The observation was quickly lost amid the chatter over Mark Gottfried’s pending departure and delicious speculation on who might replace him. But concern over how to sustain a program, rather than stutter from one bench regime to another, was well-taken at N.C. State, seeking its fourth coach in 13 years. Especially in a neighborhood that’s home to a pair of men’s basketball programs regarded as national institutions in their sport.
Those idiosyncratic factors, confronted in an era when unpredictable player movement is a disruptive constant, and widened parity is fed by multimillion-dollar coaching salaries at mid-major schools, make the task of refurbishing a once-powerful program that much more daunting.
Debbie Yow, athletic director at N.C. State since mid-2010, took note of the frequency of player transfers nationwide, “over 700 every year now,” as she set about hiring a coaching search firm. Yow declined to discuss specifics of the school’s hiring process. She did concede that fashioning an elite program in the current climate is complicated by repeated coaching turnover. “It’s a challenge, generally speaking, and the more stable your quote-unquote brand is, your program, I think the better off you are.”
There’s a crucial difference between assembling a series of teams under various leaders and establishing a consistent, self-sustaining approach. Teams, like players, come and go – overlapping in some ways, building on previous achievements, using similar facilities but ultimately standing alone. Programs provide a common thread, a context linking individual squads and players across multiple seasons, bolstered by an active sense of tradition. Most often, the best programs also are marked by that most indispensable quality – unflagging success and the aura, the expectation, that inevitably accompanies it.
Experienced players proudly personify elements of a program’s ethic. Veterans at Duke and North Carolina command attention when they reiterate the most mundane imperatives with younger teammates, like the need for hard work and unstinting effort, or the “Play Hard, Play Smart, Play Together” message posted just beyond the Tar Heels locker room door. Such player-to-player reinforcement of precepts happens at many schools, but rarely with the same sense of curating a well-nurtured standard.
“How do you teach culture?” asks Mike Krzyzewski, whose teams rarely fail to play hard. “Usually peer to peer is better.” Even as he enjoyed a parade of one-and-done talent, the Duke coach also has managed to incorporate a blend of upperclassmen at key positions, as with senior guard Quinn Cook on the 2015 national championship squad that featured three freshmen who won, then left. “These young guys need older guys,” Krzyzewski says.
While Krzyzewski built Duke’s unique culture over 37 seasons – unconnected to the comparably successful but largely forgotten program of predecessor Vic Bubas – the North Carolina continuum dates unbroken from Frank McGuire’s 1950’s coaching tenure. Across the years UNC can draw a line from Hall of Famer McGuire to his former assistant, Hall of Famer Dean Smith, and on to Smith’s ex-assistant, Bill Guthridge, then Smith’s former player, Matt Doherty, and now to Hall of Famer Roy Williams, who played and coached under Smith.
The thread connecting Tar Heels present and past is more than coaches, more than precious routines like pointing to a teammate after a pass for an assist, or standing when a player leaves the game. Nor is it embodied in the innumerable honored and retired player jerseys, and banners commemorating team achievements, that crowd the rafters in the Chapel Hill arena named after Smith.
Sense of belonging
Rather, according to forward Isaiah Hicks, the torch is passed within an informal brotherhood that arose around the program long ago. “Honestly, it’s the veterans that come back during the summer, before the season, before we even practice,” the senior says. “They’re out here playing pickup with us and trying to teach us stuff.”
State thought bigger than that. We’re big, we’re good, we’re going to win it all.
Bucky Waters on N.C. State basketball under Everette Case
Junior Theo Pinson had the same immediate response. The sense of belonging to something bigger than any individual, season or collection of teammates “starts in the summer,” he says, when team managers still chart stats of interest to the coaching staff. “You see how many people care. The people you’re playing against, you can look up and they have their jersey retired. That’s pretty cool. You just want to keep that tradition going and try to bring another banner.”
During a season, similar awareness of a connection that spans the years can be manifest in a single play, according to Duke’s Amile Jefferson. That’s how he saw his relocation pass from the post to freshman guard Frank Johnson, resulting in a crucial, early second-half 3-pointer in a home win over Wake Forest in mid-February.
“That’s a vintage Duke play,” said the graduate student in his fifth season as a Blue Devil. “You look back, however far you go, Duke makes that play where a big guy or a four (power forward) gets that rebound and kicks it out and it’s like a dagger. It deflates the other team when you do that. That’s been a trademark of Duke, and of our Duke team.”
Programs are all about trademarks. When guard Raymond “Bucky” Waters came to Raleigh on a recruiting trip from New Jersey in 1954, he was dazzled by the trend-setting trappings of coach Everett Case’s N.C. State program, from spotlighted player introductions to color highlight films in an era of black and white. More than 60 years later, he vividly recalls the spectacle of coming over a rise and seeing Reynolds Coliseum, then the largest basketball arena south of Philadelphia, aglow “like Disneyland.”
“You knew that you were in a big-time situation,” Waters says of Case’s Wolfpack program, which won nine league titles in the decade from 1947 through 1956. Waters encountered less a playing methodology than a “steely toughness,” an indifference to piddling local rivalries. “State thought bigger than that,” he says. “We’re big, we’re good, we’re going to win it all.”
The Case tradition
To counter Case, Carolina hired McGuire, a Final Four coach at St. John’s (where he lost in 1952 to a Kansas club with reserve guard Dean Smith). Duke hired Bubas, a Case assistant. Previously untried as a head coach, during the 1960s, Bubas won four ACC titles and advanced to a trio of Final Fours. He was followed at Durham by Waters, his former assistant and another Wolfpack alum.
Clearly, when making coaching changes it’s hard to give up on a good thing. Case was succeeded by assistant Press Maravich and then by Norm Sloan, another former Wolfpacker. Not until Jim Valvano’s arrival in 1980-81 did the Case program loosen its 34-year grip in Raleigh. When Valvano was canned, he yielded to yet another former Case player, Les Robinson.
Replacing a men’s coach at any of the Triangle schools is a challenge. When Williams, 66, eventually retires, there will be much talk of staying “within the family” at UNC, an approach didn’t work so well with the inexperienced Doherty.
Moving on after Krzyzewski, 70, won’t be a picnic for Duke, either. Since John Wooden retired at UCLA in 1975 after winning his 10th NCAA title in 12 seasons, and probably before, replacing a coach of legendary status, especially one who personifies a program, has been an exercise likely to end in popular rejection or competitive failure for his immediate successor.
For now, though, it’s N.C. State that must pivot – again – as its high-profile neighbors march merrily along.