Jacobs: NC State’s Mark Gottfried loves the challenge

The Other Guy paused between a workout and team practice to grab a quick lunch at his office desk: yogurt, banana, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, chocolate milk. A sylvan vista filled the window at his back. To his right a large flat-screen TV, muted to facilitate conversation, silently shouted ESPN coverage of an alleged scandal at Louisville first detailed in a sex worker’s book.

The Cardinals’ kerfuffle brought to mind a similarly accusatory book, “Personal Fouls,” which, though riddled with inaccuracies, hit upon enough truths to accelerate Jim Valvano’s slide out the door at N.C. State. The 1990 departure of “Coach V” ended a decade of pinnacle achievements at the school – a 1983 national title and pairs of ACC championships (1983, 1987) and first-place finishes (1985, 1989).

The Wolfpack has not reached any of those heights since.

Valvano set a school record for consecutive NCAA tournament appearances with 5 between 1985 and 1989. Those squads each won at least 20 games, another program standard for sustained achievement. Herb Sendek matched Valvano’s NCAA run from 2002 through 2006, then left.

A decade and two coaches later, Mark Gottfried is within reach of duplicating his predecessors’ bursts of consistent excellence. Each of his first 4 N.C. State squads went to the NCAAs and won at least 22 games, runs this year’s sophomore- and junior-dominated team figures to extend.

Yet relatively little fanfare attends the Wolfpack’s return to the ACC’s upper echelon, or Gottfried’s part in making that happen, a situation he greets with apparent equanimity.

“Honestly, I really don’t think about it like that,” says the 19-year head coach. “I don’t really think about it. I know this is a hard job. It’s hard. I live in a tough neighborhood. I think I live in the toughest neighborhood in the country as far as college basketball. There’s no doubt.”

Duke and UNC have won eight of 25 NCAA championships since Valvano left, nearly one third. Understandably, then, the unlikelihood of achieving prominence, let alone sustained supremacy, in so competitive an environment caused many coaches to shun the N.C. State job over the past decade.

“There’s nowhere in America where a school like ours sits in the proximity of two programs that have Hall of Fame coaches, that are as good as they’ve been in the last 20, 25 years,” Gottfried says of life in the shadows of giants. “Consider that Duke won the national championship last year, and North Carolina’s picked to win the national championship this year. That says it all. And here we are.”

He adds bravely, “Now, me personally, I love the competition. I love being in this neighborhood.”

Flourishing in Raleigh

After Sendek was run off, vain attempts to land a big-name candidate resulted in a compromise choice, N.C. State product Sidney Lowe, a novice college head coach. When Lowe faltered, the quest for a successor took so long, again reportedly involving repeated rejections by prominent coaches, athletic director Debbie Yow was moved to explain the difficulties in an e-mail to “the Wolfpack family.”

She wrote, “Our absence of 5 consecutive years from the NCAA Tournament was noted by each coach as evidence that the program is in poor shape and will require a special effort to rebuild.” Yow vowed to find a coach “to lead our basketball program back to national prominence” despite “those who believe this cannot occur.”

When Yow announced Gottfried’s hire, many dismissed him as the equivalent of a single where a home run was needed. But Gottfried has flourished in Raleigh, hitting his professional stride. This is the third straight program he’s lifted to immediate success. Combined with his time at Murray State and Alabama, the 51-year-old Ohio native enters the 2015-16 season with a .641 career winning percentage (370-207).

Another 20-win season in 2015-16 would match any run previously achieved at N.C. State as an ACC member. A fifth NCAA bid would tie Gottfried with Skip Prosser, the late Wake Forest coach, for the second-most consecutive NCAA trips to start an ACC career. The leader is North Carolina’s Roy Williams, with 6 straight bids from 2004 through 2009 to open his Tar Heel tenure.

Both Gottfried’s 2012 and 2015 Wolfpack squads reached the Sweet 16, one more advance to the regional semifinals than was achieved in the previous quarter-century at Raleigh. Only three ACC programs matched the Wolfpack stride for stride in reaching the NCAAs since Gottfried arrived. All are directed by Hall of Famers – Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Louisville’s Rick Pitino, and Williams.

Understandably dwarfed by his neighbors, Gottfried outshines them in sartorial styling on the sidelines. His interests are otherwise more prosaic – he cites his five children and his team as “about it.”

His oldest son, Brandon, is a recent Stanford graduate interested in computer programming. Daughter Mary Layson Gottfried, an N.C. State grad, embarked on a modeling career that will take her to South Africa this winter. Cameron is a 6-3 freshman guard on basketball scholarship at Siena; the Saints open their season on Nov. 13 at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, for which the younger Gottfried is not named. Sons Aaron and Dillon are high school students in Raleigh. “I talk to all five of them just about every day, every other day,” Gottfried says. “Kids take up a lot of time. There’s not a lot of time left.”

Former UCLA assistant

Golf game all but abandoned, the remainder of Gottfried’s energy goes to formulating teams, guided by what he learned at his first coaching stop.

“More than what we run, I would say I’m a product of the UCLA system,” he notes. “It has worked for me. It’s been good for me.” From practice plans to fastbreaks, the son of a coach embraces John Wooden’s thinking, even though he played at Alabama from 1985 to 1987 for Winfrey “Wimp” Sanderson, a winner of 267 games in a dozen years at Tuscaloosa.

Gottried was a UCLA assistant from 1988 through a 1995 season in which the Bruins captured the NCAA title under Jim Harrick. Gottfried never actually worked for Wooden, a Hall of Famer who won 10 NCAA championships from 1964 through 1975. Neither did Harrick. Yet talks with “Coach Wooden” inform Gottfried’s views on coaching, much as Dean Smith serves as Williams’ touchstone at UNC.

“Time has proven that this system has been effective,” Gottfried says of the UCLA approach he tinkers with each year. “Now I believe in it because I’ve seen the success of the fundamentals that it teaches. I think it helps develop players. Players become better because of the system.”

The statistical profiles of Gottfried’s squads clearly reflect adjustments to changes in personnel. With Trevor Lacey and Ralston Turner, last year’s team was his most reliant on threes, and least dependent on using passes to create shots. This season he expects a “high-energy group” lacking a dominant scorer to return to the more balanced, assist-oriented form of his earlier N.C. State units.

Gottfried’s approach attracted four McDonald’s All-Americans so far, including incumbent playmaker Anthony “Cat” Barber and 2014 ACC Player of the Year T.J. Warren. Top prep point prospect Dennis Smith Jr. of Fayetteville recently committed for 2016-17.

Gottfried may be at peace with being the other guy compared to his local colleagues. But the more he succeeds where others feared to tread, the more credit he’s due, if only for so thoroughly confounding conventional wisdom.

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