There had to have been some moment, driving to the arena, drawing up game plans, looking at the Notre Dame scouting report one last time, when Mark Gottfried looked around and wondered why he kept acting like everything was normal when it so clearly was not.
If that moment came, he wouldn’t admit it.
He coached Saturday like he hadn’t been fired by N.C. State, once again studiously avoided placing any blame on his players with all the latitude in the world to do so and continued to handle an impossibly difficult situation with grace and dignity.
It was Gottfried’s decision, after being told on Thursday he wouldn’t return next season, to stick it out. He felt he owed it to his players, which is really something considering how badly those same players let him down this season.
“I’m going to roll on, when that time comes,” Gottfried said. “But right now I want to see if I can help these guys, somehow. Just a little bit more. Just a little bit more, get over the hump and have some success on the way out.”
So he did his radio show Thursday night, as scheduled. Saturday, he walked onto the court like before any other game, this time greeted by an ovation from a half-full building instead of the smattering of boos that accompanied his arrival Wednesday. And he coached and stomped his feet and cajoled his way through yet another loss, 81-72 this time, N.C. State’s seventh straight since the win at Duke.
Amid this desperate attempt to retain some sense of normality in a most unusual season, the one place Gottfried absolutely had to acknowledge these odd circumstances was in his pregame speech, in which he compared himself to a dog run over by a car. “Bite that tire” may not be a late-postmark entry into the pantheon of Gottfried bon mots, but it met the standard of absurdity Saturday.
With seismic change roiling just below the surface, everything seemed superficially the same as Notre Dame made easy buckets and pulled away – until a second-half N.C. State rally cut the lead to single digits.
Mark it down: 1:31 p.m., Feb. 18, the moment the Wolfpack decided it had not yet begun to fight. Three months and a coach’s job too late, but still.
“I’m disappointed,” Gottfried said. “Nobody’s into moral victories. We’re not into all that. But, I saw some fight today. I like it. I saw some fight, some spirit, I think we got a little bit of that back. I’m really proud of our young guys. Proud of them. It’s been a tough couple days, no doubt about it.”
Gottfried could be forgiven for asking his team what exactly took so long, but it was enough to put a late scare into Notre Dame – which has rumbled along to yet another 10-win ACC season – and could perhaps be a steppingstone to a late reversal of fortune, not in spite of a lame-duck coach but because of one.
After all that time telling his players not to quit, it took Gottfried not giving up on them to get them to not give up on themselves.
“For (Gottfried) to stay with his group, and finish with them, just kind of tells you what kind of guy he is,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “Don’t be surprised if they do some things in the regular season, and especially in Brooklyn.”
There are still three more games before the ACC tournament in Brooklyn, for however long that lasts, and maybe even a postseason tournament of some kind. Every win now is an opportunity for Gottfried to prolong his time with this team.
“My job now is to still lead our team,” he said. “Even with players, tough things happen in life. That’s what life is. It’s hard. Things happen. I need to be an example, too, in how I respond to tough things happening. My whole focus that day, and today, is them guys.”
He isn’t done coaching this team yet, even though he knows he’ll be done soon. Just not yet. Gottfried still believes, even if everyone else has lost faith.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock