March 1, 2004 RALEIGH By now, few people need convincing that N.C. State coach Herb Sendek should become the fifth Wolfpack coach to win the ACC coach of the year award. Sure, Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt deserves consideration, after taking a team that was picked to finish seventh in the ACC and getting it into the top 10 early in the season. Duke legend Mike Krzyzewski deserves plenty of kudos for his work this year, too. But let's face it: The Wolfpack has been the story of the 2003-04 season. Sendek's Pack even split with the Devils and swept the Jackets during its rise toward the top of the conference standings.
Despite how some have portrayed it, N.C. State's rise has not been a total miracle or a complete surprise. The Wolfpack was picked to finish fourth in the ACC and, after two consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament, there were reasons for fans in Raleigh to have high expectations.
But here's the key: This was supposed to be a difficult year for the publicity-shy Sendek. With Roy Williams moving in next door, Sendek's little ranch house with the picket fence and gingham curtains might have easily gotten overshadowed between well-appointed mansions at Duke and North Carolina.
That clearly hasn't been the case. The Wolfpack challenged Duke directly, knocking the Blue Devils off the top of the basketball polls with a win in Raleigh and offering them their only real resistance in the chase for the regular-season championship. Perhaps even more importantly, at least for this year, there has been much more positive buzz around the Wolfpack than the Tar Heels, a scenario that would have been hard to imagine after the UNC faithful's orgiastic fervor over the arrival of the long-coveted Williams.
Whether any of these developments will continue is a story for another issue, but this year the Wolfpack easily won the marketing war with its biggest rival, which had to deal with more pouty behavior from its players and the legal difficulties of its top recruit.
Meanwhile, more than ever, Sendek was able to take square aim at the biggest criticisms of his program and debunk them all, at least for now:
p Sendek doesn't develop players: When they arrived, seniors Scooter Sherrill couldn't play defense and Marcus Melvin couldn't rebound or play interior defense. Their development over the last four years has been remarkable, especially considering their fairly humble starting points in those areas. And junior Julius Hodge, known for his volatile behavior in the past, has toned down his act. Sendek should get some credit for hastening that maturation process.
p Sendek can't recruit: Two of the most important cogs in the Wolfpack's offense are sophomore Ilian Evtimov, a guy once called the worst incoming freshman in the ACC, and freshman Engin Atsur, a recruit from Turkey that no one knew anything about this time two years ago. Both are now starters Sendek couldn't do without. And with Cedric Simmons, Gavin Grant and Andrew Brackman coming in next year, along with Georgetown transfer Tony Bethel (sitting out this season), the Wolfpack has one of the better recruiting classes in the nation. Sendek still needs more consistency in this department, but he's certainly moving in the right direction.
p Sendek can't win on the road: This one reached a fever pitch earlier this year, after the Wolfpack lost to Michigan, South Carolina and Boston College. Those all turned out to be good teams, and State's players learned enough from those setbacks to be successful on the road in the ACC. The reason the Pack was able to challenge Duke at the top of the standings this year is that both teams were able to win more games than anyone else on the road.
p State's offense is boring: At times, when shots aren't falling (like in the game at Clemson), this offense can be hard to watch, because it is certainly not traditional. But when it runs smoothly, it is frustrating to opponents and hard to stop. And wins are never boring.
p Sendek doesn't teach free throw shooting: Uh, at one time this was a big problem, but it's one that has been solved by recruiting a team full of shooters. The Wolfpack now leads the nation in free throw accuracy, a factor that complicates opposing coaches' strategy late in close games and should provide a big boost for the Pack in the postseason.
Having said all that, it also has been a year of good fortune for the Wolfpack, with no major injuries and only relatively minor off-court distractions. In years past, Sendek has had to deal with someone getting hurt. Last year, his team lost Evtimov before the season started and had trouble keeping Levi Watkins and Jordan Collins healthy during the ACC gauntlet. Previous injury problems have been well-chronicled.
Off the court, there have been some situations to contend with, but nothing like having the Wilkins brothers lurking around all the time to check up on Damien's progress toward the NBA, or Damon Thornton's troubles with the law. Collins sat out the first semester because of an academic issue, Atsur missed the first three games because of an NCAA ruling about his international play, and little-used guard Dominick Mejia opted to transfer at mid-year, a good move for him considering his severe lack of playing time.
None of those situations had an appreciable negative impact on the team's core. In fact, sitting out those games probably made both Collins and Atsur better, and Mejia clearly was not going to be a significant part of the Wolfpack's rotation any time soon.
The result: the most conference wins since the 1974 NCAA championship team. That's a distinction that should allow Sendek to join Everett Case (1954, 55, 58), Press Maravich (1965), Norm Sloan (1970, 73, 74) and Jim Valvano (1989) as N.C. State's representatives among the all-time ACC coaches of the year.
Everyone Loves Pack's Parade
Urban legends die hard, especially in the hands of opposing fans. But this old favorite is probably getting a little old to N.C. State supporters, as rivals attempt to put a wedge between the school's football and basketball programs.
It's an easy target, to be sure, drawing attention to the difference between the unwavering support football coach Chuck Amato has had with Wolfpack fans and the fiercely divided support Sendek has had, even earlier this season. It's as easy to see as the differences in the personalities of the two coaches.
But there also comes a time when as with everything else in the business of perception that college athletics has become those myths turn into just another negative recruiting tool.
Such is the story of Amato's grand parade, the one after the Gator Bowl that started somewhere in Asheville, went all that way down I-40 with several million frothing, red-shirted fans holding Sendek effigies and signs that read Fillet Herb until it reached the downtown streets of Raleigh. Amato and his team, with baby-blood caked in their beards and wearing, for some reason, Viking helmets, carried the torch that was to be used to light the kerosene-soaked logs that Sendek and his team were tied to on the plaza in front of the Convention Center at the end of Fayetteville Street Mall.
Or, at least, that's how many Duke and Carolina fans remember the post-bowl celebration thrown by the city of Raleigh in January 2003, following the Wolfpack's win over Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl. And that's how it has been portrayed to the head basketball coaches at those two schools, by supporters and lackeys inside school administration, the primary sources of most basketball coaches' in-season knowledge of the outside world.
I heard when I got here that N.C. State football finished fourth in the ACC and they had a parade, and the basketball team finished fourth in the ACC and they wanted to fire Herb, North Carolina coach Roy Williams coach said in late February, before the N.C. State-UNC rematch in Raleigh.
That parroted the I Love Herb rant that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski had earlier this season, when he rhetorically asked a reporter, Have they gone to the NCAA? Is that like going to a bowl? They have finished fourth (in the ACC), haven't they? They ought to throw (Sendek) a damned parade.
Maybe Sendek is right: Outside perceptions don't necessarily define you, they define the person who has them. And it's pretty apparent that both Williams and Krzyzewski, innocently or not, are trying to portray a schism in their rival's athletic support system.
Perhaps, for the first time in a long while, those schools feel a little bit threatened. And that's another reason for Wolfpack fans to appreciate what's happened this season.
As Always, Amato Aiming High
There's only one real reason Amato has been tinkering with his football staff in the offseason, just as he has done in years past: The Wolfpack's defense was terrible last year.
It was the primary reason, in fact, for the disappointing 8-5 send-off for legendary QB Philip Rivers and star receiver Jerricho Cotchery. The stats 421 total yards allowed, sixth in the ACC; 29.6 points allowed per game, eighth in the ACC; 284.1 passing yards per game, last in the ACC and No. 116 in Division I-A tell the story of why Amato is looking for a defensive coordinator, after two years of doing without one.
So the departure of safeties coach Chris Demarest to Rutgers and the apparent shifting of long-time assistant Joe Pate to another job within the athletic department created both the openings and the cash needed to make a big pitch for a big name. And Amato quickly did what he often does in recruiting when he needs a fast solution to a big problem: He went trolling in Miami.
Entering March, Amato desperately wanted to hire Miami defensive coordinator Randy Shannon to take that same position with the Wolfpack. The 2001 winner of the Frank Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant coach, Shannon is a Miami native, a former UM football star and a former assistant coach for the Miami Dolphins. So why would he leave home for Raleigh?
Money, of course. Miami media outlets reported that Shannon makes between $180,000 to $200,000 at Miami that would be a higher base salary than all but one ACC assistant (Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta) and stands to get a raise of more than $50,000 from the Wolfpack. And don't forget: Money in Raleigh trickles out a lot slower than money in Miami. At press time, the Hurricanes were working on a raise for Shannon.
The departure of Demarest wasn't that surprising, considering the problems within the Wolfpack's secondary last year. He split coaching responsibilities with former Amato teammate Greg Williams, a move that worked about as well as the New Coke ad campaign.
Demarest got a raise to go to Rutgers and more responsibility in his job, but it was hard to anchor the eyebrows with the announcement, a move similar to two years ago when defensive coordinator Buddy Green left his alma mater for the same position at Navy. Demarest, a former graduate assistant at Florida State who was an original member of Amato's staff in 2000, has personal ties to Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano, and his 11-year-old daughter lives in New Jersey.
Regardless, it's obvious that Amato is aggressively trying to change the fortunes of his defense, and he's willing to spend big money to make things better. Whether or not he gets Shannon, it figures to be another interesting offseason for the N.C. State football program.