The N.C. State men’s basketball job is open again and, again, national media members – some of them, anyway – are back to the same talking points that come up every time this job is open. They sound like something like: Why would anyone want that job? The expectations are too high. N.C. State doesn’t appreciate success. It’s unrealistic to want what they want. How good of a job is it, really?
And on and on. Look, some of the takes are fair.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
And it must be noted, too: It has been a long, long time since N.C. State was nationally relevant, consistently, in basketball. That said, these things are said every time the job comes open. It’s not so difficult to understand. Talking heads need something to talk about it, and this is easy pickings. Same thing for writers. Shoot, I’m writing about it right now.
So let’s get to it: The stuff the national media says about the N.C. State job, and the reality.
THE STUFF: N.C. State doesn’t appreciate success. Why, just look what (recently fired coach) did there!
THE REALITY: OK, let’s look: Indeed, Mark Gottfried in six seasons went to the NCAA tournament four times, two of them with players that Sidney Lowe recruited.
And indeed, the Wolfpack made two Sweet 16s – two memorable, fun runs for that program. Those shouldn’t be discounted. Nor should the other side.
N.C. State in recent years hasn’t been able keep players in the program. There has been constant roster turnover. Defense is optional, and this is arguably the worst defensive team in recent ACC history. N.C. State has lost five conference games by at least 24 points, including one, at North Carolina, by 51.
This season and last, N.C. State is a combined 8-25 in the ACC. Only Boston College is worse. And these struggles aren’t in the beginning of Gottfried’s tenure – they’re in his fifth and sixth seasons. The trend has clearly been established.
Dennis Smith Jr., who really is probably the most talented player to come through N.C. State since David Thompson, could be a top-five pick in the NBA draft. If that happens, no top-five pick in the history of the ACC will have come from a worse team. And the roster is likely to turn over again.
There has been little program continuity in recent years, and enough off-court drama to make you wonder what’s been going on in Raleigh. And N.C. State is headed toward a second consecutive losing season – something that never happened under Sidney Lowe or Herb Sendek.
And speaking of Sendek …
THE STUFF: Sendek made the NCAA tournament five straight times and it wasn’t good enough!
THE REALITY: N.C. State made it past the second round one of those five times, and the Wolfpack in those years managed to implode in strange, curious ways. If the Wolfpack had held a 15-point lead against Duke in the 2003 ACC tournament championship game, maybe Sendek is still in Raleigh.
Then there was the collapse, one year later, against Vanderbilt in the NCAA tournament. And yes, Sendek faced constant scrutiny from the fans – that’s a fact – and he faced so much of it he left for Arizona State. What did he do there? Two NCAA tournament appearances in nine years.
Now he’s at Santa Clara. If Sendek had fared better since leaving N.C. State, it’d be much easier to buy the whole “N.C. State didn’t appreciate what it had” argument.
THE STUFF: The expectations are too high at N.C. State!
THE REALITY: Expectations are high everywhere. They’re likely higher at schools in major conferences. And yes, they’re likely higher at schools with a history of national success, however distant that success might be.
But what school doesn’t want to win? What school doesn’t want to be nationally relevant, especially in the two sports that most matter? (And football, obviously, matters much more than basketball.)
No school in the ACC sticks too long with an underachieving coach. Ask Dave Leitao, fired after four years (and only one losing season) at Virginia. Ask his predecessor, Pete Gillen. Ask Brian Gregory, fired after the “best” of his five seasons at Georgia Tech.
Ask Seth Greenberg, who won more at Virginia Tech than anybody had in a long time, and who was rewarded for all that winning by being fired after a 16-17 season in 2011-12. Ask Matt Doherty, who went from national coach of the year at UNC to out of a job two years later. The list goes on.
THE STUFF: But N.C. State wants what it hasn’t had in 25 years!
THE REALITY: You mean it wants a nationally-relevant program that competes for ACC championships and has a shot, in its very best years, to be a national contender!? The horror! How dare any school outside of UNC, Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, UCLA and Indiana and maybe a few others aspire for such things!
Look, here’s a history lesson: from the creation of the ACC in 1953 until about 1990, N.C. State had the second-most accomplished program in ACC history, right behind UNC. You know what happened next: scandal and an NCAA investigation buried the Wolfpack for the better part of a decade.
Duke kept going the momentum it built in the mid-1980s. N.C. State never regained its previously-held status. And here we are.
THE STUFF: I was (a young man, 12, infant, not even born) when N.C. State was last great!
THE REALITY: And you were even younger when Clemson won a national championship in football in 1981. More than 35 years later – including some lean, lean years in which the Tigers were far from nationally relevant – they won another national championship in January.
Indeed, N.C. State’s last ACC tournament championship was in 1987. And 1983 seems like ancient history. And are we sure 1974 even happened, because that was, like, more than 40 years ago.
It’s true: N.C. State’s two national championships happened a long time ago. But just as those titles didn’t guarantee future success, neither do the failures and relative mediocrity of the past 30 years guarantee such futility will last forever, either.
THE STUFF: No coach would want to go to N.C. State. The fans are TOXIC!
THE REALITY: Fans are fans. They’re crazy and unrealistic and expect to win every game by 25 points, or else. But they also are responsible, ultimately, for the entire sports industrial complex – for without fans none of it would exist, not even this fine sports section.
And so wouldn’t a coach want to work at a place where fans care, and where they’re a little nuts? Some are never going to be satisfied regardless.
Ask Roy Williams. There are UNC fans who aren’t happy with him. One of them called and left an irate voice mail on his home phone when UNC failed to sign Brandon Ingram a couple of years ago.
And every time UNC loses a meaningful game, I get the “Roy can’t coach” emails. Yet, according to some, N.C. State fans are somehow worse. (Worse than those who don’t appreciate a Hall of Fame coach like Williams, who’s one of the best of all time?)
N.C. State fans are no worse than any other group of fans who really care about their teams. And imagine being the coach at N.C. State when the Wolfpack wins its next ACC tournament championship in 2164. They will 3-D print a statue of that coach while he’s cutting down the nets with an app embedded into his mind.
THE STUFF: The N.C. State job is so hard because it’s so close to Duke and UNC!
THE REALITY: This doesn’t make any sense. If anything, the proximity to Duke and UNC is an advantage, because thanks to those schools – their rivalry, and their success – college basketball is king in this area the way it simply isn’t, and never will be, in other parts of the country.
Wouldn’t a coach want to work in an environment where the importance of his job is magnified? Wouldn’t a coach want to work in an environment where his work is valued in a way that it simply wouldn’t be in just about every other part of the country?
The UNC-Duke rivalry is special not only because of how good those programs are, but because of how geographically close they are. If N.C. State ever becomes nationally relevant again, it would only enhance what’s already the nation’s best college basketball market.
The proximity to UNC and Duke should entice a coach, not deter him. The way people talk about this, you’d wonder if Coach K and Ol’ Roy send henchmen over to Raleigh and demand lunch money from the N.C. State basketball staff every day. (It doesn’t happen that way, to my knowledge.)
Yes, competing against those schools is hard. But every team in the ACC deals with that.
THE STUFF: The N.C. State job isn’t a great or very good job!
THE REALITY: Like almost any job, it’s what a coach can make of it. Virginia certainly didn’t look like a very good job, either, before Tony Bennett came along. How good of a job did the one at Duke look like in 1980?
No, not all jobs are created equally. Not even close. But the coach makes the job more than the job makes the coach. UNC wasn’t UNC during its final two seasons under Matt Doherty. Kentucky wasn’t Kentucky under Billy Gillispie. Virginia wasn’t what it is now under Leitao and Gillen.
Where are these great jobs where winning just happens automatically? They don’t exist.
The Blue Devils have now won seven consecutive games and now look just about every bit as good as everyone thought they’d look in the preseason. March 4 in Chapel Hill will be fun, indeed.
-Appreciation for Mark Gottfried.
Remember the good: the butt slap of Coach K after N.C. State beat Duke, the NCAA tournament runs in 2012 and 2015. This season is a disaster, but the Wolfpack had its moments under Gottfried.
-The ACC as a 10-bid league for the NCAA tournament.
Seems certain that nine ACC teams will make the tournament. But who’s the 10th? Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Clemson? They all have a lot of work to do.
-Florida State as a contender to reach the Final Four.
The Seminoles have the talent but not the ability, apparently, to win outside of Tallahassee. That could be problematic, indeed, in those pesky neutral-site postseason games.
The four tiers of coaching jobs in the ACC:
1. UNC and Duke. In that order. Clearly the two best jobs in the ACC.
2. Louisville, Virginia, Syracuse, N.C. State, Notre Dame
3. Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, Florida State
4. Clemson, Miami, Virginia Tech, Boston College