The Mark Gottfried era came to an end for N.C. State on Tuesday in appropriately unruly fashion, and for the first time since 1996, the final year of Les Robinson’s run, N.C. State will finish sub-.500 in consecutive seasons.
The game, a 75-61 loss to Clemson, never even looked like it could result in an N.C. State win, mainly because the only thing that would give them a shot at winning—a monster performance from their star point guard Dennis Smith Jr. —failed to become a reality. The likely top-15 2017 NBA draft pick played flat for over half of what would be his final college game and finished with seven points on 13 shots.
Maverick Rowan and Abdul-Malik Abu added 14 apiece, though Rowan was the only starter to shoot better than 33 percent. The Wolfpack went nearly 10 minutes between field goals in the first half; on the game, they shot 38 percent from the field and 29 percent from long range. Hell, Clemson wasn’t even that impressive. But Tigers head coach Brad Brownell knew his team’s game—let Shelton Mitchell and Jaron Blossomgame cook and hope for the best—and his two best offensive weapons combined for 44 points and got his team a date with Duke in the second round.
After the loss, Gottfried got his final words in as head coach, reminding reporters in a bright hallway in the bowels of the Barclays Center of his team’s youth, the N.C. State administration’s refusal to be satisfied with playing third fiddle to UNC and Duke, and his postseason accomplishments. You can watch the full interview here via the News and Observer:
“When I took this job, I don’t know that anybody honestly ever would have anticipated four NCAA tournaments and two Sweet 16s. And to be honest, I feel like that’s a little somewhat unappreciated by some. That’s hard for me. I think there are five teams that haven’t been to the NCAA tournament yet since I took this job six years ago. We’ve done a lot of great things.”
“When I look back and think about beating Duke when they’re No. 1, beating them when they’re No. 2. Going into Cameron and beating them ... I also want people to understand that’s not easy to do. There’s a reason why N.C. State hadn’t won there in 22 years: because it’s hard. There’s a reason we haven’t won in Chapel Hill: because it’s hard. Or at Louisville. Or going to the Sweet 16 and beating Villanova when they’re a No. 1 seed, or Georgetown when they’re a No. 3 seed. And you’re doing it in a really tough neighborhood.”
He put things more plainly to the New York Post:
“There are probably half the schools in this league that would take our last six years and be excited as hell about it. But for some reason at N.C. State it wasn’t good enough. You look round at all these other [ACC] schools and nobody else is compared the way our program is to North Carolina and Duke.”
“Four NCAA Tournaments, two Sweet 16s, two years missed the tournament and they’re hunting for a new coach. Tough neighborhood.”
In PR lingo, this is as close as Gottfried, a 53-year-old coach who has likely already started lining up his next job, will get to publicly saying,“Fuck you, what else do you want from me?”
He’s right to feel this way, in part, because those are impressive achievements that pair well with a solid recruiting track record. T.J. Warren, Cat Barber, Dennis Smith Jr., Trevor Lacey, Ralston Turner, the Martin twins—all excellent college players that Gottfried convinced to come to Raleigh. His two Sweet 16s and four tournament appearances are better than most coaches can claim, even in the ACC.
But even though Gottfried’s peaks were nice (a pair of Sweet 16s and four straight tournament appearances, if you don’t remember) the last two seasons proved his valleys were too deep for an N.C. State program constantly looking to return to a mountaintop they never occupied. Had Gottfried been kept on, his 2018 team would have, in all likelihood, produced the same outcome as his past two. Losing their best offensive weapon isn’t going to help things, and while Rowan and Abu are solid complementary pieces, they do not constitute a 1-2 punch you have to really gameplan around. N.C. State is looking for longevity and excellence—it’s not going to find it because it’s N.C. State, but that’s what it’s looking for.
It was easy to fire Sidney Lowe. One thing that the Wolfpack faithful can agree on no matter how they feel about Gottfried’s axing is that he was a far superior option compared to his predecessor, who N.C. State hired out of sheer goodwill and hope. The former Wolfpack point guard had no Division I head coaching experience when N.C. State gave him the gig after it tried and failed to get a big fish. It’s likely that they will once again try (and probably fail) to bring in a top-level coach now that Gottfried is gone. They will do this because 1) That is what they believe they need to compete with their in-state rivals and 2) That is the corner they’ve painted themselves into by firing Gottfried.
This is the second time Gottfried’s walked or been pushed away from a gig after two down seasons and frequent losses to in-state rivals. At Alabama, he resigned during a meeting with his athletic director in the midst of a 12-7 campaign, which was preceded by injuries, a star player’s transfer, four losses to Auburn in five games, and back-to-back seasons ending with tournament misses. This, after he took the Crimson Tide to the Elite Eight just a few years before, the deepest run the program has ever made in the tournament. After 11 years on the job filled with plenty of accomplishments to point to during the dark days, Gottfried’s rough patch still left him unemployed. He barely lasted half as long at N.C. State.
There’s a scene from the ESPN documentary Survive and Advance in which a player tells the rest of the 1983 team the story of Jim Valvano’s first haircut in the Triangle. Valvano walks into the barbershop fresh off replacing Norm Sloan, who won the national championship with the Wolfpack in 1974, and the barber asks him who he is. Valvano tells him and the barber responds by saying that he hopes he does a better job than the last guy. Valvano says, “Well, you know that guy won a national championship.” The barber responds, “Yeah, but just imagine what Dean Smith could have done with that team.”
It’s not rational or reasonable, nor is pointing to prior postseason success after going 31-34 in two years, but this is the experience every N.C. State coach will endure for the rest of time; anyone who signs on the dotted line, Gottfried included, knows this full well.