Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying.
Mark Gottfried’s wits served him well while he waited for his electrophysiologist at UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill on April 21.
“As long as Roy (Williams) doesn’t come in to do the surgery, I’m fine over here,” N.C. State’s 52-year-old basketball coach joked about his famous contemporary with the Tar Heels.
Seven months after cardiac ablation surgery, Gottfried was right. He’s actually better than fine a month into his sixth season at N.C. State.
A difficult 2015-16 season is behind him, so is an even more difficult offseason that included a health scare, a divorce and an overhaul of his coaching staff and roster.
“I had a lot going on and it was all happening at one time,” Gottfried said.
Taking care of himself
Gottfried’s gray sport coat kind of hangs off his shoulders as he tries to cajole effort out of his team in Saturday’s 79-77 win over Loyola-Chicago.
Gottfried looks a cross between two different Tom Hanks’ characters. He has grown out a gray beard, in an effort to raise awareness for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and the fight former N.C. State baseball player Chris Combs faces against the disease.
Gottfried likes to joke the beard makes him look like “The Most Interesting Man in the World” from the popular beer commercial but there’s a touch of Hanks from “Cast Away” in the look.
And after losing 45 pounds, the sport coat makes Gottfried looks like Hanks’ character at the end of the movie “Big.”
Gottfried’s weight loss is one of the main reasons he said he feels “as good now as I have in 20 years.”
When he checked into the hospital for heart surgery in April, to correct the heart conditions atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter, he weighed 260 pounds.
“I was probably a heart attack waiting to happen, my heart was not right,” Gottfried said.
Slowed by medication and worn down by the endless grind of coaching, Gottfried didn’t make time for his own health.
Atrial fibrillation, or AFib, is an irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia. The heart races, which can be disconcerting by itself, and it increases the risk of stroke and heart disease.
Gottfried’s heartbeat would rocket to 150 beats per minute. Twice during the season, had to have an electrical cardioversion procedure to shock his heart back into a normal rhythm.
“That’s not fun,” Gottfried said.
Changing the Wolfpack
While Gottfried struggled with his health, his team struggled with a 5-13 ACC record and an overall losing record (16-17) last season.
N.C. State’s season ended on March 9 with a 92-89 loss to Duke in the ACC tournament. It was the first time in five seasons Gottfried did not lead the Wolfpack to the NCAA tournament.
A Sweet 16 team in 2015, for the second time in four years, N.C. State had high hopes for last season after the strong finish. Injuries, to Terry Henderson and Lennard Freeman, and the early exit of Trevor Lacey, derailed the season really before it started.
“You still as a coach try to overcome those obstacles,” Gottfried said. “It was a hard, frustrating year. Our kids played really hard, we just didn’t have enough.”
After the season ended, star guard Cat Barber left for the NBA, which was expected. Twins Cody and Caleb Martin decided to transfer and both Abdul-Malik Abu and BeeJay Anya put their names in the NBA draft.
While the roster was in flux, Gottfried also decided to rework his coaching staff. He moved assistant Rob Moxley, who had his own health crisis the previous spring, to a role on the support staff.
Gottfried also made the difficult decision to part ways with top assistant Bobby Lutz, who had worked with Gottfried all five years since Gottfried was hired in April 2011.
“I felt it was time to get new ideas,” Gottfried said.
Lutz’s strength is scouting and strategy, Gottfried said, but not recruiting.
“He’s a great X-and-O coach,” Gottfried said. “But we really only had one guy (assistant Orlando Early) out recruiting last year like we needed to and that hurt us.”
Gottfried hired Butch Pierre, a longtime assistant from Oklahoma State and LSU, and Heath Schroyer, who was the head coach at Tennessee-Martin.
When Pierre was hired at the end of March, the roster upheaval was a tad unsettling but Gottfried was nonplussed.
“He was never in a panic about anything,” Pierre said. “Sometimes I wish he would get in a panic but I don’t think that’s his personality.”
In the spring, the revamped staff helped add Omer Yurtseven, Ted Kapita, Darius Hicks and Markell Johnson to the roster. Also, both Abu and Anya decided to return.
One problem was solved, others were waiting.
Finalizing his divorce
Even with all that was happening on the basketball side, Gottfried couldn’t put off his heart problems any longer. He scheduled the surgery for late April. It just happened to coincide with the finalization of his divorce.
Gottfried was married to his wife, Elizabeth, for 24 years. They have five grown children, which makes any divorce complicated.
The two had been separated for the last three years of their marriage but it doesn’t make the finality of the decision any easier, Gottfried said.
“It’s just very hard for everybody involved,” Gottfried said. “I’ve made a lot mistakes and I’ve basically shared all of them, the best I could, with my kids.
“I tried my best with each one and they all handled it differently but good.”
Gottfried’s oldest son, Brandon, 25, has been living in Raleigh since graduating from Stanford in 2015. His son, Cameron, transferred from Siena over the summer and is a junior on N.C. State’s basketball team. His son, Aaron, is a freshman at N.C. State and his youngest son, Dillon, is a senior in high school. Gottfried’s daughter, Mary Layson, graduated from N.C. State in 2015, and she is in Raleigh when her modeling career doesn’t take her overseas.
“I’m probably closer to my kids than I’ve been and I’ve always thought I’ve been really close to them,” Gottfried said.
Gottfried took everything he went through in April as a “wake-up call.” He has tried to make more time for the people he cares about.
“It does make you think about what’s really important to you,” Gottfried said.
He has also figured out he’s not much good to the people he loves if he’s not physically healthy. His AFib has been under control since the surgery and he’s off the medication that had made him so sluggish.
After the summer recruiting circuit ended in July, Gottfried enlisted Pierre’s help to lose weight. Long and lean, Pierre looks like he could be an MMA cage fighter. Pierre turned a diet into a challenge for Gottfried.
“He’s very competitive,” Pierre said.
Pierre, who didn’t have five pounds to lose, lost five pounds the first week on the weight-loss program with Gottfried. Gottfried had only lost two.
“It was on after that,” Pierre said.
Gottfried stepped up his exercise regimen and became a regular at a flywheel cycling class at Cameron Village. He challenged Pierre, he challenged his son Brandon, he challenged anyone who was up to it on the stationary bike.
“He has done a remarkable job,” Pierre said. “Losing 45 pounds is not easy to do.”
The new-found appreciation for healthier foods, and long walks with the dog, have added a different element to Gottfried’s relationship with his family.
“It’s cool to see him be excited to go get a salad at Harris Teeter,” Brandon said.
Other than the weight loss, Gottfried hasn’t changed all that much, his son said.
“He’s not a different person because he has always been super positive,” Brandon said.
Positive is the only way to be, Gottfried said, especially after everything he has been through.
“Sometimes when you’re in the storm, you come out of the storm and the sun shines again,” Gottfried said. “I feel like I’ve got my feet back on the ground now and I’m ready to go.”
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio
N.C. State at Illinois
ACC/Big Ten Challenge
When: 9 p.m., Tuesday
Where: State Farm Center, Champaign, Ill.