Chasing Ghosts: Can NC State follow UVa out of wilderness?

Throughout the offseason, ESPN will take a closer look at the programs that have faced the challenge of moving on from a single historically revered coach, evaluating the successes and failures they have experienced along the way. This week, the “Chasing Ghosts” series continues with NC State, which scaled legendary heights under the iconic Jim Valvano but has since largely taken a back seat to its rivals on Tobacco Road.

Icon: Jim Valvano

Seasons coached: 1980-1990
Key accomplishments: 209-112 (.651) record, 7 NCAA tournaments, 1 Final Four (1983), 1 NCAA championship (1983)

“What I’ve heard [from fans] is they love Sidney and appreciate Sidney just like I do, but they’d like to win more — considerably more. I can’t fault that.” — then-NC State AD Debbie Yow, on Sidney Lowe’s 2011 firing. “What if Mark Gottfried goes on a run at the end and gets to the NCAA tournament, which he was in four out of five years? Two Sweet 16s, which is not done at NC State. What happens if he now goes and wins and gets another team [into the tournament]? He had good players, but they’re young, they’re like my team. It’s hard to do this with young guys.” — John Calipari, on Mark Gottfried’s February 2017 firing. “From the creation of the ACC in 1953 until about 1990, NC State had the second-most accomplished program in ACC history, right behind UNC. You know what happened next: scandal and an NCAA investigation buried the Wolfpack for the better part of a decade. Duke kept going the momentum it built in the mid-1980s. NC State never regained its previously held status. And here we are.” — Raleigh News & Observer reporter Andrew Carter, upon Gottfried’s firing.

Ranking the Valvano chasers

5. Les Robinson (1990-96), 78-98 (.443), 1 NCAA tournament — Robinson took over a difficult situation after Valvano’s ouster, one that included a two-year NCAA probation, recruiting restrictions and a strengthened admissions policy that took State out of the running for a selection of the country’s top players. Robinson, a former NC State player under Everett Case, and the former coach at East Tennessee State and The Citadel, could not overcome those hurdles. After reaching the NCAA tournament with the stacked group Valvano left him, Robinson’s final five Wolfpack teams won a total of 20 ACC games and failed to mount a winning overall record in any of those seasons. Robinson resigned under pressure after the 1995-96 season, but was hired months later to NC State’s vacant athletic director position, a role he filled until 2000.

4. Sidney Lowe (2006-11), 86-78 (.524) — Lowe came back to NC State in 2006 as a beloved former player, the starting point guard on the Wolfpack’s fabled 1983 national championship team. He left Raleigh five years later as a cautionary tale. Lowe, whose previous head-coaching experience had come with the NBA Timberwolves and Grizzlies (and who was chosen by then-AD Lee Fowler over reported candidates including John Calipari and Rick Barnes), never reached the NCAA tournament in his five seasons, and never finished higher than ninth in the ACC. Moreover, State failed to approach the stratosphere of its top rivals — the Wolfpack went a combined 3-16 against Duke and North Carolina during the Lowe era, a period when the Blue Devils and Tar Heels won national titles. Lowe resigned under pressure after the Wolfpack finished 15-16 in 2010-11. Lowe has served as an assistant with four NBA teams since departing Raleigh, including 2018-19 with the Detroit Pistons.

3. Kevin Keatts (2017-present), 45-24 (.652), 1 NCAA tournament — Keatts arrived in Raleigh after back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances at UNC Wilmington and had previously served as an assistant under Rick Pitino at Louisville. The early returns were mostly positive — Keatts led his first team to the NCAA tournament, and things looked good in 2018-19 before the Wolfpack faded late and ended up in the NIT. (A bizarre 47-24 home loss to Virginia Tech on Feb. 2 might be the most memorable moment of the Keatts era to date, if we’re being honest.) Needless to say, Year 3 sets up as a critical season as Keatts attempts to build momentum for his version of the program. Markell Johnson (12.6 points per game) returns as a centerpiece for a team that will be more experienced across the board, but there is not so much talent that we can call this group an NCAA lock. If the Wolfpack miss the tournament again, given the notoriously high expectations of this fan base, look out.

2. Mark Gottfried (2011-17), 123-86 (.589), 4 NCAA tournaments — If any coach of the post-Valvano era has gotten close to reestablishing NC State as a national program, it’s probably Gottfried. He reached the NCAA tournament in each of his first four years and made the second weekend twice over that stretch. He consistently recruited ACC-caliber players, including but not limited to T.J. Warren, Cat Barber, Caleb and Cody Martin, and Dennis Smith Jr. But it all went up in smoke rather quickly for Gottfried, who suffered through back-to-back losing seasons in Years 5 and 6 and, perhaps most notably, could not turn Smith’s NBA-lottery talents into collegiate victories. (Since his firing in February 2017, Gottfried and his staff were implicated in a scheme to funnel impermissible payments to secure the services of Smith.) Gottfried recently completed his first season at Cal State Northridge.

1. Herb Sendek (1996-2006), 191-132 (.591), 5 NCAA tournaments — Sendek, the Rick Pitino disciple who arrived in Raleigh off of three successful seasons at Miami (Ohio), helped stabilize the program at NC State — even if his progress there could be described as glacial. It took Sendek until his sixth year at State to reach the NCAA tournament, and once he got over that hump he’d end up tying Valvano’s record by reaching five straight NCAA tournaments. But it would be a stretch to say Sendek was ever fully embraced by Wolfpack fans who grew frustrated by the program’s 8-38 combined record against Duke and North Carolina under his watch, plus its single trip to the second weekend in Sendek’s 10 years in charge (which came as a No. 10 seed in 2005). With sentiment growing increasingly negative, Sendek resigned in the spring of 2006 to become head coach at Arizona State, where he remained for nine years. Sendek recently completed his third season at Santa Clara.

Roundtable: Who should NC State strive to be?

We should acknowledge here that Everett Case (377 wins at NC State) and Norm Sloan (led the Wolfpack to the 1974 national title) helped build the tradition Jim Valvano flourished under, but it’s indisputable that Valvano remains the face of NC State basketball to a great many people. Explain the importance of Valvano to those who never saw him coach.

Jeff Borzello, college basketball insider: He’s an iconic figure in college basketball history. I was 3 years old when he stopped coaching, and he’s still one of the faces of the sport from that time period. We’ve all seen his ESPYS speech; we’ve all seen him running around looking for someone to hug after Lorenzo Charles’ dunk beat Houston in the 1983 national championship game. And we’ve all heard his legendary quips. (Here’s one I’ve never forgotten, that Valvano told a number of times: “I asked a ref if he could give me a technical foul for what I was thinking. He said, ‘Of course not.’ I said, ‘That’s good, because I think you stink.’ And he gave me a technical anyway. You can’t trust ’em.”) But I do think Valvano’s coaching acumen gets swept under the rug at times. He was the head coach at NC State for only 10 seasons, but won two ACC tournament championships and another two ACC regular-season titles. He went to the Sweet 16 four times, reached the Elite Eight three times and won a national championship. Combine that with his personality and it’s no secret why Valvano is so memorable.

Myron Medcalf, senior college basketball writer: I think most people today know Valvano from the speech we see every year in The ESPYS and the miraculous title run. But Valvano deserves credit for making it OK, and even preferred, for a coach to promote himself and his program. He had to get noticed on Tobacco Road to attract the kind of players he’d need to compete with the best teams in America. He had a syndicated radio show. He did commercials. He was a media darling. He was his own social media network. He did this within a generation of coaches who’d been molded by John Wooden and Dean Smith. Back then, you just coached. But Valvano ignored that mold and made himself a public figure. For today’s coaches who are using everything at their disposal to elevate the national buzz around their programs, Valvano is their godfather.

Joe Lunardi, ESPN bracketologist: The 1983 title team was so iconic — and one of the best 30 for 30 stories of all time — that it elevates Valvano into a coaching stratosphere beyond his on-court accomplishments, which were considerable enough. It also serves to obscure the off-the-court negatives that followed (younger readers should Google the book “Personal Fouls” for the most salacious tales). Then came an outstanding TV career and his tragic cancer fight, and Valvano evolved into a Shakespearean character whose highs and lows were equally dramatic and compelling. Ultimately, Valvano may have been the best salesman of his generation — in any profession — accomplishing the essential task of selling himself so fully that it is impossible to think of much else when it comes to NC State.

In the 29-plus years since Valvano’s ouster, what is the biggest misstep NC State has made preventing the restoration of its basketball program to national prominence?

Medcalf: Well, if the NCAA believes the reports linking Mark Gottfried to alleged payments to former star Dennis Smith Jr. and subsequently hands out severe penalties, then I think you have your answer. Per an ESPN report, Gottfried’s former assistant, Orlando Early, said the former NC State head coach gave him envelopes full of cash to deliver to Smith. The NCAA has the power (and reportedly, the intention) to use information gathered during the FBI trials as it prepares its notices of allegations for various programs. If NC State gets hit hard, a lot of Wolfpack fans will wonder whether a 48-58 run in the ACC and a pair of Sweet 16 runs under Gottfried were worth it.

Lunardi: Sadly, I would argue that the wake left by Valvano’s rise and fall was too much to overcome. The reality is NC State had the best team in the country when it dethroned UCLA for the 1974 national championship. Valvano’s title team nine years later was nowhere near the best but rather a case of lightning in a bottle on the order of “Hoosiers” or the U.S. hockey team at Lake Placid. Its run through the ACC and NCAA tournaments in 1983 was unrepeatable, so the misstep was thinking it could be. With America’s top salesman proclaiming the narrative, it was perhaps inevitable the Wolfpack would fall short of once-in-a-lifetime expectations then and continue to do so today.

Borzello: I think the whole stretch where they essentially ran off Herb Sendek and then hired Sidney Lowe set them back. Sendek wasn’t great during his time in Raleigh, but he did go to the NCAA tournament in each of his final five seasons at the helm — including a Sweet 16 appearance in 2005. But he drew consistent criticism from Wolfpack faithful, even during the NCAA tournament runs. So he left for Arizona State — and was eventually replaced by Lowe. Reports at the time indicated that NC State reached out to the likes of John Calipari, John Beilein, Rick Barnes and Steve Lavin. And they still hired Lowe, who had zero college coaching experience and a career .257 winning percentage as an NBA head coach. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work out too well. Lowe didn’t go to the NCAA tournament in any of his five seasons in charge.

NC State owns two national titles, yet this has never been a perennial Final Four contender like nemeses Duke and North Carolina. Even Valvano reached the Final Four just once, and the Wolfpack’s run in 1983 was so miraculous that a two-hour documentary was made about it. So, what is the realistic ceiling for this program? Who should NC State aspire to be?

Borzello: The ACC pecking order among programs is fairly clear right now. Duke and North Carolina are going to be at or near the top of the league every season. Virginia has been there consistently since Tony Bennett took over. Louisville is back in the national top five. Syracuse is always going to be a factor. So where does NC State fit in? It’s going to be awfully difficult for the Wolfpack to crack the top four of the league on a consistent basis anytime soon.

But why can’t NC State be like a Maryland? The color red and proximity aside, both programs have history and tradition — albeit with Maryland’s coming more recently than the Wolfpack’s — which has led to fairly high expectations for both programs. Neither is a blue-blood program, and neither is a conference title contender on a regular basis. But both should expect to be in the NCAA tournament more often than not given their recruiting bases and status. The Wolfpack going to the NCAA tournament five times since 2006 shouldn’t be the norm.

Medcalf: I think we’d obviously view NC State through a different lens in a different league. A bunch of fan bases, outside the blue bloods, would love to have 10 NCAA tournament appearances since 2002. But I think Purdue is the example to follow. Purdue is surrounded by powerhouse programs in a talent-rich region. Yet Matt Painter has managed to put his program in the national title hunt multiple times. The Boilermakers are one miraculous shot by Mamadi Diakite from potentially replacing Virginia in their national run two months ago. Purdue has also won three Big Ten titles since 2010. If NC State can identify and sign two-, three- and four-year building blocks like Robbie Hummel, E’Twaun Moore, Caleb Swanigan and Carsen Edwards, it can stay in the hunt in the ACC and have a chance in March.

Lunardi: The Wolfpack should be able to ride the ACC wave to tournament bids more often than not. The latter Sendek years are probably the model. NC State was consistently in the tournament during that time but never managed the kind of signature NCAA run that would have branded Sendek as an overachiever. The runs were deeper under Mark Gottfried, but with shades of the baggage that killed the program in the ’80s. The Wolfpack could certainly reach the Final Four at some point in the future, but fans need to understand it is never going to happen with any regularity.

There have been some positives as the Wolfpack enter Kevin Keatts’ third year, though on paper 2019-20 projects as another season when NC State will reside in the middle of the ACC pack. Are you worried for the Keatts regime, or do you see him succeeding where his predecessors have failed?

Lunardi: NC State committed the cardinal sin of program management last season. It missed the NCAA tournament by bungling its nonconference schedule so badly (No. 353 in the country, dead last) that the selection committee had no choice but to bypass the Wolfpack. If Keatts had instead made the tourney in each of his first two years, would there be any doubts about his staying power? I have no idea who makes scheduling policy in Raleigh, but I’m not hard to reach. This wound was entirely self-inflicted.

Borzello: I’ve always been impressed by Keatts, dating back to his days at Hargrave Military Academy and later at UNC Wilmington. He plays an entertaining style of basketball, recruits effectively and has been a consistent winner. I think he’ll be deemed a success whenever he decides to leave Raleigh. Keatts turned things around very quickly in his first season, going from four ACC wins in Mark Gottfried’s last campaign to an NCAA tournament appearance. The Wolfpack were one of the first teams left out of last season’s tournament field after starting the season 13-1. He’s been building the roster via transfers for the most part, and that’s the way he built up UNCW, too. This year’s team is likely headed for a similar spot in the middle of the ACC but should get back to the NCAA tournament.

The one aggravating factor could be whether anything comes down from the NCAA due to the Dennis Smith Jr. accusations leveled in a New York City courtroom this past fall. A former Adidas consultant testified that he gave $40,000 to former NC State assistant Orlando Early to give to Smith’s trainer. ESPN then reported in March that, according to court filings, Early’s attorney says his client disclosed that Gottfried gave envelopes on two occasions to deliver to Smith’s trainer. Gottfried’s attorney has disputed the allegations.

Medcalf: I think Keatts will succeed. And you have to respect a guy who made the improbable leap from high school coach to prominent assistant to mid-major head coach to high-level Division I coach in a six-year stretch. That doesn’t happen by accident.

As Jeff mentioned, potential sanctions are the elephant in the room. But Keatts is resilient. And he’s won 45 games in his first two seasons at NC State, including reaching the NCAA tournament in 2018. If he gets time, he can build a winner.

Next week in Chasing Ghosts: DePaul