In the spring of 2010, there was a small glimmer of hope for NC State basketball fans. Sidney Lowe managed to drag his squad back to the postseason before losing in the second round of the NIT. They managed 20 wins for the second time in his tenure. And a recruiting coup of Ryan Harrow, CJ Leslie, and Lorenzo Brown had fans optimistic.
The next spring saw State fans putting out the last of the smoldering embers of shit from the 2010-11 season. Sidney Lowe was fired and went whistling his way back to an NBA assistant coaching gig. An unceremonious departure for a Wolfpack Hall of Famer who basically did them a favor after they were spurned publicly by Rick Barnes, Steve Lavin, John Beilein, and John Calipari.
NC State AD Debbie Yow opened her search with Sean Miller before moving on to Shaka Smart and Gregg Marshall. Yow, to her credit, was and continues to be very open with the fan base. She ended up issuing a statement to more or less temper the expectations of NC State fans before she announced the person who accepted the job.
Mark Gottfried was announced as head coach 24 hours later.
A Fiery New Hope
Having not heard Gottfried’s name among the rumors, State fans set to gather as much info as they could about the then ESPN commentator. Gottfried had a good run at Murray State before heading his alma mater at Alabama. He’d won SEC conference titles and taken Alabama(!) to the Elite Eight. But things unraveled quickly after that high-water mark. We won’t dive into the extracurricular reasons why, but poor management of his players and dwindling success led to his mid-season ouster in 2009.
At his introductory press conference, Gottfried said all the things that State fans wanted to hear. With the local and national media decrying State as a difficult job due to proximity to Duke and UNC, Gottfried welcomed the challenge, saying, “Every job in America in athletics has different challenges. I’m not backing down from anybody here, period.”
While Lowe had been a decent recruiter, his micromanagement on the court and inability to effectively lead off it were problems. Fans were excited that Gottfried appeared to have both recruiting acumen and coaching chops. In his first season, Gottfried managed to coach his team to the ACC tournament semifinals before a controversial loss to UNC. That squad parlayed that run into a Sweet 16 NCAA tournament run. The tide, it seemed, had turned for the program.
‘They Gotta Guard Us, Too, Pal’
State’s new coach was a far cry from the coma-inducing ‘daytight compartment’ and maddening ‘gotta make shots’ regimes that came before him. What they had now was a coach who loved offense and cursorily acknowledged defense was a part of the game. After his first season, Gottfried couldn’t muster the same magic to build on the finish to 2011-12.
Instead, Gottfried made a habit of running cold through the first half of the season before finally firing the jets in February and March to get his teams into the NCAA tournament, usually by the skin of its teeth, and primarily due to a lack of defensive awareness. A program that was once thought to be among ACC royalty was relegated to being a national punchline and an inspirational video for bubble teams getting into the tournament. But they were at least there.
State muddled through the muck and mire of roster turnover and injuries in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons. They were rewarded both times with NCAA bids and managed another Sweet 16 run in the 2015 tournament. The table was once again set for a solid season.
Darkest Before the Dawn?
That offseason, State lost Kyle Washington to Cincinnati and Trevor Lacey to professional ambitions. The Lacey departure was late and significant, and tossed an unexpected monkey wrench into the season. Terry Henderson was coming off a required year off due to transfer, and Maverick Rowan was a sharpshooting freshman.
However, Henderson tore ankle ligaments in the season opener against William & Mary (which State lost) and the season was basically the Cat Barber show. A combination of a lack of offensive options outside Barber and an inability to play defense led to State losing 9 of its first 11 league games, ending its season by the first week of February.
That spring, the Martin twins transferred and Barber left for the NBA. Bobby Lutz was also taken off the staff to make room for coaches who wanted to recruit. Rob Moxley moved off the bench for health reasons. Roster and staff turnover had State fans worried. However, State signed Yurtseven, Kapita, Johnson, and Hicks in May and June to surround future NBA lottery pick Dennis Smith Jr. Couple that class with Dorn and Henderson and Gottfried had, on paper, his most talented squad in Raleigh.
The Fall is Fast
Gottfried proclaimed after the Yurtseven signing that he’s “never been one of those guys that feels that the sky is falling.” By all appearances, State was handing the reigns of the team over to Smith Jr. and expectations were high. There were even discussions before the season that this may actually be Gottfried’s first team to actually play defense. Talk, we’d quickly find out, is cheap.
Hints of this season’s tragic unfolding were evident early in close wins against Georgia Southern, St. Joseph’s, Boston, and Tennessee State. Those were written off as not having Yurtseven and Kapita initially. State was exposed early in its ACC slate by Miami, Boston College, and Georgia Tech. Three teams that State has comparatively better talent. Mixed into those games was a win against Virginia Tech and a thorough beating by UNC.
Since then, State has won 2 of its last 8 league games. A win at Cameron was thought to be an indication that this team may have figured something out. The Bell Tower being lit up red and the march on Hillsborough St. masked what was ultimately a red herring. Since that win, State has lost three games by 24 points or more, blown two double-digit leads, and given up at least 84 points in its last five games.
Nothing Left but the Crying and Shouting, but mainly Crying
Gottfried’s typical glass half-full demeanor has given way to something that signals a man more resigned to his team’s fate. And maybe his own. State was essentially renting a sports car and drove it straight into a ditch. A coach that requires no accountability coupled with players that seemingly have no pride is a recipe for disaster.
Local articles indicate the team has quit or the team is made up of players who just aren’t very good. The first take certainly appears to be the case while the second unfairly places blame on the the players who are riding a ruderless ship.
Part of being an effective basketball coach at this level has just as much to do with being an effective manager. You can’t decry Gottfried’s understanding of the game. Coaches don’t get to this level on accident. But Gottfried at least has a history here. Mismanaging players can lead to serious problems and that’s what effectively ended his tenure at Alabama and possibly here. Debbie Yow continues to ask State fans to support the team and she’ll evaluate the season after its conclusion.
With an invigorated UNC team coming to Raleigh on Wednesday, it soon may not be her choice. Unfortunately, some hires don’t work out.
Herb Sendek was a solid X’s and O’s coach who lacked the fire State fans wanted, but was a steadying force after the Robinson years. Sidney Lowe was a patsy for an Athletics Director in Lee Fowler that had no idea what he was doing. And Mark Gottfried was the fearless, if also flawed, coach that brought some respectability back to Raleigh. Gottfried was the right coach for NC State at the right time. But it looks like his time may be drawing rapidly to an end.