When looking back at N.C. State’s last search for a basketball coach, it’s best to start near the end.
So much happened during the search in 2011, which started with the March 15 resignation of Sidney Lowe and ended with the hiring of Mark Gottried from ESPN that April 5 – the waiting, the public rejections, a panicked email to fans from athletic director Debbie Yow – that it would be less painful to just skip the weeks in between.
After a “thanks but no thanks” from Arizona coach Sean Miller and an underwhelming interview with Texas A&M’s Mark Turgeon (who was deemed by Yow as too “reverential” towards North Carolina and Duke), Yow had identified Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart as her main target.
Smart, then only 33 years old, was an up-and-comer with the gold star of approval from Florida coach Billy Donovan’s coaching tree, and in the midst of his second solid season at VCU.
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Smart was willing to talk with Yow about the N.C. State job, but only after the Rams were eliminated from the NCAA tournament. Given VCU’s regular season, that seemed like it would be sooner rather than later.
The First Four
VCU had a 21-10 record and lost four of its last five regular-season games in 2011. Smart led the Rams to a pair of wins in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament before they lost to Old Dominion in the championship game.
VCU had won the “College Basketball Invitational” the year before, and were no lock to make the NCAA tournament in 2011.
But 2011 was the year the NCAA tournament expanded to 68 teams (the first break to go against Yow’s search that year). The Rams got into the tournament as one of the last teams in the field, gaining one of the “First Four” spots in Dayton, Ohio. They opened up with Southern California.
VCU beat the Pac-12’s Trojans easily, 59-46. Georgetown, a perpetual tournament underachiever, was next in the main draw of the bracket. The Rams, the 11th-seed in the Southwest region, beat the Hoyas by 18 and then beat Purdue, the No. 3 seed, by the same margin to reach the Sweet 16.
VCU squeaked out a one-point win over Florida State in overtime to win its Sweet 16 game. With a trip to the Final Four on the line, No. 1 seed Kansas was up next.
The Rams sprinted out to an 18-point halftime lead and then withstood a second-half rally to upset the Jayhawks, 71-61. The trailblazing path from the “First Four” to the “Final Four” was complete.
A long wait
While VCU kept winning, N.C. State kept waiting. Yow started to work on Plan B, which quickly turned into Plan C, Plan D (and, eventually, Plan Gottfried).
At the Final Four in Houston, Yow met with Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall and Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin. Memphis’ Josh Pastner was also considered for the job.
Marshall’s work at Winthrop, seven NCAA appearances in nine seasons between 1999 and 2007, had impressed Yow, when she was the AD at Maryland. In his first four seasons at Wichita State, Marshall did not make the tournament but Yow was keen on his potential. (Two years later, the Shockers made the Final Four and then started the 2014 season 34-0.)
Cronin, then in his fifth season at Cincinnati, lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2011. A former assistant to Rick Pitino at Louisville, Cronin had rebuilt the Bearcats’ program in the rugged Big East.
Pastner, then in his second season at Memphis and only 33 years old, had already built a reputation as a sharp recruiter (Yow’s main criteria).
The plan: If things with Smart didn’t work out, one of those three coaches would be strong hires.
Finally, a meeting
Plans never seem to work out for N.C. State during coaching searches (See: 2006 and the hiring of Lowe).
VCU finally lost in the Final Four on April 2 to Butler, another mid-major upstart. Yow got the green light to meet with Smart in Richmond, Va., the next day.
Yow was in a hurry, maybe too much of a hurry, on the drive north up I-95. Before Yow and Chris Kingston, then her top assistant AD, got to the Virginia border, they got pulled over by a state trooper.
The trooper didn’t recognize Kingston, who was driving, but he knew who was sitting in the front seat.
“Aren’t you supposed to be finding us a basketball coach?” the trooper, an N.C. State fan, asked Yow.
“Yes, sir,” Yow answered. “That’s what I’m trying to do.”
“Well, get out of here,” the trooper said and let the two go without a speeding ticket.
That would be Yow’s only good break on the trip. Smart considered N.C. State’s offer, in the $1.9 million range, but wasn’t overwhelmed by it. Smart is also the candidate Yow alluded to when she claimed former Maryland coach Gary Williams tried to “sabotage” the search. A claim Williams has refuted.
Smart was able to get a raise from VCU, an eight-year contract for less ($1.2 million annually) than what N.C. State had offered but with the promise of upgraded facilities. VCU’s $25 million practice facility would open four years later. It probably should have Yow’s name on it.
On April 4, all of the dominoes fell against Yow. Smart and VCU announced his new deal (he left VCU for the Texas job in 2015). Marshall leveraged a new contract out of Wichita State and Pastner got a raise from Memphis (he is now in his first season with Georgia Tech).
The flurry of rejections got so bad, Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson claimed he turned down a multimillion dollar offer that N.C. State never extended. There were cursory discussions with then-Texas coach Rick Barnes that were also somehow inflated into unofficial rejection.
With the search was seemingly at a dead end, Yow sent out an email to Wolfpack Club members that night about the challenges of the search and the “poor shape” of the program and the “special effort” required to rebuild it.
Yow sent out the email knowing she had one last option in her back pocket.
Yow was the women’s basketball coach at Oral Roberts in 1983, where Gottfried started his playing career before he transferred to Alabama.
Gottfried had dated one of the players on Yow’s team. She remembered him from then and had followed his coaching career at UCLA, as an assistant, and then as the head coach at Murray State and Alabama.
Gottfried had been working as an analyst at ESPN and Yow had been in contact with his agent, Jordan Bazant, during the search. Gottfried was a finalist for the Utah job, which went to Larry Krystkowiak, and wanted to get back into coaching.
Less than 24 hours after the rejections and the desperate email, Yow and Gottfried had worked out a deal. He was introduced that Tuesday afternoon in a press conference at Carter-Finley Stadium.
An excited Yow proclaimed the Wolfpack “back in the game.”
Six years later, Yow is back in the search business, hoping to avoid a repeat of the last one.
Joe Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio
Where are they now?
N.C. State had serious discussions with five candidates before hiring Mark Gottfried in 2011. Athletic director Debbie Yow didn’t have any problems identifying coaching talent, just in convincing a coach to take over a Wolfpack program that had missed the NCAA tournament five years in a row and lives in the same neighborhood as Duke and North Carolina.
How those five coaches have fared in the past six season:
Ga. Tech (2016-)