NC State men's basketball coach Sidney Lowe resigned on Tuesday, spoiling what was hoped to be a triumphant return to his alma mater.
Lowe went 86-78 at NC State and 25-55 in ACC action during his five-year stint, which had its equal share of highs and lows. NC State went to two NIT Tournaments, but never reached the NCAA Tournament or finish higher than ninth in the ACC. He finished second in the ACC Tournament his first season, and reached the semifinals in his fourth.
Lowe finished going 1-10 against North Carolina, 0-9 against Maryland and 2-6 against Duke. He also went 1-3 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and 5-5 in the ACC Tournament.
The former star NC State point guard who guided the "Miracle Pack" to the 1983 championship team, hoped to do the same from the sideline when he was officially hired May 6, 2006. The former NBA coach of the Memphis Grizzlies and Minnesota Timberwolves had never coached on the college level and was hired after former athletic director went after John Calipari and Rick Barnes.
The 2010-2011 season proved to be a microcosm of his return to Raleigh. The campaign was filled with promise thanks to the return of starters Tracy Smith, a senior center, senior point guard Javi Gonzalez and sophomore small forward Scott Wood. The trio were joined by Rivals.com's No. 5 recruiting class, which included shooting guard Lorenzo Brown, point guard Ryan Harrow and power forward C.J. Leslie.
First-year NC State athletic director Debbie Yow supported Lowe throughout the season, but most believed that Lowe had to make the NCAA Tournament to solidify his job. NC State struggled to go 15-16 overall and 5-11 in the ACC to finish 10th in the ACC. The last gasp came last Thursday when NC State fell 75-67 to No. 7-seeded Maryland in the ACC Tournament.
Lowe reflected on his time at NC State and reiterated how much he appreciates coaching at his alma mater. He had two years remaining on his contract, with a reported buyout of around $700,000.
"It's harder because this is my school," said Lowe, after his last game March 10. "I love this school. I put a lot of sweat for four years to give it my best. It was my hope to come back here and do something special again.
"It hurts me because I know what's it about down here. I know what it's like, and I know what it's like to win here, and I know how to respond to it. The true fans will stick with you and enjoy it, so it means a lot to you."
Lowe's defining season slowly unraveled starting with Smith injuring his knee in the preseason and then undergoing surgery after re-injuring it six minutes into the second game of the season against East Carolina in the Charleston Classic Nov. 18.
NC State went 0-4 against its "name" non-conference opponents without Smith - Georgetown, at Wisconsin, at Syracuse and Arizona - and the writing was on the wall that the Wolfpack needed to win at least nine ACC games to have a chance at an at-large bid.
Smith returned against San Diego Jan. 1 after a 10-game absence, but new problems cropped up. The Wolfpack had various issues to work through, whether it involved rebounding, communication on defense or knowing how put away teams in the last five minutes of a game.
NC State started the ACC schedule with a 2-7 mark, with wins over Wake Forest and Miami. The inevitability started to settle in that Lowe wouldn't likely return, barring a miracle run in the ACC Tournament or possible success in the NIT Tournament.
Lowe said he wished he could have played with a full deck this season, but Smith's knee surgery set the Wolfpack back.
"No, no I don't think so," said Lowe on whether he had a fair shot for success this season. "A fair shot is having a full team. One we didn't have [Tracy Smith] for 10 games. When he came back he was good for a while and then it bothered him. He played the game tonight hurt.
"We had some suspensions and illnesses and things of that nature. We didn't have a chance to have our team fully for a whole year. It didn't turn out the way a lot of people would have expected or hoped to, but there were other reasons why."
The Wolfpack overachieved Lowe's first season with a scaled down roster, but were able to upset No. 3-ranked North Carolina 83-79 during the regular season, and then made a stirring run in the ACC Tournament. The Pack shocked No. 21-ranked Duke in St. Petersburg, Fla., and then followed up with wins over Virginia and Virginia Tech. UNC ended the dream run, 89-80, but Lowe's "Q rating" was at its highest during his five-year coaching run. NCSU went on to win two NIT contests before falling at West Virginia to finish 20-16.
NC State returned four of the five starters, and had a highly-thought of recruiting class with J.J. Hickson, Smith, Gonzalez and forward Johnny Thomas. The expectations soared and so did the popularity of red blazers, which Lowe wore on the sidelines for big games to pay homage to his own past Wolfpack coaches Norm Sloan and Jim Valvano.
The 2007-2008 season ended up being eerily similar to this past season. Then redshirt sophomore point guard Farnold Degand blew out his knee Dec. 23, 2007, late in a eventual 85-77 victory over Cincinnati at the RBC Center. The Wolfpack improved to 7-3 and ended its non-conference slate 11-3.
Degand's injury forced then freshman Gonzalez and Tennessee transfer Marques Johnson into the starting lineup, and neither were ready for what faced them in ACC action. Then redshirt sophomore forward Brandon Costner also had underwent knee surgery in the offseason and gained weight, and wasn't as effective that season.
The team crashed with nine straight losses to end the season to finish 15-16 overall and 4-13 in the ACC. Hickson quickly departed to the NBA and the Wolfpack were back to square one. The fragile chemistry developed in Lowe's first season when every key player was guaranteed minutes, took a dive when the same players were forced to split time with the newcomers.
The expectations were lowered for both the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 seasons. The hope for the start of the 2008 campaign was that seniors Ben McCauley and Courtney Fells and redshirt junior Costner would find the form that propelled Lowe's first season. Plus, Degand would be back healthy and take over the point guard position with incoming recruits Julius Mays and C.J. Williams bolstering the depth.
McCauley, Fells and Costner, each improved upon their previous season, but Degand's knee continued to bother him, and the Wolfpack rotated point guards throughout the season. The non-conference slate also matched previous years with NC State losing emotionally tough close games at Davidson, Marquette and at Florida.
The Wolfpack started 2-6 in the ACC before gaining some traction, but then 2-5 down the stretch to finish 16-14 overall and 6-11 in the league. NC State couldn't muster a bid to the NIT.
Not much was expected for NC State in 2009-2010. Star recruit Lorenzo Brown needed one more year of post-graduate work to be eligible and the Wolfpack came close but couldn't land eventual one and done NBA players John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Derrick Favors.
The team reverted back to Lowe's first season and overachieved to go 20-16 overall and 5-11 in the ACC. Lowe defeated No. 7-ranked Duke for the second time, winning 88-74 Jan. 20, 2010, at the RBC Center. The Blue Devils went on to win the national championship.
NC State played its way into the postseason by reaching the semifinals of the ACC Tournament, and then defeated South Florida at the buzzer in the first round of the NIT. The season crashed down with a difficult 72-52 loss to Alabama-Birmingham, but hope was restored in the program, and the arrival of Brown, Leslie and Harrow, reignited interested in the fan base. The excitement for his last season started to wear off after Smith's injury and a devastating 87-48 loss at then unranked Wisconsin Dec. 1 on national television as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Lowe's reign was marked by some recruiting success with 10 signees in the Rivals top 150 - two McDonald's All-American's in Hickson and Leslie - plus a transfer (Johnson), who also was ranked coming out of high school.
Both players signed in the class of 2011 are also ranked - No. 92 Joseph Uchebo of Raleigh Word of God and No. 128 Tyler Harris of Newark (N.J.) St. Benedict's. Junior point guard commit Tyler Lewis of Lewisville (N.C.) Forsyth Country Day is also ranked No. 113 in the class of 2012.
Hickson is the lone NBA player produced by Lowe, though several others are playing professionally overseas. The one and done big man from Marietta, Ga., played for NC State during the 2007-2008 season and went No. 19 overall to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2008 NBA Draft.
Lowe also had all but two of his players graduate that were in the program for at least four years going into this past season.
Yow will begin her coaching search in earnest, with Arizona coach Sean Miller, a former NCSU assistant coach under Herb Sendek, one of the leading targets.
The Wolfpack will also say good-bye to assistant coaches Larry Harris, Monte Towe and Pete Strickland. Harris had been one of NC State's leading recruiters the last 15 years, spanning both Sendek and Lowe, and Towe is a legendary former Wolfpack player and starting point guard on the 1974 national championship team. Strickland, a former Coastal Carolina coach, and joined Lowe for the first time in Raleigh, but both attended DeMatha Catholic in Hyattsville, Md.
Lowe was often asked about his future in the last two weeks of the season. The former NBA head coach and assistant coach also worked as a TV analayst before coaching NC State. He often said he never worried about his job security because he knew what he was getting himself into by becoming a coach.
"It's not about me and I've never been one to think short of anything, so I won't start now," Lowe said. "It's about my players.
"I always look at the positives, how fortunate I am and all of the good things in my life. In this business, I've been very, very blessed. If one door closes, he will open another one. I don't worry about that."