RALEIGH — When Matt Hedges found out in December that Kelly Findley was leaving Butler for N.C. State, his first instinct was to try to follow his soccer coach south.
Ultimately, when word got out that Hedges was looking to transfer, elite programs such as Akron, North Carolina and Maryland got involved, and it became less feasible for the standout defender to play his final season for the rebuilding Wolfpack. So Hedges transferred to UNC., He'll play his former coach today when the Tar Heels (12-2-2, 3-1-2 ACC) host the Wolfpack (6-8-2, 2-4-0) at Fetzer Field at 7 p.m..
Give Findley a couple of years, though, and Holmes said he wouldn't be surprised if he has the Wolfpack at the same level as Akron, UNC or Maryland.
"I think it's absolutely a great hire," Hedges said. "You look at the job he did with a program that didn't have near the resources. With the resources they have there, he should have it built up in no time."
Followers of the N.C. State men's soccer program might be startled to hear it described in such terms. For many of former head coach George Tarantini's 25 years in charge, the Wolfpack program seemed crippled by second-rate facilities.
There were so many asterisks and "buts" attached to the position that when Findley first heard Tarantini retired after last season, he wasn't sure he was interested, even though the ACC is widely considered the best college conference for men's soccer. Butler was the No. 13 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, and it wasn't a certainty that N.C. State was the better job. Akron, another mid-size school, won the 2010 NCAA title.
"If this job was the job it was five years ago, I don't think I would've been as excited about it," Findley said. "I don't think it was set up to be successful in the past. "
N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow and her administration helped overcome any initial skepticism by selling Findley on their vision of the program. That included improved training grounds, an upgraded locker room, continued tweaks to the on-campus Dail Soccer Field and separate showers for the home and visiting teams to use after games (both teams showered in the same space before this season).
"I think they're giving us everything we need to be successful," Findley said. "Now our job is to create a culture here to be successful."
The culture has required work.
Findley said his biggest surprise after taking the job was the sense of entitlement he detected from some of the Wolfpack's older guard, players who seemed to be content with the fact they were playing in the ACC, even if they were playing for a conference bottom feeder.
To counter that attitude, Findley has tried to drill into his team the importance of playing to an internalized standard that isn't dictated by the score or opponent. Attention to detail is stressed in every practice.
The external standards - the results - have been mixed. N.C. State surprised SMU early in the season and posted ACC wins over Boston College and Virginia Tech. It also lost decisively to Wake Forest and Duke in recent weeks.
Even if N.C. State ends up in the ACC tournament's Nov. 7 play-in game, the team's upperclassmen say there is little comparison between this year's team and previous incarnations.
"He's definitely changing the culture, and I think that's for the better" said junior defender Chandler Knox, who stressed he loved playing for Tarantini. "Definitely with Findley, the attitude is more professional. He does a good job of getting production out of people. It's worked out for everyone."
Added Matt Ingram, a freshman from Indianapolis who was one of two Butler recruits to follow Findley to N.C. State: "I've heard from talking to former players that the difference between now and before is night and day. The team is much more fun to watch now."
One of Hedges' favorite memories of playing for Findley is a pre-game speech he gave last year before Butler faced perennial power Indiana. Emphasizing the difference in stature between the schools, Hedges said Findley motivated his team by appealing to their status as an underdog program going after the big boys.
The Bulldogs scored three goals in the first half and went on to win 4-1.
It's a speech that might have a limited shelf-life at N.C. State, which doesn't aim to play the role of underdog much longer.