It’s time to rebuild Wolfpack basketball
NC State basketball fans deserve better.
They deserve to get out of the program, the most important athletic program at the university, as much as they’ve given.
Whether it’s love or money, the Wolfpack community has invested a substantial amount, and it’s been a long time since they’ve gotten enough joy in return.
To that end, this episode has to come to a close. Mark Gottfried’s tenure, which began with a lot of promise and did provide some high moments, on the whole has been more of an emotional drag than it should have over the last six years, and here’s why.
If you know me by now, you understand that the most important element in building a successful program, in my opinion, is continuity. Give good coaches enough time, resources and autonomy and they will deliver the best product they’re capable of providing.
This may yet happen with the football program as Dave Doeren will return for a fifth season after what was a rocky year in his own right. But over time, obvious signs show themselves, and we’ve learned a lot since Gottfried’s hiring on April 5, 2011.
Gottfried deserved a ton of credit for creating a positive environment in year one. The Sidney Lowe era was disappointing, to say the least, but the point guard on one of NC State’s most beloved teams did not leave the program in ruins.
Mark inherited a very talented core of players from his predecessor. C.J. Leslie, Lorenzo Brown, Scott Wood, Richard Howell and C.J. Williams were all very good players with much higher ceilings than they’d previously shown, and all that was needed was an atmosphere more conducive to growing as players and competitors.
Gottfried did a wonderful job that first year, right down to the subtle-yet-significant decision to refer to Leslie as “Calvin,” giving the enigmatic player a fresh start.
Remember that Leslie arrived at NC State as a strong candidate to be one of those proverbial “one-and-dones.”
Unfortunately, his lackluster play negatively impacted the NBA’s view, and Leslie had no choice but to try and repair his image with a second season.
Under the new regime, Leslie started to grow as a player, and with the help of Brown and others, State ended a five-year NCAA Tournament drought and wound up in the Sweet 16.
You could not have had a better opening year. Fans knew there was talent, but they also recognized the scars, and expectations were modest at best. But the end result gave them hope that even though Gottfried was, in many ways, an accidental hire (we don’t really need to get into the details do we?), that the program might have stumbled onto exactly what they needed after more than a decade of what they didn’t want.
Then, it went the other way.
Year two, with the same core players PLUS freshmen T.J. Warren, Rodney Purvis and Tyler Lewis was at best confounding and at worst a borderline disaster. It began with the Wolfpack ranked SIXTH in the preseason poll.
However, when February rolled around, State was back on the bubble, wondering about their postseason fate, and all of those November high hopes seemed more like delusions of grandeur.
The team needed wins in eight of its last 11 games just to be seeded 8th in the NCAA Tournament’s East region, where they delivered an uninspiring performance in an opening round loss to Temple.
Following the season, Gottfried publicly admitted to allowing that team too much leeway to police itself, so to speak. To put it another way, Gottfried was wary that being too harsh on Leslie, for better or worse the team’s leader, would cause the group to splinter.
So rather than demand accountability to each other, he allowed the situation to fester, and the results reflected the mismanagement.
In my opinion, though it was hard to know for sure at the time, that was the beginning of the end for Gottfried’s tenure. By admitting his failure to push the right buttons, it appeared that would not hamper the program moving forward.
By understanding that allowing the players to control the program caused a season that fell wildly short of their own expectations, there was hope that lessons would be learned and applied to subsequent teams.
The next four years were more of the same. Roster turnover at an alarming rate, rumors of unrest among teammates regarding playing time, complaints from parents, threats to transfer and constantly living on the fine line that was the uncertainty over whether their accomplishments would allow them to make the tournament.
These are all things that happen in other programs, mind you. But when they happen, and they have even over at Duke, they either get addressed or there’s a new coach.
The best way to deal with these issues is for the head coach to demand a standard of performance, behavior, conditioning, attention to detail and to hold all players in the program accountable. In turn, they will hold each other accountable, and when that happens, you have a program on solid footing.
Six years in, Gottfried has failed to accomplish that, failed to establish such benchmarks, to define their identity as a program, and that’s why it must, and likely will, end at the conclusion of the season. For the record, I really thought Gottfried was the perfect fit for State. Great personality, relatable to the media, and unafraid of the most competitive basketball zip code in the United States.
Where Athletic Director Debbie Yow goes from here is the $1 million — and likely a lot more — question.
I don’t need to remind you how hard it was for her to conduct the last coaching search, do I? If you think this one is going to be easier, two years away from her intended retirement, you’re not as bright as you think.
And while I could make the argument that the best thing for the school would be to elevate Yow to an emeritus role, hire the next A.D. — preferably one with major conference administrative experience — now and let them hire the next coach, we’ll leave that discussion for another time.
If you can win at Oregon, and Baylor, and West Virginia, and Purdue, and Florida State, you can win at NC State. None of those schools have the history, tradition or passion for college basketball that is ingrained in Raleigh.
Everett Case helped build the ACC. NC State is part of the foundation of the best college basketball league in the sport’s history. Some of the game’s best players, best coaches, best moments have represented the Red and White.
And, while times change and landscapes shift, not so much earth has been moved that NC State can’t ever get back to a position of prominence in the sport that means more to it then than any other.
But when your house has been deteriorating like it has for such an extended period of time, it becomes a complete rebuild. After five years of Lowe and six more of Gottfried. NC State still lacks the foundation necessary upon which great programs are built. It’s going to take time and hard work to make the necessary repairs. It’s time for that to happen.
Think about it – when was the last time NC State fans really LOVED their basketball team.
They deserve to again, but there is no easy fix.