March 21, 2006
RALEIGH -- Apparently, only time will tell if Herb Sendek has coached his last game at N.C. State. Right now, nobody else is talking.
The cloud of controversy that hung over the program throughout the closing weeks of the season was still there after State's ugly 75-54 loss to Texas in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
After the ACC Tournament, in which the Wolfpack was eliminated in the quarterfinals by 12th-seeded Wake Forest, former N.C. State star Tommy Burleson added his name to the long list of unhappy fans by calling for a "change" on a Triangle area sports-talk show. The well-liked legendary center from the Pack's 1974 national championship team, Burleson previously had been a supporter of Sendek and a frequent court-side guest at home games.
It seems highly unlikely that State will fire Sendek, especially after a 22-10 season that marked his fifth straight trip to the Big Dance. But given the change-is-needed rumblings within the fan base and -- in Sendek's words -- the "negativism" surrounding the program, it's far more uncertain whether the coach might decide that 10 years in Raleigh is enough and look into desirable employment opportunities elsewhere.
One thing that wasn't in question as the season ended was the support Sendek had from his players, even the ones who clashed with him at times and spent time in his doghouse. They didn't simply speak up for their coach while in Dallas; they passionately defended him.
Most outspoken throughout the team's mostly disappointing trip through the postseason was forward Ilian Evtimov, a fifth-year senior.
"People are going to say what they want," Evtimov said. "The media is going to say their opinion. That's their job. It's their job to look for different stories and have a good story. But at the end, when you look at the record and look at the last five years, we've done nothing but progress and done nothing but have 20-plus wins.
"For the coach to get criticized, I mean, to me is stupid. There are a number of coaches that would love to have that kind of record in that conference. Obviously, we have a lot of competition with Duke and Carolina right next door, but those are teams that have been dominating college basketball for the last 20 years, and we want to be a team just like that. We're making progress. We're getting there.
"So that is the way I feel. Anyone who doesn't feel we're successful either one, doesn't know anything about basketball, or two, is a complete idiot and just doesn't like the program."
Evtimov contended that there is much about Sendek and the program that the media and the public don't realize.
"The media, the fans who disagree, they have not been to practice, they have not been to our preseason workouts and conditioning, in the pregame, at halftime or postgame," Evtimov said. "They don't know what we've been through. So I think it's really unjust for them to make any kind of assumptions about our program when they don't know much about it.
"We're a good program, and for those who don't buy that, that's their perspective, but they might as well be a different team's fan."
Senior swingman Cameron Bennerman, who seemed to buy into Sendek's philosophy this season after clashing with the coach often through his first three years, also stood up for Sendek. Bennerman was the one who revealed a meeting between athletic director Lee Fowler (a staunch Sendek supporter all along) and the team, in which Fowler assured the players that Sendek had the administration's support.
"He's done too much for the program," Bennerman said. "He's done too much for the student-athlete. Guys are graduating, are doing good in their academics, and are becoming more mentally stronger. The things he is working on are the things that people really don't see. I think if the media would take more time to write a positive article or a positive column about what he does well, I mean, that would be great. But people just choose to focus on the negative things."
Bennerman said Sendek's biggest strength is getting his players to understand the need to do things the right way.
"I have a tendency to say too much, and he's gotten on me a couple times," Bennerman said. "But that all goes to wanting to keep that good image. That's really true. Keep a clean program. Say the right things. Be a gentleman. Have character. That's what he's all about, and that's what we respect him for. Some of the stuff he says and does may sound corny, but that's how he is."
NEXT ON AGENDA: SOUL-SEARCHING?
The players also seemed convinced that Sendek will not leave on his own. If he could survive the firestorm that surrounded him five years ago (after a 13-16 season), they said, he certainly could handle it after five straight NCAA Tournament trips.
"Coach is the most tough-minded person I know, and critics and people saying stuff is definitely not going to bother him at all," said sophomore swingman Gavin Grant, who showed great promise in the postseason. "He's going to keep doing his job, keep coming in and working hard, like he's been doing all year."
Sendek was not so emphatic when he answered questions on the speculation about his future after the loss to Texas. But he was basically non-responsive to the media throughout the week in Dallas, so it was impossible to draw any conclusions from his stance.
"I don't know the source of that speculation, and I've never commented about any job speculation as long as I've been at N.C. State -- or Miami, or Kentucky, or Providence," Sendek said. "It's been a wonderful experience to coach this team. They have enriched me greatly. I'm very excited about the direction of our program."
Meanwhile, two sources close to Sendek said prior to the NCAA Tournament that he had not looked into other coaching opportunities, nor had he asked anyone to inquire about them on his behalf. The sources also said that the coach had been reassured by university officials that there were no plans to push him out the door.
"Anyone who thinks Herb has been looking for another job (during the season) doesn't know him very well," one source said after the ACC Tournament. "When he's on a mission, and that means any time there's a game to play, he blocks everything else out. That doesn't mean he won't do some soul-searching after the season -- all coaches do that from time to time -- but it's ridiculous to suggest that he already has some kind of plan or even a direction in place. He's very busy trying to win basketball games right now."