Fowler

Fowler: Pack's Gottfried to be judged by UNC, Duke games

Staff WriterFebruary 16, 2012 

Coaching the men's basketball team at N.C. State pays well, but it has to be one of the most difficult jobs in college hoops.

Ideally, N.C. State fans would like a coach with the quick wit of Jim Valvano, the passion of Norm Sloan, the ingenuity of Everett Case, the five straight NCAA tournament appearances of Herb Sendek, the affability of Les Robinson and the red coat of Sidney Lowe.

Oh yeah, and beat both Duke and North Carolina at least once per season, too.

In his first year at N.C. State, Mark Gottfried hasn't been all things to all people, but he has done a fine job so far. N.C. State (18-7, overall, 7-3 ACC) enters tonight's game at Duke with more ACC wins already than Lowe had in any of his five seasons and ranks as a real contender for its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2006.

Tonight will be difficult. N.C. State has lost 13 in a row in Cameron Indoor Stadium against Duke. Last year Duke led by 29 - at halftime. And Gottfried won't be totally accepted at N.C. State until he acquires a foothold against Duke and UNC.

"When I took the job, it was fairly obvious that a gap had been created between those two programs and ours," he said in our interview.

How do you permanently close it?

"Recruit, recruit - and then recruit some more, no matter who else is recruiting them," said Gottfried, and he's off to a good start there. N.C. State has three McDonald's All-Americans in its next incoming class that will play in the 2012 version of that prep all-star game (more than Duke or UNC).

Sendek was undone in part because he looked like a guy you didn't like in high school and he ran an offense that clunked along like a 1976 gray Ford Pinto (sadly, my first car). He was an extremely prepared basketball coach, though, and he made the NCAA tournament in each of his last five years at N.C. State.

Yet Sendek went 8-38 against Duke and North Carolina and didn't put as much emphasis on those rivalries as N.C. State fans did. He left for the desert and Arizona State in 2006 and most N.C. State fans sounded happier - until they saw what was around the bend.

Lowe was far worse. Every Wolfpack team he coached seemed to have good talent and still finished 5-11 in the ACC. He was mostly awful against Duke and North Carolina. The fact he played for Valvano's 1983 national title team was nice. But Lowe never really should have been hired, and he never would have been except for that fact.

Gottfried won points in the news conference in April where he was announced as the Wolfpack's head coach by vowing not to "back down" against Duke and UNC. Some Wolfpack fans were long enamored with hiring Rick Barnes because of the same characteristic.

Barnes had a famous nose-to-nose confrontation with Dean Smith in 1995. That Barnes was only 1-9 against North Carolina when he coached Clemson was conveniently forgotten by many simply because of that brief yelling match.

Gottfried has a streak of intensity, too. Better yet, he moderates it with realism. Even as he has shown this season that he can motivate and win better than Lowe did, he knows that he and his excellent group of assistant coaches - hiring Bobby Lutz was a coup - have much work to do.

In his N.C. State debut against North Carolina three weeks ago, the Wolfpack lost 74-55.

"When you look at the success of Duke and Carolina over the past 10-15 years and you look at our success, there's a sizable difference," Gottfried said. "We have to be tremendously aggressive trying to improve our program."

Gottfried has coached in a long shadow before. When he was at Alabama, he once got the Crimson Tide to a No. 1 national ranking. Still, people in Tuscaloosa seemed more interested in spring football.

"At times it was very frustrating," Gottfried said. "We were ranked No.1 in the country. We went to five straight NCAA tournaments and an Elite Eight. And yet sometimes you're not sure people even know you're playing. That's just part of the turf there. I probably could have handled it a little better."

Isn't it similar at N.C. State, though?

"I don't think so," Gottfried said. "because N.C. State already has great tradition - just not a lot of recent tradition. That's what we need to change."

He seems to be on his way. But the journey is a long one. And, as Gottfried said several times as we talked, N.C. State isn't close to where he wants the program to be. Yet.

But he's given N.C. State fans hope that they have a coach again who won't back down from Duke and North Carolina - and more importantly, someone who can recruit the players to compete against them.

Fowler: 704-358-5140; sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

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