A year ago, N.C. State was on Day 5 of what would turn out to be a 21-day coaching search, a final wearying coda to a season that went nowhere. Mark Gottfried’s name wasn’t even on the radar at that point.
On Monday, Gottfried sat inside his office at the Dail Center watching video of Kansas on an iPad. The Wolfpack’s players had the day off. Gottfried did not. He was scouting, planning, going on radio shows and preparing to travel to St. Louis for the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Regional.
A year ago, people didn’t know where the program was headed, who the coach was going to be, which players would be back. In less than 12 months, Gottfried not only has taken N.C. State back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in six years, but beat two higher-seeded teams to advance to a regional that also includes North Carolina.
“Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect,” N.C. State forward Richard Howell said. “But I am grateful for the situation, that coach Gottfried came in. I feel like it’s a blessing. The amount of confidence he has in us is unbelievable. I feel like that’s why we’re so good.”
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It’s a turnaround of Homeric proportions, not just for the program, but for the coach. Gottfried resigned in midseason at his alma mater Alabama 2 1/2 years ago and spent two full seasons adrift in that coaching purgatory known as “television analyst,” unsure if he’d ever find the right opportunity to get back into the game.
He felt stranded in his daily routine with no players, no staff, no practices, only milk and eggs to pick up at the supermarket. It’s hard to feel stranded when your phone overflows with 79 text messages, as Gottfried’s did after Sunday’s win against Georgetown.
“This particular group,” Gottfried said, “has exceeded most everybody’s expectations.”
He had been through this before, on Jim Harrick’s staff at UCLA when it took over a program with unparalleled tradition that had fallen on hard times and won a national title. He didn’t take any template from that, no road map to rebuilding, just a belief that if it was once great, it can be great once again.
Some of this isn’t witchcraft. Gottfried upgraded the schedule significantly, which helped land an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. N.C. State athletics director Debbie Yow agreed to make funds available to give Gottfried essentially his choice of assistants. He used that money to bring in a solid Xs-and-Os guy with head-coaching experience in Bobby Lutz, two strong recruiters in Orlando Early and Rob Moxley and a new strength coach in Joe Alejo.
And, perhaps most important, they all found a team eager to get to work. When Gottfried took the job, junior forward Scott Wood, in his first meeting with the coach, told him he didn’t want to be part of any “rebuilding year.”
“I don’t want to just play to get better,” Wood told Gottfried. “I think we’ve got the talent and the pieces that we could be a dominant team.”
Gottfried quickly saw why there was all that talk about an ACC title when C.J. Leslie committed during the summer of 2010. The raw talent was there; it was just very raw.
“These guys had never accomplished anything in college basketball,” said Harrick, Gottfried’s mentor. “Most guys on scholarship are cocky without being confident. That’s what these guys were. I watched them walk off the floor Sunday, and they were confident without being cocky. I like that. That’s the way you want your players.”
Under former coach Sidney Lowe, N.C. State wasn’t a poorly coached team. It was a lightly coached team. He was an NBA guy, and he expected players to prepare and motivate themselves. Gottfried and his staff have added structure and held players accountable, but for every kick in the pants, there’s been a pat on the back, in varying degrees for each player.
They’ve embraced Leslie — “Just by calling him ‘Calvin,’ that broke the ice between the two,” Harrick observed — challenged Howell to improve his fitness, bolstered Wood’s confidence and empowered point guard Lorenzo Brown, the team’s most important player, to run the offense.
“Sometimes, it’s uncomfortable,” Gottfried said. “But I think those guys came to a point where they really decided to trust our staff, Calvin especially. Some guys, it takes longer. We’re all different. Some guys trust you right off the bat. Other guys, there’s a wall where you can’t penetrate that wall. And you can feel it. But I think there’s been a lot of trust back and forth.”
If those were the pieces, Gottfried brought some of the glue to put them together. He brought notebooks he’d filled during his time as a television analyst, approaching the games he called like he was scouting opponents, all filed under the heading, “If I get another job…”
That job came along last spring. Yow pursued a number of candidates without success, even sending out an email to Wolfpack Club members that apologized for how long the search was taking and warned it might take a little longer.
“We have not tried to sugarcoat the challenge of rebuilding our basketball program,” Yow wrote in the email. “Our absence for five consecutive years from the NCAA Tournament was noted by each coach as evidence that the program is in poor shape and will require a special effort to rebuild.”
A day later, she sprung a surprise: Gottfried. The results have exceeded even Yow’s wildest hopes.
“I think this ‘special effort’ is a little further advanced at this point than I had envisioned, absolutely,” Yow said Monday.
“He’s been masterful at changing the whole culture and bringing out the best in these young men. It has been a process, not an event. This has been day to day for a year, and he’s done a terrific job.”
With a top-10 recruiting class coming in next season, many Wolfpack fans already were looking forward to the future. That was before the future, to everyone’s enduring surprise, turned out to be now.