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N.c. State Coaching Change: Valid Questions, Hidden Answers

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By David Glenn
June 1, 2006

One more (final?) round of questions and answers about some of the hidden stories in N.C. State's fascinating five-week coaching search, which ultimately resulted in the hiring of Sidney Lowe to replace Herb Sendek:

Considering their similar roots, as the starting guards on N.C. State's national championship team in 1983, why did it seem that Dereck Whittenburg received such different -- some would say rude -- treatment than Sidney Lowe during the search?

The most interesting "untold story" in the aftermath of State's hiring of Lowe revolves around his one-time backcourt mate in Raleigh, Dereck Whittenburg.

Whittenburg, now the head coach at Fordham, spoke with his many State friends throughout the search but clearly was disappointed when he never received a call from Wolfpack athletic director Lee Fowler. Meanwhile, Whittenburg was extremely accommodating to media inquiries, except when the topic turned to his relationship with his alma mater and, specifically, its current administration and important athletic boosters.

"I love N.C. State, I wish only good things for N.C. State, and I have many great relationships with people down there from my time at N.C. State," Whittenburg said. "That's all I can really say about that right now."

John Delong, the N.C. State beat writer for the Winston-Salem Journal, came closest to addressing this topic in print with an excellent April 29 article.

An excerpt: "Why would State treat one of its own with such disregard when he meets every stated criteria on the job description? Why can't Whit get his foot in a door that he helped build, a door that was put up with the contributions of fans and alumni who enjoyed some of the greatest times of their lives in the spring of ‘83? Why wouldn't Fowler at least bring the guy in for an interview and let him make his case? There may be several answers, but one stands above them all. Whittenburg is associated too strongly with the Jim Valvano era."

Even Delong's offering, however, came in the form of an opinion column, rather than a news article. There were no quotes from either side.

So, why the silence? Well, it's extremely difficult to write a news article on a topic when nobody involved will tell the truth about it, or even talk about it, on the record.

Those close to Whittenburg say he believes that numerous influential people at State, including some administrators, have something against him because of his connection to the darker days of the Valvano era. (Lowe and Whittenburg both played for Valvano, but Whittenburg also served under Valvano as an assistant.) Some of those same NCSU people, however, deny having any ill feelings toward Whittenburg.

This story -- and it's a fascinating one -- will be told eventually, but it likely will take a while.

Many readers have written to ask "how close" the Wolfpack came to landing its earlier candidates of note, including Rick Barnes of Texas, John Calipari of Memphis, John Beilein of West Virginia, Steve Lavin of ESPN and Mike Montgomery of the NBA's Golden State Warriors.

Fowler said he reached the point of detailed contract negotiations -- "our lawyers talking with their lawyers" -- with three candidates (prior to Lowe), although he declined to name them. That level of interaction, by itself, obviously is very significant.

According to sources, both at NCSU and close to the coaches, the Beilein romance came closest to marriage. Wolfpack officials thought he was coming, West Virginia officials thought he was leaving, and Beilein had talked to his staff about the very serious level of his discussions with the Pack. That deal, of course, ultimately broke down over the coach's huge (about $3 million) buyout, a bizarre development because all parties were well aware of that factor from the start.

The Barnes chapter will be told in more detail at some point in the future, when the parties involved can speak freely without jeopardizing their duties in their current jobs, but several sources close to the coach said that at one point -- and only one point -- in his discussions with the Wolfpack he was leaning toward making the jump. That point came just as his "final no" to NCSU appeared in most newspaper reports.

"I talked with (Barnes) every day for a week, at least once a day," one source said. "All along, he said great things about N.C. State, but he just couldn't get past the idea of leaving behind all the great things he has at Texas. On that last day, though, they made him an even better offer than the one he thought was their ‘final' offer. It was so amazing, so creative, and there was so much passion behind it, for one day he said he didn't know what he was going to do. He stayed, obviously, but they pushed him to the edge."

Re Calipari: On the morning of April 11, it was impossible to find anyone associated with N.C. State who didn't think Calipari was going to be the school's next coach. Some close to the search even suggested to media members that there might be a press conference that afternoon to introduce Calipari. Those close to the coach, however, said all along that the only way he would leave Memphis was if the monetary difference between NCSU's offer and the Tigers' final counter-offer was overwhelming. In the end, it wasn't.

The Lavin chapter never came close to a trip down the aisle for many reasons, including some completely unrelated to NCSU. Lavin never fully bought into the idea of moving away from his family and his fiance's career (she's an actress) on the West Coast, and he thoroughly enjoys his career (and the accompanying lifestyle) as a college basketball analyst. In addition, his discussions with the Wolfpack hit a major snag over guaranteed money. What NCSU offered (more than $1.3 million per year) was more than twice what Lavin was making at ESPN, but the ESPN money is guaranteed, and the Wolfpack's offer guaranteed only the base salary (about $200,000 per year) part of the compensation package.

"This was the first job I had applied for and actively pursued since I went to ESPN," said Lavin, who spoke with Fowler by phone for more than 20 hours in a one-week span. "I have always considered N.C. State an elite program. That's why I was considering a return to coaching. While I took a deliberate approach, I won't lie to you, the idea of going to N.C. State clearly got my heart pumping and my adrenaline flowing."

The Wolfpack never did get "close" with any other candidates, including Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, Golden State Warriors coach Mike Montgomery, Kentucky coach Tubby Smith and Villanova coach Jay Wright, although all of those men (and many others) were contacted about the vacancy in some fashion.

According to sources at State, Montgomery said he would have given serious consideration to the Wolfpack job if he were fired by Golden State after the 2005-06 regular season. (Under the terms of his contract, if he chose to resign to pursue another job, he would have been walking away from $5 million over the next two years.) The former Stanford coach, 59, has suffered two straight losing seasons in the NBA after jumping from the college ranks. When the Warriors decided to retain Montgomery, he stopped his conversations about other possible jobs, including the one at NCSU.

"If (Montgomery) was back on the market, he would have been a very serious candidate," one State source said. "Obviously, it never reached that point."

What do you make of the idea that Phil Ford intentionally inserted his name into the N.C. State search, knowing how controversial his candidacy would be, just to kick one of his old archrivals while it was down?

One of the many ridiculous conspiracy theories created during the NCSU search was the idea that former North Carolina player and assistant coach Phil Ford somehow manipulated the media into thinking he was a candidate for the Wolfpack job because he wanted to embarrass N.C. State.

Everyone who has interacted with Ford knows that he's an incredibly nice, unbelievably humble man who simply doesn't have a mean-spirited or manipulative bone in his body. His track record for making friends and avoiding enemies is well-known. In fact, Ford's brief status as a public candidate for the State job stemmed from his familiarity with Fowler and his long-standing friendship with prominent Wolfpack booster Wendell Murphy.

"A lot of (State supporters) automatically dismissed the idea of Phil as a serious candidate simply because he went to Carolina," one NCSU source said. "Wendell Murphy was not one of those people. I don't think everyone understood the kind of mutiny we would have had in our fan base if we did hire Phil Ford. It would have been really, really bad."

"We just had some conversations. I never became a serious candidate," Ford said. "But I was told that they were looking for the right person for the job, and if I turned out to be the right person, where I went to school wouldn't be held against me."

Ford is so disinterested in the idea of self-promotion that over the years Dean Smith and others have had to make calls about vacant jobs on his behalf. This year, Ford said the reason he didn't pursue various openings in March and early April was because of the obligation he felt to focus on his duties as an assistant under Larry Brown with the New York Knicks, even though the team was far out of the playoff race at the time.

Ford certainly didn't "plant" any stories regarding the NCSU job. When calls from the media came (he didn't initiate the contact) toward the end of the wild Lavin/Beilein chapter of the search, he answered questions about his interest in the Wolfpack job honestly -- he would love to be a head coach, especially at the ACC level, and he had spoken briefly to people at State about the vacancy -- and he referred all other questions to NCSU officials.

That's standard operating procedure in coaching searches, not the work of a master

If Sidney Lowe really was the right guy for the job, why did it take so long for him to become a candidate? And how did he keep things quiet after he became one?

During the early stages of the Wolfpack's search, when Lowe spoke occasionally with Fowler but mostly watched from afar like everyone else, a media member who covers the Detroit Pistons (where Lowe remains an assistant) asked the coach what he would do if the search turned in his direction.

"As much as I love N.C. State," Lowe said, "if they came to me and I had to give them an answer today, I'd have to say no."

Everything changed, obviously, when Lowe went from being a hypothetical candidate to being an actual candidate. During one conversation about other coaches, Fowler learned for the first time that Lowe was much closer to his college degree than Fowler originally thought. At that point, unlike several others involved in the NCSU search, Lowe did a very good job of keeping a secret.

According to a writer who covers the Pistons, when the Detroit media asked Lowe about the NCSU job the night before he accepted it, Lowe told them he considered himself an "NBA guy" and wasn't interested in recruiting and other aspects of the college game. The next morning, he agreed to become the Pack's head coach.

Do we know what Herb Sendek thinks about everything that has happened over the last two months? Does he believe he was "run out of town" by the N.C. State fan base, to use one popular description?

Sendek has remained very private with his thoughts on this topic, and he's definitely taken the high road during public interviews with his comments about his 10-year N.C. State tenure. Nevertheless, it's obvious that the coach wouldn't have left Raleigh if he thought he was treated properly by the Wolfpack fan base as a whole.

Remember, the NCSU administration remained firmly behind Sendek until the end, so he certainly didn't leave over job security issues. But the coach quietly made known during the NCAA Tournament that he would listen to overtures from other schools. He later told Missouri he wasn't interested, and he was only a secondary candidate for the Arizona State job until Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon turned it down.

"Absolutely, the fans ran Herb out of town -- not all of them, obviously, but the angry ones who were never going to accept him no matter what he did," one source close to Sendek said. "At the same time, if the dominos had fallen a different way, Herb would still be the coach at N.C. State right now. I don't know if people realize that. He wasn't going to leave just to leave, or take a lower-paying job at Duquesne or somewhere. It had to be the right fit. Fortunately for him, he found it."

Meanwhile, several people with intimate knowledge of Sendek's time at State, including Fowler, assistant coach Larry Harris and former Wolfpack guard Chris Corchiani, have made public comments about the mistreatment Sendek -- and, at times, his family -- received in Raleigh, especially in recent years. Corchiani said Sendek will be "better off" at ASU because of the unhealthy environment that surrounded the coach, even during his more successful seasons.

"His children were getting up to the age … (fans' criticism) was starting to be an issue with him and his family," Fowler said. "For him and his family, he felt like (the Arizona State job) was something he couldn't turn down."

Several weeks after Sendek's departure, a few media members (including this one) received phone calls from someone in the coaching community who's very close to Sendek. The caller basically screamed into the phone for two straight minutes -- it felt longer, but the clock doesn't lie -- and detailed the many reasons why (in his opinion) more Wolfpack fans should have given Sendek more respect and appreciation.

If "hatred" was the right word for the feelings of the most extreme segment of the anti-Sendek crowd at N.C. State near the end of the coach's tenure, and it probably was, then "anger" is the right word for the feelings of some of Sendek's closest coaching associates toward his most vocal critics in Wolfpack Nation.

Sendek probably has some similar feelings, but he hasn't shared them yet.

It seemed that Lee Fowler, John Calipari and many others took (and probably deserved) a lot of criticism during the N.C. State search. Did anyone earn the "hidden winner" tag?

Miami coach Frank Haith never became a candidate for the N.C. State job, but he somehow managed unbelievably positive coverage on several fronts.

A coach's cozy relationship with the media should never (if writers and broadcasters are doing their jobs correctly) lead to the false creation of good news or the purposeful avoidance of bad news. However, in the vast gray areas in between, those relationships often make a tremendous difference. Haith seems to understand this concept well.

Some national columnists and North Carolina-based media essentially campaigned for Haith (after the Barnes and Calipari rejections) in print, knowing that he was interested in the job, by either dropping his name into search articles repeatedly or flat-out writing flattering columns about him as a possible target. Meanwhile, in Florida, Haith mainly was portrayed as a guy who loved his situation at Miami, wasn't looking for a change of scenery and was excited about signing a lucrative contract extension with the Hurricanes. Wow!

The basic litmus test among most media members for anyone they deal with is whether or not he/she is fair and reasonable. (Do they understand and respect the media's job? Do they lie or purposely mislead? Are they thin-skinned and/or paranoid about negative news?) Any other positive personal qualities are considered a bonus.

Haith, an Elon graduate and former Wake Forest (and Texas) assistant, may be one of the nicest guys in college athletics. He's insightful, intelligent, honest, approachable, even-keeled, funny, patient, articulate, humble, responsive and down-to-earth, and that list of positives would be much longer if there was a thesaurus handy.

In short, he's the kind of man you'd allow to date your daughter or mentor your son. His well-deserved reputation as an outstanding recruiter obviously applies to the media as well.

What were the most common misperceptions among fans that you came across during your coverage of the N.C. State coaching search?

That would be a very long list, but here's a pretty good one.

After reading articles here about the role of the "UNC System" or the "UNC System Board of Governors" in the N.C. State coaching search, a surprising number of readers wrote to ask (paraphrasing) why in the world "the Tar Heels" were involved in helping the Wolfpack find a new basketball coach.

For the record, the UNC System includes the following 16 public institutions in North Carolina: Appalachian State, Charlotte, East Carolina, Elizabeth City State, Fayetteville State, N.C. Central, N.C. State, North Carolina A&T, North Carolina School of the Arts, UNC Asheville, UNC Chapel Hill, UNC Greensboro, UNC Pembroke, UNC Wilmington, Western Carolina and Winston-Salem State. So, yes, NCSU is part of the "UNC System."

Obviously, the mere sight or mention of the letters "U-N-C" still sends some ABC (Anybody But Carolina) fans into an angry or emotional state that makes it difficult for them to digest the overall content of the message, which was this: Just as coaches must answer to athletic directors and ADs to chancellors/presidents, public universities must answer to a higher authority as well.

The UNC System Board of Governors, which has no more official affiliation with UNC Chapel Hill than it does with N.C. State or any of the other 14 institutions listed above, is the policy-making body legally charged by the state of North Carolina with "the general determination, control, supervision, management and governance of all affairs of the constituent institutions."

That sometimes includes, among many other things, approving contracts for basketball coaches.

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