It started so well for Mark Gottfried, and then his coaching career at NC State ended before this season was even over. The obituaries are going to be written over the next few weeks, while he finishes out his six-year tenure at NC State.
How did this happen? The take here: Gottfried’s program was one that walked a fine line between success and failure. He was a high-wire act of sorts. One misstep and there was no real safety net for the program to fall into.
Gottfried’s program lacked stability. It began in year one. Key reserve post player DeShawn Painter transferred, using a personal hardship waiver to play immediately at Old Dominion.
Lack of frontcourt depth would plague NCSU, among other problems, during an underachieving second year when a team fresh off a Sweet 16 appearance and preseason top-10 status stumbled to a first round NCAA Tournament loss.
After that tumultuous year, freshman guard Rodney Purvis, a hometown McDonald’s All-American, left for Connecticut. C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown, in a sign of chemistry issues on the team, insisted on separate press conferences to announce their decision to turn pro. Few players attended the annual team banquet.
Purvis’ leaving may have been a blessing in that it allowed T.J. Warren to become the focal point, and in a season for the record books Warren, the ACC Player of the Year, led NC State to one of the last spots in the NCAA Tournament. The Pack beat Xavier before a heartbreaking loss to St. Louis.
Not long after that defeat, starting point guard Tyler Lewis said he was transferring, eventually ending up at Butler.
Lewis freed up former McDonald’s All-American Cat Barber to own the position, and around midseason of the following year Barber blossomed, teaming with Alabama transfer Trevor Lacey and LSU transfer Ralston Turner to take NCSU on a thrilling second half of the season ride to the Sweet 16.
At that point, Gottfried was surviving the attrition because in ways they actually helped. After the second Sweet 16 run though, the departures become more crushing. Forward Kyle Washington, who was benched when the Pack went on a roll, felt like he was the odd man out of the four-man post rotation and transferred to Cincinnati. Then surprisingly, Lacey turned pro.
An early-season injury to West Virginia transfer Terry Henderson combined with the losses of Lacey, Washington and Turner proved too much, and NC State stumbled to a losing season last year. The Martin twins, Caleb (the team’s fourth leading scorer) and Cody (its most versatile player), transferred to Nevada.
Attrition is the new norm in college basketball, but Gottfried’s inability to maintain a stable core left him vulnerable. Unlike most programs, Gottfried seemed to lose not just players, but key ones, on a annual basis.
The other potential downfall-inducing trait some may tag on Gottfried is a lack of accountability; although the truth to this is most fully understood by those between the NC State locker room walls.
NC State can be a nationally relevant basketball program. Its attendance figures rank among the best in the country (eighth last season), and it has been ranked in the past on the most valuable on Forbes’ list of programs (No. 20 in 2013). The history, although growing more ancient, is still prominent.
But it needs the right coach. It has been an ongoing quest to find one since Jim Valvano was ousted in 1989. After Valvano’s replacement, Les Robinson, was fired and succeeded by Herb Sendek, the program showed some life, making five straight NCAA Tournaments. Sendek, though, ultimately had his shortcomings. He left Raleigh for Arizona State, was eventually fired the Sun Devils and is now at Santa Clara.
What NCSU learned from the Sendek-era is that personality matters. Players and fans want passion emanating from its leader. Sendek’s replacement, Sidney Lowe, had that trait.
But Lowe lacked experience running and understanding a college program, and it showed. NCSU labored for five seasons before the experiment was terminated.
That resulted in the hiring of Gottfried, an affable, experienced coach who had success at both Murray State and Alabama. The conclusion of his time with the Tide did not go well, eerily ending in similar fashion to his tenure at NCSU.
Thus add another checkbox to the list of requirements: proven experience sustaining a program with accountability.
It is hard to find a candidate that crosses off all the boxes: passion, experience, sustainability and accountability, but NCSU athletics director Debbie Yow will try.
Too many Wolfpack fans are beginning to resign themselves that NCSU is destined for mediocrity, while rivals Duke and UNC bask in the glow of their all-time great coaches Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams, respectively.
However, Coach K and Williams are both over 66 and nearing the end of their hall-of-fame careers.. With the right coach, NC State once again fulfill its highest potential.
The Pack has learned lessons that can be applied to coming closer to making that hire.