All coaches love plans. They live for the routine and thrive on normalcy.
A coach, and a son of a coach, Mark Gottfried is no different. But the N.C. State coach has learned how to handle chaos and think on his feet.
Gottfried has guided the Wolfpack to the NCAA tournament in each of his first four seasons but with essentially three different rosters.
His fifth team, with a new cast of featured players, will be no different. Normalcy is an antiquated concept in the transient reality of today’s version of college basketball. Between one-and-done exits for the NBA and an increasing transfer rate, roster continuity is a ghost story Virginia’s Tony Bennett tells the other ACC coaches at their annual meetings.
“I would like to have a team that had a lot more normalcy,” Gottfried said. “It has been a little bit of hodgepodge every year (for us), trying to figure it out. Fortunately, we’ve been able to figure it out.”
Gottfried, who is one of seven active coaches to take three different schools to the NCAA tournament, is quick to point out that past results are no guarantee for future performance.
I would like to have a team that had a lot more normalcy. It has been a little bit of hodgepodge every year (for us), trying to figure it out. Fortunately, we’ve been able to figure it out.
N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried
N.C. State (22-14 last season) does have junior point guard Cat Barber, who came on at the end of the 2014-15 season to push the Wolfpack into the 68-team NCAA field and helped in a Round of 32 upset of No. 1 seed Villanova, but he’s the only one of the top four scorers who returns.
A degree of normalcy was within reach, but guard Trevor Lacey, the team’s leader and top scorer, caught Gottfried off guard last April and opted to pursue a professional career instead of returning for his senior season.
With Lacey playing for a club team in Italy, Gottfried spent the offseason lobbying for low expectations. N.C. State was picked to finish eighth by the media in Charlotte at the ACC’s annual preseason gathering. Gottfried was only half joking when he suggested his team should have been picked 12th.
“Nobody lost what we lost,” Gottfried said.
Reminded of Duke’s high-profile departures, Gottfried smiled and then laughed: “Nah, we lost the most.”
There is a confidence by Gottfried that even with a team “with a lot of questions,” as he puts it, he will figure out how to get the best out of a remodeled roster again.
Gottfried, 51, will try to push the right buttons for an N.C. State team that has been to the Sweet 16 twice in his four-year tenure and has won 92 games.
N.C. State had been to the Round of 16 in the NCAA tournament only twice in the 23 seasons before Gottfried was hired in April 2011 from his job as an ESPN analyst.
And his four-year win total (92) is the most by any N.C. State coach since Norm Sloan won 100 games in 1972-76. Three of those seasons featured the greatest player in ACC history, the legendary David Thompson. Gottfried has had a different leading scorer in three of his four seasons.
His recruiting has been strong, with perhaps his best class on deck in 2016, but so has his ability to adapt. The way his teams have improved as the season has gone along has earned him respect, N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow said, from the players and the fans.
“I applaud the fact that he’s able to willingly make whatever changes are necessary to be successful,” Yow said.
Midseason lineup changes have helped Gottfried in the past two seasons. In 2014, he moved Tyler Lewis in at point guard in early February to spark a late tournament run.
(Mark) was always trying to figure things out. He would ask a lot of questions.
N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried’s father, Joe
Last year, he went with forward Lennard Freeman in the starting lineup before a Feb. 14 trip to Louisville.
N.C. State entered that key ACC game with a 5-7 ACC record. The Wolfpack won five of its last six conference games after the switch, including its first win at North Carolina since 2003.
“Sometimes you get lucky,” Gottfried said.
In four years, Gottfried has grown fond of certain expressions. “They gotta guard us, too, pal!” is one of his favorites. Then there’s his usual response when asked about newcomers and how they will fare in the ACC: “We’ll see what happens when the popcorn starts popping.”
The Gottfried-ism that best fits what he has been able to do the past two seasons is “have a hunch, bet a bunch.”
That implies there’s randomness to Gottfried’s approach, but that’s not necessarily the case.
Joe Gottfried knew his son would get into the family business by the time Mark was in eighth grade.
Joe Gottfried was a successful high school basketball coach in central Ohio in the 1960s. He then coached 10 seasons of college basketball, at Ashland University and Southern Illinois, before beginning a long career as an athletic administrator at South Alabama in 1981.
Mike Gottfried, Joe’s brother and Mark’s uncle, was a longtime college football coach and had high-profile stints at Cincinnati, Kansas and Pittsburgh in the 1980s.
Joe Gottfried’s first college job was at Ashland, his alma mater, a private Division II school not far from where the family grew up in Upper Sandusky, Ohio. Gottfried’s last three Ashland teams won 60 games and made the NCAA tournament three straight times.
It was around that time, in mid-1970s, Mark started to quiz his dad about game strategy and substitution patterns.
“(Mark) was always trying to figure things out,” Joe Gottfried said. “He would ask a lot of questions.”
Joe Gottfried said even before his son became a standout player at Alabama and began his coaching career as an assistant to Jim Harrick at UCLA, he had a grasp of not only coaching concepts but team dynamics.
“He always looked at the bigger picture and not the quick fix,” Joe Gottfried said. “When you have that kind of vision, you don’t cut corners early.”
Gottfried hasn’t panicked, either, which has helped. Early season losses, such as the ones to N.C. Central in 2013-14 and Wofford in 2014-15, might have shaken other N.C. State teams.
But Gottfried has convinced his team to stay the course and coaxed the best basketball out of each group at the end of the season.
“I think our players believe that,” Gottfried said. “We have to play our best basketball in February and March, and we’re going to get to there. It may not be in December, and you may lose a game or two in December, but the key is how you finish.”
An open mind
Gottfried credits his assistants – Bobby Lutz, Orlando Early, Rob Moxley and Jeff Dunlap – with the program’s flexibility and success.
The same coaches who like routine and plans and structure usually don’t like to adapt, but Gottfried has concocted his own unscientific formula for success.
In Year 5 at N.C. State, that hasn’t always been the same of what he did when he first got to Raleigh.
“When you get a little older, maybe I’ve opened up my mind a little bit,” Gottfried said.
Gottfried took a minute at the ACC gathering in Charlotte to lament Lacey’s departure. There would have been some normalcy, and a shot at the program’s first ACC title of any kind since 1989, with Lacey.
Without him, Gottfried will have to do what he does best.
“Coach G will figure it out,” Lacey said this summer. “He always does.”
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio