. State’s last title, the Blue Devils have won 11 ACC championships, 11 regular season titles, 11 regional titles and five national championships.
Can you imagine how that feels to an N.C. State fan?
Try to put yourself in their position.
Imagine that Mike Krzyzewski had left for the NBA after the 1989 season (as he almost did) and that Duke had botched the replacement hire. Imagine almost three decades of mediocrity and frustration with an occasional NCAA trip or first division ACC finish to celebrate.
How would Duke fans behave in that situation? Would they patiently and gratefully accept the crumbs from the ACC’s overflowing banquet table or would they demand that their school pursue real excellence? Would Duke fans be as “delusional” as N.C. State fans are in reality?
And how would they handle media members telling them that they had no right to strive for greatness?
Much of the skepticism from the media stems from their lack of knowledge of basketball history.
That’s the kindest thing I can say about Gminski’s rant a few years ago about how State was only “occasionally” good.
I think it’s symbolic that the first time Duke played for a championship, it was against N.C. State in the finals of the 1929 Southern Conference Basketball Tournament.
I say symbolic because the truth is that Duke had a better basketball program than N.C. State through the 1920s, 1930s and through the mid-1940s.
The arrival of Everett Case in the late spring of 1946 changed that. He immediately established N.C. State as the premier program in the old Southern Conference – and he challenged Kentucky as the best program in the South.
Between 1947 and 1956 (the last seven years of the Southern Conference and the first three years of the ACC), Case won nine conference championships – and only lost the 10th in the final seconds of the 1953 Southern Conference title game.
Throughout the 1950s, N.C. State was the best program in the state of North Carolina and despite UNC’s great run in 1957 (their only conference title in a 20-year span), the Wolfpack’s dominance wasn’t even challenged – despite two NCAA probations in the decade.
Eventually, the 1961 point-shaving scandal damaged Case’s program and opened the door for Vic Bubas at Duke, Bones McKinney at Wake Forest and eventually, Dean Smith at UNC. State fought back, winning an ACC title in 1965 under Press Maravich and in 1970 under Norm Sloan, then briefly reclaiming total control of the ACC in the early 1970s with the incomparable David Thompson.
Jim Valvano, hired from Iona at almost the same time as Duke hired Krzyzewski out of Army, kept the Pack competitive in the 1980s, winning a national title in 1983, two ACC titles and reaching the Elite Eight on two other occasions. He even had a winning record head-to-head with Coach K.
The turning point for N.C. State basketball fortunes was the 1989 publication of Peter Golenbach’s Personal Fouls. It was a sloppy, inaccurate collection of gossipy stories (mainly coming from a disgruntled former manager), but it sparked a media firestorm – spearheaded by the hometown News & Observer.
It’s amazing to compare the reaction to Golenbach’s book in 1989 with the media’s lethargic response to UNC’s Wainstein Report a quarter-century later, a UNC commissioned investigation that documented decades of academic fraud at UNC.
The 1989 firestorm did result in an NCAA investigation which gave N.C. State two years of probation for a collection of minor rule violations (like players selling tickets and shoes). The case was so flimsy that the lead investigation later published a letter defending Valvano and suggesting that the penalties were unwarranted.
Worse for State than the NCAA action was the reaction of the UNC Board of Governors which imposed severe sanctions on the program for academic issues – not for specific rule violations, but based on a general sense that the school acted to keep athletes eligible, not to keep them on track for their degree.
That’s a serious failure – but nothing like the long history of planned academic fraud at UNC that the Board of Governors has refused to address.
Is it any wonder that Wolfpack fans are usually paranoid about the media and the power structure represented by the Consolidated University of North Carolina and the NCAA?
The Personal Fouls fallout – and the dismissal of Valvano – cut the heart out of the N.C. State program. New coach Les Robinson never had a chance to compete and it showed in his record – 78-98 over six seasons.
Almost all the restrictions were gone when Herb Sendek arrived in 1996. True, he had to pick up the pieces of a shattered program, but he was able to recruit under the same rules as his neighbors and he was anticipating the coming move from Reynolds to the Entertainment and Sports Arena (now the PNC Arena).
It took Sendek five years of mediocrity to get the Wolfpack program off the floor. After five years at 86-74, he took the program up a level – five straight NCAA seasons and a five-year record of 105-58. His best team in 2004 won 23 games and reached the NCAA Sweet 16.
Then he got out of town, taking a job with Arizona State.
It’s amazing how many media members continue to insist that he was fired – no, he was unpopular, but he still had the strong support of the administration when he left of his own accord.
What followed was a nightmare for athletic director Lee Fowler, who conducted the longest and most confused coaching search of my lifetime. First, Fowler focused on Memphis coach John Calipari, who flirted with State for more than a week before signing a new deal with Memphis. Then Fowler tried hard to get Texas coach Rick Barnes, a North Carolina native who supposedly wanted to come home. When that didn’t work, Fowler struck a deal with West Virginia coach John Beilein, but that deal fell through when N.C. State refused to pay his buyout.
By that point, the coaching search was a national joke and a long string of comic names were attached to the job (one Raleigh columnist insisted that Fowler was pursuing ex-UNC assistant Phil Ford!).
In the end, Fowler settled on Sidney Lowe, a beloved Wolfpack hero and an accomplished NBA coach, but a guy who had never served a day on a college bench.
When Lowe flamed out after five unsuccessful seasons (86-78 with no NCAA bids), new AD Debbie Yow had to find a new coach.
Her job was complicated by her toxic relationship with former Maryland coach Gary Williams, who very publically vowed to sabotage her search.
It’s not known how much Williams did or didn’t do, but it’s believed that he talked to her No. 1 target, VCU coach Shaka Smart, who elected to remain in Richmond.
Yow didn’t let the 2011 search turn into the kind of circus that the 2006 search did – she acted quickly to hire Gottfried, who had a successful run at Alabama (five NCAA trips and one Elite Eight), although he had been out of coaching for two seasons.
Gottfried had some initial success, slipping into the NCAA Tournament four straight years and reaching the Sweet 16 twice. Injuries tore apart the 2016 team, but the prospects for 2017 looked bright as celebrated freshman Dennis Smith Jr., prepared to join the team, veteran center Abdul-Malik Abu pulled his name out of the NBA draft and returned, and Gottfried was able to land Turkish big man Omer Yurtseven, who was widely touted as a “lottery pick.”
The collapse of this talented team was totally unexpected.
Worse was the perception that the Pack had quit on Gottfried. There are a number of ACC teams that have struggled against the brutal league schedule this season (think Clemson and Pittsburgh), but those teams kept fighting despite their heartbreak. N.C. State suffered a couple of bad losses early (a 51-point defeat at UNC), but it kept battling – until a tough loss at home to Miami. The next three times out, the Pack quit.
Worse, there were strong rumors that the team was going to disintegrate in the off-season. No question that Smith will go pro, but the word I was hearing was that there would be a mass exodus after the final game.
I think that’s what convinced Yow to act immediately, rather than wait until the end of the season. Not sure what the early firing actually accomplishes, but the only real debate seems to be the timing – would it have been better to wait until after the season?
Is N.C. State a top-flight coaching job at this moment?
The program has some strong assets – great facilities, rabid fan support and a great history.
Of course, my friends in the media try to make it sound like a terrible job. Parrish wrote in 2011 that it is the worst high-paying job in the country. He followed that up last week by quoting an unnamed coach as saying “I wouldn’t touch that job’ because of the unrealistic demands of the school and the fans.
Frankly, I think that’s ridiculous – yes, N.C. State has high expectations. They want to compete at the highest level. Is that wrong?
It’s not like they have been quick on the trigger. Sendek got 10 years and he would have had 11 if he wanted it. Lowe got five years without the slightest sign of progress.
Gottfried got fired a few games short of six seasons. That could be seen as a quick trigger, unless you looked at the program and saw what a shambles it has become.
Make no mistake, the new guy is going to have to win … and not just an occasional NCAA trip and a Sweet 16 every year or so. N.C. State wants somebody to build a championship team – one that can challenge Duke and North Carolina on Tobacco Road.
That’s not going to be easy. Both Bluebloods have Hall of Fame coaches and decades of success to build upon. They are not coming back to the Pack (pun intended).
But Mike Krzyzewski just turned 70 years old a week ago. Roy Williams is in his mid-60s and, like Krzyzewski, he’s had health issues. How much longer before both are gone and there is a power vacuum on Tobacco Road? Hall of Fame coaches Jim Beoheim of Syracuse and Rick Pitino are in their twilight years too.
Isn’t there are opportunity for a bright young coach to build his own dynasty with those two successful coaches gone?
Of course, there is also the issue of Debbie Yow’s reputation. I’m not sure if Gary Williams is still actively sabotaging her, but everybody in the business knows how he feels about his former boss. On the other hand, Yow will retire in July, 2019, so the next coach will only have to deal with her for two years.
We’ll see who Yow lands in the next few weeks. Wolfpack graduate Archie Miller is an obvious target and Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall is certainly an attractive option. There are quite a few bright young coaches at the mid-major level that would be viable candidates.
Frankly, I don’t know who Yow will hire … nor do I have an idea who she should hire.
Back in 1980, Duke AD Tom Butters stunned everybody by naming an unknown Army coach with a mediocre record (on the surface) to replace Bill Foster. Mike Krzyzewski turned out to be the most brilliant hire in the history of coaching searches.
A decade ago, when Fowler was seeking a replacement for Sendek, he ignored inquiries from the young coach at Winthrop and the second-year coach at Xavier. Five years later, Yow couldn’t get the time of day from Gregg Marshall, who had moved to Wichita State, or Sean Miller, who had moved to Arizona.
But in 2006, Miller, a former assistant coach at N.C. State, told friends that he would have crawled all the way to Raleigh for the Wolfpack job.
The point is that Fowler didn’t have the vision to see the potential of those two coaches – unlike Butters, who hit the jackpot when he gambled on Coach K.
I don’t know whether or not Yow has the wisdom and the vision to make the right hire this time.
But I do know that N.C. State has the potential to be a nationally relevant program if she chooses wisely.
And, unlike so many of my colleagues, I don’t blame N.C. State one bit for aspiring to that goal.