Making sense of the non-sensical world of American politics

Right Now is Right Now for NC State

So here we are again, in all too familiar territory. With NC State Director of Athletics, Debbie Yow, firing Mark Gottfried last week, the Wolfpack embark on yet another search for a head man to lead the men’s basketball program.  The very mention of such an endeavor is enough to turn the collective stomachs of Wolfpack Nation.  Undoubtedly, there is still scar tissue from wounds inflicted during the often messy – and sometimes incompetent – coaching searches that culminated with the hiring of Sidney Lowe and Mark Gottfried, in 2007 and 2011 respectively.

During these previous two searches, NC State endured more rejection than a high school debate team at the prom. The names of the rejecters are etched deeply into our souls: Rick Barnes, John Calipari, Gregg Marshall, Shaka Smart, Billy Donovan, Rick Barnes again, Mick Cronin, among others.  I think it is fair to say that neither Lowe nor Gottfried were initially top tier candidates in the minds of the administration.

Many national pundits, including Jay Bilas (who is also a local one), contend that NC State should prepare itself for similar setbacks during the current coaching search. According to these folks, the NC State job wears a big red scarlet letter around its wretched neck.  They may well be right to some degree, as there are inevitable and irrefutable headwinds facing the Wolfpack.  But I believe the underlying dynamics are different this time around, and that those dynamics are largely in NC State’s favor.  In fact, I would submit that right now is the best “right now” NC State has enjoyed in decades.

AD Yow has been the target of national criticism for her decision to fire Coach Gottfried with the season still ongoing – a coach who had led the Wolfpack to four consecutive NCAA appearances in his first four years, including two Sweet 16 appearances. Having been an NC State fan for most of my adult life, I recognize the significance of these accomplishments, for these are heights not reached with much regularity in the past 30 years.  Mark Gottfried deserves due credit and appreciation from Wolfpack fans for the improved status of the basketball program achieved under his watch.

Unfortunately, however, the program has been mired in a precipitous decline the past two years. The deterioration of the program appears to be due in large measure to a lack of continuity.  The Wolfpack have hemorrhaged talent during Gottfried’s tenure through a toxic mixture of transfers out of the program, and early departures for the NBA draft.  Of Gottfried’s 20 recruits, fully half have left the program early, with 7 of the 10 being transfers.  Consequently, in 2015, the ship began to take on heavy water, and this year she has all but sunk.  Once submerged, I do not think that Yow could envision a scenario by which the ship would float again, let alone sail – at least not in the near term.

The decision, then, was much more about future direction than past successes, of which there were many. We know where the Wolfpack had been under Gottfried, but where were they going?  I think the answer was murky at best, and ominous at worst.  Still, I would have much preferred to see Yow wait until the conclusion of the season to part ways with Gottfried.  I am concerned that this rushed, and mostly botched, decision could have a chilling effect on the current coaching search.  If any potential replacement is given pause by these unfortunate events, it would obviously be less than ideal for the Wolfpack.

While we are on the subject, who the heck wrote (and/or approved) that coldblooded, inartful and downright disparaging press release in which Yow says, “While it has long been my practice to evaluate the body of work at the season’s end, in reviewing the overall direction of our program, we believe a change in leadership is necessary moving forward.” Unpacking that colossal disaster of a statement, Yow essentially makes clear that she typically waits until the season is finished to announce coaching decisions, but is not willing to afford Gottfried that courtesy.  Really, this could not have waited three weeks?  When weighing the gain versus potential damage of this move, it seems like a clear mistake.  Decency should have won the day on this front, and, candidly, Gottfried deserved better.  But, alas, I digress for this is one ship that has indeed sailed.

The good news gleaned from Gottfried’s tenure – as it relates to the current coaching search – is that his initial successes show that prosperity is possible, and fast. Following Lowe’s 5 years, during which the NCAA Tournament was not reached even once, this possibility seemed much more remote.  Now, the new coach will be taking the reins of a program that boogied in the Big Dance just two years ago, as well as the previous three to that.

More to the point, the next basketball coach will not be inheriting a cupboard completely bare of talent; assuming, of course, that the coaching change does not spark a mass exodus. Yes, star point guard, Dennis Smith, Jr., will be bolting for the NBA following his one season in Raleigh.  But he was always a one and done proposition.  The Wolfpack will also lose senior guard Terry Henderson, who has had a disappointing run in an NC State uniform since transferring from West Virginia, due largely to injury and uneven play (though he was sensational at Georgia Tech on Tuesday night).  The perplexing artist known as Beejay Anya, who has provided scant production this year, will be graduating.  Notably, Anya will be Coach Gottfried’s first player to graduate from NC State.

On the positive side, the team will return sophomore starters Torin Dorn and Maverick Rowan, as well as heralded freshman Omer Yurtseven, whose game and body should benefit greatly from another year of development. Freshman Ted Kapita showed marked signs of improvement as the year progressed while providing some much needed toughness and physicality.  Additional physicality should come in the form of bruiser Lennard Freeman who will be returning next year following a redshirt year due to injury.

Markell Johnson is coming off the best games of his freshman campaign against Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. As the point guard of the future, I believe the keys to the team are in capable hands under Johnson’s direction.  NC State’s most skilled big man, junior Abdul Malik-Abu, may or may not return for the new coach, but his returning for his senior year would obviously be a boon for the Wolfpack.  The continued development of sophomore Shaun Kirk and freshman Darius Hicks would certainly provide a punch off the bench for next year’s team.

In addition to the returning players, the new coach will look to the recruiting trail to supplement the roster. Both Sidney Lowe’s and Mark Gottfried’s tenures should be instructive, and positively so, in this regard. Lowe and Gottfried were able to pull in impressive recruiting hauls in recent years.  J.J. Hickson, C.J. Leslie, Lorenzo Brown, Rodney Purvis, Cat Barber and Dennis Smith, Jr.  were all top-tier recruits, with Smith being a top-5 addition.  From 2011 – 2016, NC State snagged five 5-star recruits which is tied for third best in the ACC over that period, only trailing Duke and North Carolina.  If you combine the number of 5-star and 4-star recruits over that same span, NC State is ranked 5th out of the League’s 15 teams.  Clearly, recruiting is not the source of the Wolfpack’s woes, and should not provide an insurmountable obstacle for the new coach.  These alternative facts related to recruiting are contrary to the talking points robotically espoused by national pundits who cite the difficulties of recruiting in our neck of the woods as a primary concern for any new coach.

Speaking of our neighbors to the West, Duke and North Carolina have ruled the roost in the ACC, and along Tobacco Road in particular, for as long as I can remember. Additionally, these two premiere programs are led by two of the game’s premiere coaches in Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams.  As with recruiting, national observers often highlight this fact as a chief reason as to why another premiere coach would not want to come to Raleigh.  These rehashed, tired lines are easy to say, but are simultaneously lazy and intellectually dishonest.  It should go without saying that the best basketball coaches at the collegiate level are competitive people by nature who are driven by a challenge.  What better challenge than to live, work and compete in the same zip code as two of the leading programs – and their legendary coaches – in America?

This area of our great state is not called “Linear Straight Line;” it is known as the “Triangle.” It takes three to tango in these parts.  Historically, NC State has mattered just as much as the other two schools that form that triangle.  After Jimmy V’s 1987 squad stunned the nation by winning the ACC Tournament just outside of the Nation’s Capital, one could make a compelling argument that NC State was historically a better program than Duke, and on equal footing with North Carolina.  At that point in history, the Wolfpack held two national titles and 10 ACC championships – the exact same number as Carolina, and two more than Duke in each category.

This history is important, because it might well inform the future. Most things in life are cyclical; so too is the balance of power along Tobacco Road.  The right coach is staring the opportunity of a lifetime directly in its face.  What would the cold nights of winter be like along Tobacco Road should NC State return consistently to national prominence in basketball?  What if every NC State-Duke and NC State-UNC game was essentially tantamount to the hallowed Duke-UNC rivalry?  And if this were so, what coach would not want to be a part of such a scene?

A twist to the “neighborhood” piece of the NC State job is the looming retirements of Coach K and Ol’ Roy in the next 5-7 years. While it is likely that Duke and North Carolina simply restock with another prominent coach, change is never certain.  There is no guarantee that the transition of power will be seamless, and it will undoubtedly present challenges and obstacles that both programs will have to overcome.  With the next coach at NC State having 5 years or so to build the foundation of his program, the Wolfpack just might be in prime position to unseat Duke and/or North Carolina on the Tobacco Road Totem Pole, or at the very least be their equal.  Admittedly, this might sound like a stretch given where things stand today, but it could also be a very plausible scenario in 5 years time.  And if the dynamics do shift in NC State’s favor, the coach that led them to the top of the hill (pun intended) in the hood would be enshrined forever as a hero in Raleigh, and might well be viewed nationally as the next Coach K or Roy.

The most ridiculous reason of the litany of ridiculous reasons that a prominent coach would not come to NC State is the absurd notion that the fans are too passionate. To me, that is like saying vodka is too strong, or that pie is too sweet.  I can vouch for the intense passion of Wolfpack fans.  It is most definitely a thing.  I should know, for I am a card-carrying member.  But let me be clear, it is not passion without reason, objectivity and compassion.  Herb Sendek was at NC State for 10 years (and left of his own volition), and Sidney Lowe’s unsuccessful regime was given 5.  These were not knee jerk reactions.

Furthermore, I think most Wolfpack fans recognize, and are grateful for, the significant contributions of Herb Sendek, Mark Gottfried, and even Lowe. Then there is the question begging to be asked: what in the world is so wrong with a fan base’s being passionate, even extraordinarily so?  For one thing, it beats the heck out of the alternative.  But more importantly, it means dollars in the coffers and fannies in the seats, which allows NC State to have some of the best facilities in the country, which they unquestionably do.  Fan support is the very lifeline for any college athletics department, and NC State takes a back seat to no one in this category.  How this can be construed as somehow being a negative is beyond me.

Striving to be the best at something is typically celebrated in our country – even if that something seems presently unobtainable and slightly unreasonable. Inexplicably, however, living by this maxim leaves Wolfpack fans branded as “delusional” and “irrational” by many in the national media.  Pack fans are too eager to return to national prominence, they say.  Or worse, they don’t adequately appreciate the success they have.  Try this on for size: NC State has not won an ACC Championship since the Reagan Administration, 1987 to be precise.  Whatever your position on trickle-down economics, it does not strike me as overly delusional to have expected a league championship since The Gipper.  Had Duke or North Carolina not won a league championship since the 80s, what do you think would be the disposition of their fans?  And more to the point, would they be likewise branded as delusional for wanting more?

It is true that tradition can only take a program so far for so long. NC State’s national championships in 1974 and 1983 are ancient history in the minds of kids currently being recruited to play basketball for the Wolfpack.  That does not mean that they do not matter.  They did happen, and the indomitable march of time cannot erase them from the history books, or the memories of Wolfpack fans.  That is why it is so infuriating to listen to national pundits condescendingly tell us Wolfpack fans to “know our role.” Fine, I will concede this point; we should know our role.  According to the history laid out above, our role is to win championships.  Wolfpack Nation, whatever we do, let us never forget our role!

The NC State job has always been a good job. At this particular moment in history, the NC State job is not just a good job, it is a great job.  To claim otherwise is patently false and intellectually lazy.  The opportunity to coach in the ACC – historically and contemporaneously the best basketball conference in the country – is the high water mark in college coaching.  Setting aside conference, the opportunity to coach in a neighborhood comprised of Duke and North Carolina, and their Hall of Fame coaches, is at once the highest of honors and the ultimate challenge.  The right coach is out there who will relish that challenge.  The right coach is out there who will laugh in the faces of the national naysayers.  The right guy is out there who believes that right now is a darn good right now at NC State.  The only question that remains is whether Debbie Yow can find him.

February 25, 2017 Posted by | Mark Gottfried, NC State, Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dean Smith, Basketball & Me

Growing up in North Carolina, along Tobacco Road, I could hardly help but become a life-long and ardent fan of the game of basketball. ACC basketball, in particular, was etched into my soul long before I was even aware. My childhood pictures bear the proof – me dressed from head to toe by mom in Tar Heels garb, presumably against my will. From a national perspective, North Carolina – along with Kentucky and Indiana – is known in large measure due to its sustained excellence in the sport. In addition to UNC – Duke, NC State, Wake Forest, Davidson and Charlotte have all enjoyed varying degrees of success on the national level.

When I became old enough to make my own fashion decisions, basketball-related attire did not fade from, and indeed still dominated, my wardrobe. After being introduced to most sports by my father, I quickly gravitated to basketball as my true love. Being a baseball man, this might have dismayed my dad to a certain extent; but, if so, he never let on. Many a night, we would shoot hoops in our paved driveway long after the Carolina blue skies had faded to dark. Supper, often times, would have to wait, despite mom’s objections. Put simply, I was hooked, and over time, wasn’t half bad. In fact, in our neighborhood, I respectfully (but not so humbly) submit that my jump shot was the purest of them all.

To further amplify the significance of ACC basketball in North Carolina, I can remember my teachers in school being permitted to tune the TV to the ACC Tournament on the Friday that it began. (In those days, before conference expansion, the tournament did not begin in earnest until Friday.) That same day, I would race home from school to watch the afternoon and night games with my dad. The weekend of the ACC Tournament – serving as the capstone to the conference season and a precursor to the Big Dance – was always a magical one, win or lose. That weekend has produced highlights from some of the sport’s most prominent names – including Michael Jordan, David Thompson, Ralph Sampson, Phil Ford, James Worthy, Grant Hill, Christian Laettner, Tim Duncan, Jerry Stackhouse, Vince Carter, to name a scant few.

To me, however, ACC basketball always revolved around one central figure: Dean Smith. From very early on, I remember being awestruck by the professional way in which he marched his troops into battle. There always seemed to be such order and formality. The sense of purpose was palpable. Churchillian, no doubt. Watching Coach Smith lead his team in a game was like watching a great conductor direct his orchestra. Precision. Composure. Incredible power, yet supreme control. Coach Smith’s teams seemed to be just that – a team – moving together as if on a string, of which Smith was the master puppeteer. But above all this, there was a grace, humility and poignancy to his leadership that seemed to command the utmost respect from his players.

Coach Smith’s accomplishments speak for themselves – 879 victories, 17 ACC Regular Season Championships, 13 ACC Tournament Championships, 11 Final Fours, 2 National Championships. But this was simply basketball – a game, after all. Much later in life, I would learn that Dean Smith was an even taller figure in the game of life. Most of the stories are well known and documented, because Smith was unafraid, and unapologetic, to publicly serve as an agent for social change. Smith helped Howard Lee, a black graduate student, purchase a home in an all-white neighborhood in Chapel Hill. Interestingly, Lee would be elected Mayor of Chapel Hill three years later, and go on to become a NC Senator. In the late 1960’s, a difficult time in the South to be sure, Smith promoted desegregation by recruiting the first black athlete, Charlie Scott, to UNC, and would later take his black players to lunch at white-only establishments.

Smith was so adamantly against the death penalty that he made frequent trips to North Carolina death row, often befriending the inmates. Occasionally, he would take his teams to visit these hardened folks as well. Famously, it was reported that he got into a heated discussion with then-Governor Jim Hunt – otherwise a friend and political ally – in connection with his decision to deny a stay of the execution of a particular death row inmate. Smith argued, allegedly rather loudly, that not only was Governor Hunt a murderer, but so too was Smith himself, by association as a citizen of the State.

Publicly and bravely, Smith fought against nuclear disarmament during the Cold War when such a position was politically untenable. My guess is that these very public examples represent only a small fraction of Smith’s efforts to influence social policy, many of which were surreptitious and away from the spotlight. And though Smith’s positions were not always popular – and they often weren’t – they were, in his view, the right thing to do. Principled, above all else.

Coach Smith’s quick wit, extraordinary recall and elephantine memory are legendary; his fierce loyalty unequivocal and unquestioned. Since his death last week, the glowing tributes from former players – each seemingly with their own anecdote – paint the same picture of a man who cared deeply about each individual he came across, their lives and their livelihood, long after the ball stopped bouncing and the glare of the gym lights dimmed. By all accounts, this fatherly concern and care was delivered in equal parts whether the recipient was a family member, friend, former player, manager, ball boy, janitor, or someone Smith simply met on the street. And for this, Smith enjoyed, in return, the unbending loyalty from his former players, colleagues, and mere acquaintances. Listening to and reading the various stories this past week, it struck me that the deep feelings for Smith seemed to surpass loyalty and fondness; it was sheer reverence.

I certainly do not mean to speak of Dean Smith as if he were a deity. He, after all, would be the first to acknowledge that he was far from perfect. But for a boy, a basketball fan, growing up in North Carolina, along Tobacco Road, he was pretty darn close.

February 13, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment