No matter what happens now, there will always be the butt slap.
If Mark Gottfried’s time at N.C. State has indeed come to an end – and if he’s going to be fired at the end of the season, why wait any longer than Thursday morning? – the single peak moment of his entire tenure was probably that handshake line at the end of that Duke win, when Gottfried shook Mike Krzyzewski’s hand after knocking off the eventual national champions and then, as Krzyzewski passed, turned to reach back with his right hand and swat him on the posterior.
It was everything N.C. State ever wanted in a basketball coach: The big win over a Triangle rival combined with sly insolence, the cheeky refusal to genuflect to a legend. That should have gone a long way toward keeping the Wolfpack at large happy: three wins over Duke, including N.C. State’s first in Durham since 1995; two wins over North Carolina, including N.C. State’s first in Chapel Hill since 2003.
That wasn’t enough, though. Beyond the four trips to the NCAA tournament in six years, twice making it to the second weekend, there was the rank underachievement of his second team, when C.J. Leslie and company thought they were in charge. And there is this season, when what at one point looked like a team that had an outside chance at an ACC regular-season title thoroughly imploded.
“I know people are tired of hearing it,” Gottfried said, “but it’s the truth. It is the truth: We’ve got a lot of young players playing in a league that is really, really good this year. Probably the best I’ve seen the league. You just get caught in a vulnerable spot.”
People are certainly tired of the blowout losses. If the historic 51-point loss in Chapel Hill wasn’t a fireable offense on its own, Wednesday’s 97-73 home loss in the return game against North Carolina probably was. With speculation about their coach’s job swirling, backs against the wall, the Wolfpack produced one brief commendable stretch midway through the first half but otherwise displayed the same lack of organization on offense and lack of initiative on defense that has plagued this team all season.
Omer Yurtseven, hanging helplessly in the air and watching Luke Maye dunk, uncontested, after falling for a pump-fake at the 3-point line, may end up being the defining image of this season, although there are a lot of options when it comes to season-defining uncontested dunks.
“I feel for them,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “They’re going through some tough times right now, but my job is to try to win and do what’s best for North Carolina, and you got to feel good about that.”
Gottfried wasn’t anyone’s first choice for the job six years ago, but he turned out to be a remarkably good fit at N.C. State, with the right personality to deal with his neighbors – both of which were in the process of returning to national-title contention after a five-year drought – and a sense of the right buttons to push with the fan base.
But expectations are high at N.C. State, where basketball tradition is both an asset and an anchor, and the last two seasons haven’t measured up. This season, it has been less the number of defeats than the manner of them – four by 24 or more points in the past six games – so dismal that not even that win in Cameron could tip the balance. Wednesday was just more of the same.
It’s clear which way the wind is blowing, and there’s no point in letting this linger. Gottfried deserves better than being left to dangle for another three weeks; he’s earned that much, at least. Let the search begin in earnest, without any posturing about “evaluating after the season.”
Gottfried was, as ever, classy afterward. In both his radio show and his postgame press conference, he gave North Carolina credit, acknowledged his team’s crippling defensive issues and declined to answer questions about his future.
“Everything that happens is my responsibility,” Gottfried said. “That’s part of the turf as a head coach. Coaches get up sometimes, ‘Ah, that’s my responsibility.’ Obviously it is. Obviously. I get it. Just like if you beat Villanova in the NCAA tournament or go to the Sweet 16, you get a lot of praise sometimes as a head coach. Other times, you take the hits. That’s part of what we do.”
That’s about as much perspective as you’ll ever get from a coach in his position. He knows the score.
So if this is the last we’ll see of him and his gold MFG belt buckle, and he had it on Wednesday, this isn’t the night Wolfpack fans should remember.
Remember the night Gottfried was eager to leave Chapel Hill and get back to Hillsborough Street to celebrate the Wolfpack’s victory with the fans; remember “They gotta guard us, too, pal” and “There’s a plane waiting to take you to St. Louis,” the magic of 2012, piecing together the wreckage of the Sidney Lowe era; remember the heroics of T.J. Warren and Cat Barber.
And remember the butt slap. That team had everything: wins over Duke and North Carolina, an unexpected run to the Sweet 16 thanks to BeeJay Anya’s shot to beat LSU, Barber and Trevor Lacey and Ralston Turner and Abdul-Malik Abu, a potential path to the Final Four blocked by the unlikely intervention of Raleigh’s own Anton Gill.
Those were good days. Gottfried brought plenty of those to N.C. State. Wednesday wasn’t one, and not just because it could have been his last.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock