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Under Pressure

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

Every ACC Head Coach Faces Some Form

By Dave Glenn and Staff
February 10, 2003

Expectations Chasing Coach K

DURHAM — In some ways, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski works in the least-pressurized environment in the ACC. He works on a floor named after him — Coach K Court — and is 13 months into a lifetime contract that will allow him to be the Duke coach for as long as he wants.

“Until he decides to retire,” said Duke athletic director Joe Alleva, who gave Krzyzewski the lifetime contract in November 2001.

In other ways, Krzyzewski deals on a daily basis with as much pressure as any coach east of UCLA's Steve Lavin. While Lavin tries unsuccessfully to live up to the legacy of John Wooden, Krzyzewski faces a challenge as well: trying to live up to the legacy of Mike Krzyzewski.

“That's not pressure,” he said of the constantly high expectations of Duke. “You want those expectations. That means you have good players.”

In the preseason, the ACC media ranked the Blue Devils No. 1 in the league, putting the onus on a Duke program that lost three All-ACC juniors to the NBA draft. Defending national champion Maryland was picked second, and in total voting points the Terps were closer to fourth than to No. 1. Krzyzewski said: Pressure? What pressure?

“If I was a fan I'd be concerned, but for me there's a military term: need to know. I don't need to know,” said Krzyzewski, an Army grad. “That information doesn't do anything for me. I've never paid attention to rankings.”

In a less guarded moment, Krzyzewski conceded he does pay attention sometimes.

“I could think people are setting us up,” he said. “It's a big story when we lose.”

Duke has long been at the point where the headline is bigger after a loss than a win. Compounding the issue is the fact that the Blue Devils rarely catch another team on an off night.

“We get everyone's best shot,” said junior point guard Chris Duhon. “We've got to be ready every night.”

“And that's hard to do,” Krzyzewski said. “It's hard to be at your best every time you play. It's impossible.”

Maryland, N.C. State and Florida State played their best games of the season in home victories against Duke, and after each game the beaten Blue Devils had to hurry to the locker room as fans stormed the court.

Krzyzewski's burden — he wouldn't call it such — is excellence. At some point in each of the last six years, Duke has been ranked No. 1 nationally. They entered 15 of the past 16 seasons in the preseason top 10, the only exception being 1995-96, after Krzyzewski missed the second half of the previous season with a back injury. This is not a team that can float near the bottom of the top 25, winning enough games to get into the NCAA Tournament as a No. 5 or No. 6 seed. At a lot of schools, that would be basketball nirvana. At Duke, that would be mediocrity.

For many years, Duke fans' favorite criticism of UNC's Dean Smith was that the legendary coach didn't win enough (“only” two) national championships even though he had an impressive trail of first-round NBA draft choices, ACC titles and No. 1 poll rankings. Interestingly, long after Smith's retirement, the same criticism — absurd or not — can be turned back on Krzyzewski. From 1999-2002, the Blue Devils were ranked No. 1 in the final polls all four times but captured “only” one national title. Overall, Smith's teams had four (1982, 1984, 1993, 1994) final No. 1 rankings in one or both of the major polls, and the Tar Heels won the championship in two (1982, 1993) of those years. Coach K's teams have six (1986, 1992, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002) final No. 1 rankings, also with “only” two titles (1992, 2001) in those years. Duke also won it all in 1991, with a team that finished sixth in both polls.

There are even whispers that Maryland has overtaken Duke as the top program in the ACC, a laughable assertion if the criteria is the past five years or more, but a point worthy of discussion if it is considered in the narrow focus of last season, this season and the future. The Terps have split the past six meetings with Duke, and they have won the last two. Maryland won last season's ACC regular-season title, and Maryland won the 2002 national championship.

Krzyzewski bristled, understandably, after Duke's 87-72 loss Jan. 18 at College Park, when asked if Maryland basketball was better.

“What a dumb question,” Krzyzewski said. “They have a great program — we do, too. It's a dumb question.”

Imagine being asked if your program has fallen behind the ... gasp ... defending national champion. That's pressure.

Williams Changing, Just A Little

COLLEGE PARK — You don't hear anyone ripping Gary Williams anymore.

For much of his tenure at Maryland, Williams has been a lightning rod for criticism. While most reasonable fans recognized they were fortunate to have Williams, there was always a strong and vocal contingent of detractors who insisted he had to go.

The “Gary Bashers,” as they came to be known, were adamant that Williams would never take the Terrapins to the next level. They cited his less-than-zealous efforts on the recruiting trail, his press-and-run playing style, his manic sideline behavior and his penchant for wearing teams out before the most meaningful games were played in March.

Those critics have crept back into the woodwork, silenced by back-to-back Final Four appearances and the program's first national championship. It's funny how a gold-embossed, wooden plaque can cast a 25-year head coach in an entirely new light.

Fellow coaches have known for years that Williams was among the best at the Division I level. Heck, the guy has built winners at schools in three major conferences — the Big East (Boston College), the Big Ten (Ohio State) and the ACC. In 1994, when Williams was on the verge of his 300th career victory, former Maryland teammate and then-Colorado coach Joe Harrington called his long-time friend “a giant in our business.” Yet one year later, as the Terps struggled to a 17-13 record that included a first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament, some influential boosters called for his firing.

Now Williams is closing in on his 500th career victory, and such notables as ESPN commentator Dick Vitale have hinted that he deserves a spot in the College Basketball Hall of Fame. While Williams still stands second to Lefty Driesell (348 to 288) in victories at Maryland, there is no question he's the school's most successful coach.

Williams is easily the second-most secure coach in the ACC, behind Duke legend Mike Krzyzewski. In his 14th season in College Park, Williams recently renegotiated his contract, which runs through 2012 and pays him well in excess of $1 million annually.

The 57-year-old appears to have no interest in the NBA and has expressed a desire to conclude his career at Maryland. Barring the unforeseen, that will be his choice. He holds considerable clout on campus and within the athletic department, as basketball revenue paid most of the bills throughout the 1990s and the program's success made construction of the $110 million Comcast Center possible.

Williams has proven a colorful and interesting figure during his tenure at Maryland. While the on-court Gary has changed very little, the off-court persona certainly has mellowed slightly with wisdom and age.

When he initially returned to his alma mater in 1989, lured away from Ohio State, Williams was fresh off an unpleasant divorce and eager for a fresh start. He worked hard and played hard, running through a series of much-younger girlfriends and getting stopped for alcohol-related driving offenses more than once.

Yet Williams gradually has slowed down and matured, growing from a street-fighter type of coach into more of a buttoned-down professional. That was inevitable as his stature rose within the coaching fraternity. With program success came more expensive suits, more media scrutiny and thus a more polished Gary.

For years, Williams had a routine following home games. He and an entourage, usually friends, assistants and their significant others, would commandeer the back dining room of Bentley's, a popular bar on Route 1 in College Park. Bentley's owner John Brown, a loyal and deep-pocketed Maryland booster, pretty much closed off the room to other patrons so Williams and crew could party in privacy. Yet fans usually knew when Williams was there, and they often chanted his name or poked their heads around corners to shout words of encouragement.

Williams changed many of his habits after being sidelined with pneumonia during the 1994-95 season. Athletic director Debbie Yow and close confidants suggested that it didn't look good for a coach of Williams' stature to drink at the same bar as fans and students, at least not on a regular basis.

Yet from the get-go, Williams was always a man of the people. He quickly endeared himself to the Maryland students with his fiery sideline behavior and by showing a kinship that came from once “having been one of them.” The coach is always last to enter the arena prior to home games, striding slowly onto the court as the pep band plays a triumphant march. As Williams nears the home team bench, he always looks toward the student section and pumps his fist — a simple act that sends the loyalists into a frenzy. Immediately following games, he often talks to the fans over the public address system, routinely thanking them for their support.

A permanent sign that adorned Cole Field House proclaimed it “Garyland,” and it was true that he came to own the place. That's already true at Comcastle, which has been dubbed the “House That Gary Built.”

Williams always has been combative in most realms of his life. He can be a real bear to work and play for, demanding at all times and condescending on occasion. Most former coaches, players and employees can recall a few expletive-laced tirades that crossed the line of normal professional behavior.

Yet most who have been associated with Williams have great respect for him, citing his blue-collar work ethic and commitment to excellence. An overwhelming majority of his former players will tell you that Williams, while not exactly warm and fuzzy, has another side that is caring and fatherly. There are a lot of untold stories of things Williams has done for players that are above and beyond the call of duty for a head coach. There are very few former Terps who have not maintained some form of relationship with Williams, and many (Duane Simpkins, Johnny Rhodes, Terrell Stokes, Steve Francis, Juan Dixon) remain close with him.

Williams is a lifelong battler. It's part of his personality, the mentality that drives him. He always has used opponents, real or imagined, as motivation. During the early years in College Park, Williams fought with the administration to regain support for the basketball program lost in the aftermath of the Len Bias scandal. At times over the years, he has been combative with ACC officials, opposing coaches, athletic directors, assistant coaches and players.

Most would be surprised that Williams enjoys a relatively smooth relationship with the media. He has proven remarkably accommodating of interview demands and is far more patient with prodding reporters than with struggling players. There have been plenty of disagreements between Williams and reporters — to the point that he's called some onto the carpet, then given them the cold shoulder for a few days or weeks — but the coach is not one to hold a grudge.

Last spring, a beat writer angered Williams for writing (prematurely in the coach's view) that Chris Wilcox would leave school early for the NBA. The writer used the players' family and friends as sources and wisely ignored Williams' claim that Wilcox would not make a decision until meeting with the coach. Williams ripped the offending writer for his handling of the story and ordered his assistants not to speak with him. Yet a few months later, the two got together for lunch, and all was forgotten.

Close associates and confidants agree that a kinder, gentler Williams seems to have emerged in recent years. Williams has rebuilt a broken relationship with his daughter and become a doting grandfather. He was hit hard last February by the death of his father, a life-changing event that leads to introspection for most individuals.

Williams seems more content than ever, both with his career and his personal life. Yet the intense competitor and manic coach still comes out every game, as Williams rants at officials, screams at players and sweats through suits every bit as much now as he did back in 1989. That part probably will never change.

Wake Leaning Hard On Prosser

WINSTON-SALEM — Wake Nation couldn't be happier with its athletic program right now, and Skip Prosser is riding the wave.

Jim Grobe is winning some football games, non-revenue sports have Wake in the Sears Cup hunt, and athletic director Ron Wellman appears to be making all the right calls. Prosser put the Deacons in the NCAA Tournament in his debut season last year, and he has them in the ACC's upper echelon and NCAA-bound again this season. On the way, he has dominated hated North Carolina, a sure way to strengthen one's reputation.

In addition, Prosser has the public charmed, mainly by being the anti-Dave Odom in some ways. While Odom was incredibly nice, sincere and cooperative, Prosser is looser on and off the court — a welcome change for fans who spent more than a decade with the more buttoned-down predecessor.

Home games are more fun, yet more intense at the same time. Fans love to chart Prosser's witty remarks, which are backed by the former teacher's impressive range of knowledge. If you're around the coach enough, you'll see him pull out a lot of those same witty remarks on multiple occasions, but most of them are good enough to make you laugh even the second or third time you hear them.

That approach has made him popular with media across the country. He's quotable, accessible and seems to know how to use the media well. Over his two seasons, he's appeared to carefully challenge certain players publicly (such as questioning Josh Howard's leadership abilities over the summer), then praise them in the same manner later, after the chastising worked. Along the way, Prosser made Wake Forest a hip place to play basketball, and he's done it without lowering the class standard to the old Miami football levels.

So where's the pressure?

Well, for all of Odom's faults, he set the bar pretty high. He didn't make the Deacons a national power, but he did make them a consistent winner — not an easy thing to do in the ACC. From 1991-2001, Odom's final 11 seasons, Wake Forest won 19 or more games eight times, never won fewer than seven ACC games in a season and never missed the postseason.

So, unlike coaches asked to take over struggling programs, Prosser has no room for an off-year. In fact, he really doesn't even have room for Odom-like seasons.

In his first year at Wake Forest, Prosser went 21-13 overall, 9-7 in the league, won one ACC Tournament game and one NCAA Tournament game. That was very Odom-like on the surface, although many (including the Sports Journal) believe Odom never would have pulled that performance out of that team.

The point is that Wake Forest fans aren't going to want to look back in 2006 at five years of 20 wins, .500 ACC records and no postseason glory. While that's certainly a good showing, there's no room here anymore for Prosser to just be good. He has to play with Duke, Maryland and the other big boys. Wake hired Prosser to move the Deacons past the Odom level, and it's something he tackles head-on.

“That's certainly one of the challenges that excites me,” Prosser said. “The kids came to play those guys and those teams. And I came here not to play, but certainly to coach against those coaches and those teams. You know there's that old adage, be careful of what you wish for. But I know the kids are here to accept that challenge, and I feel the same as the players.”

To do that, the pressure's on Prosser to recruit well. Odom's biggest fault was spotty recruiting, and Prosser appears to be an improvement. He's quickly dominated the state, despite the presence of three traditional powers, and he landed two big-timers in freshman center Eric Williams and Class of 2003 point guard signee Chris Paul. Prosser also has eliminated that deep-reach player Odom always seemed to land, although he's recruited a few prospects who seem more like some of the Odom gambles. Only time will tell if Prosser is a better judge of the long-term potential of those second-tier talents.

Prosser's recruiting approach has endeared him to Wake Forest fans, who ultimately grew tired of Odom's complaints about the school's disadvantages.

“It can be a problem for us, or it can be looked upon as an opportunity,” Prosser said. “I think we can be an alternative. You know, we're not the University of North Carolina at Winston-Salem. We're Wake Forest. If a young man wants to play at the highest level of competition you can find in the country, and at the same time he feels most comfortable in a small, intimate family-style atmosphere, I think it's a great opportunity. I don't see that as a disadvantage. I think it's something that can be a positive.”

Another source of pressure on Prosser comes internally, from the Wake Forest bean-counters — and therefore from the rest of the school's athletic programs. At most ACC schools, football and men's basketball both make a nice profit, allowing other sports to get funded. At Wake Forest, basketball is the sole source of positive cash flow.

According to the school's filings with the federal government for the 2001 and 2002 seasons, the basketball program made almost $9 million in profit (combined), while football lost almost $200,000. All other Wake sports combined to lose more than $7.5 million.

So when Grobe signs a 10-year contract, as he recently did, the pressure's certainly on him to improve the football program. But it's also on Prosser to keep Wake Forest playing great basketball. If Prosser starts losing a lot of games, not only is his future on the line, but the entire financial future of Wake sports as well.

Nobody sees any disaster scenarios unfolding any time soon. Prosser is winning now, loses only Howard after this season, and next year's team won't have a senior in the rotation. The coach is reaching his team, as evidenced by the fact that players aren't stagnating as they did in previous regimes. He's reaching the fans and has the personality to reach the rest of the country.

The only question is whether he'll be able to live up to the ever-increasing expectations, and that's more of a challenge than a problem.

Hamilton Working Past Bumps

TALLAHASSEE — Spend any time with Leonard Hamilton, and you get the impression the term “multi-tasking” was coined by someone who had watched the veteran coach work. How else would you describe a guy who invites the media into his private locker room and conducts an interview while grabbing a quick shave before practice, not missing a beat — or a spot — while taking a call on his cell phone.

Driven. That's Hamilton in a single word; a man who either thrives on the self-imposed pressure of resurrecting Florida State's basketball fortunes or simply doesn't care to sleep.

“I've never been a late sleeper,” said Hamilton, who averages three hours a night. Born into a blue-collar family, he would regularly rise at 5 a.m. and get his chores done before heading off to school. “I enjoy doing what I do — accomplishing something and moving on to the next task. I've never really allowed myself the luxury of finishing tasks.”

Of course, his work at FSU is never-ending. Though considerably improved, the Seminoles are a long way from reaching the level Hamilton envisions. Just 10 months into his five-year contract, he works as if he's trying to make a living off 10-day NBA contracts.

Long-time Hamilton assistant Stan Jones is still amazed by his boss' work ethic.

“When he chose to be a basketball coach, that's all he was consumed on being: ‘I've got to prove myself; I've got to earn my stripes,'” Jones said. “That's the only thing that drives him. ... I've never seen a guy have so many things on his plate and get so much done.”

In some ways, he's not unlike FSU football coach Bobby Bowden, who's driven because of his fear of failure. The difference is, Hamilton doesn't see the Seminoles' struggles as anything more than part of the learning process.

Though he demands the same kind of effort and commitment he gives from his players, he enjoys a warm relationship with his team. He doesn't have to scream and holler to get his players' attention — he does most of that on the practice court, and seldom in the public's view — because Hamilton's glare usually elicits an immediate response.

For those outside his program, especially the media, that glare serves as a way of insulating him from distractions. That was especially true in the early months, when he took the job and there was so much work to be done. He has since become far more accommodating, though there is no question his focus wavers from time to time.

It's not uncommon to catch him in the middle of a conversation on his semi-attached cell phone say, during the middle of the weekly ACC conference call. On his terms, however, he can be quite engaging and candid, qualities that have emerged throughout his first season.

“He is myopic,” ESPN analyst Len Elmore said. “But he's about as gracious a guy as you could meet.”

Hamilton's public persona is impeccable. Sharp-dressed and quick-witted, he is slowly building a support base for a program that regularly finishes last in the ACC in attendance. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Hamilton's team, though not talented enough to contend night-in and night-out, has embraced its coach's work ethic.

While it's difficult to gauge the net results by looking at FSU's win-loss mark, the once-common blowouts are no longer a regular occurrence. In addition to logging quality wins, most recently over No. 5 Duke, as well as Iowa and Miami — and a near-miss against Florida — the Seminoles are playing with more passion and purpose than they have since first joining the league.

Still, that's not enough to satisfy a man who seems to relish the pressure of rebuilding projects, like the ones he successfully engineered at Oklahoma State and Miami. That was evident in Hamilton's words following the Seminoles' raucous 75-70 upset of the Blue Devils.

“I have been given the responsibility of developing a program that can be successful year-in and year-out,” Hamilton said. “So as the game winds down, I try to keep those things in perspective. ... We've won 11 games; we're 2-6 in the league. And in order for us to move past this, we have to find a way to continue to get better. Hopefully, this is just the beginning.”

Hewitt Confident, Polished At 39

ATLANTA — Paul Hewitt wasn't the first choice to replace Georgia Tech legend Bobby Cremins in 2000, but Hewitt has been the complete package since arriving on campus.

Tech athletic director Dave Braine made inquiries — some serious, others just a call — on Leonard Hamilton, Bill Self, Oliver Purnell, Mike Brey, Buzz Peterson, Perry Clark, Tommy Amaker, Kelvin Sampson, John Lucas, Rob Evans and perhaps others after Cremins announced he would be leaving the Yellow Jackets after 19 mostly successful seasons. With the candidates Braine liked most, either the money or the timing wasn't right.

So Braine turned to Hewitt, then an up-and-coming coach at Siena with an excellent track record, especially in recruiting. Three years later, in the opinion of many, it was one of Braine's best moves.

Hewitt, who turns 40 in May, projects an air of supreme confidence. He's tall and athletic. (He was a four-year basketball player at St. John's Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y.) He's extremely sharp, in mind, manner and appearance.

An East Coast guy, Hewitt grew up on Long Island, rooted for Georgetown, attended college in New York, and worked at C.W. Post, Villanova, Fordham and Siena. He has a typical East Coast — and particularly Northeast — sensibility to him. He's a straight shooter with the media, more than willing to chew the fat, and friendly in conversations with fans on call-in shows and during personal appearances. He's unafraid to speak his mind about a wide variety of topics, including NCAA rules, graduation rates and officials.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Hewitt — apparently upset with referee Ted Valentine — recently said to people seated at the scorer's table: “All this money, and this is what we get? Unbelievable.”

The ACC office has asked, and not so gently, that Hewitt tone down his criticism of the officials. But the coach has continued to work them in games (maybe as hard as anyone except Duke's Mike Krzyzewski) and through the media. This season's emphasis has been on getting center Luke Schenscher more calls in the paint and fewer calls on the defensive end.

Hewitt has consistently railed against various NCAA rules, arguing in one case that until high schools are standardized in money, class size, performance, etc., the NCAA shouldn't require uniformity in academic performance. He sees many rules as archaic and harmful to student-athletes. He is constant in his defense of the kids, and his approach has worked — not only in getting athletes to campus, but in getting them to play hard for him.

When Cremins left, center Alvin Jones and point guard Tony Akins each thought about leaving. Both stayed and helped Hewitt's first team make the NCAA Tournament. Last year, after an 0-7 conference start, Akins rallied a young team around him — Tony and the Tots — and Tech closed with eight wins in its last 11 games, just missing an NIT berth.

Hewitt's recruiting prowess, including his eye for talent, were not overstated. He brought in Ed Nelson and B.J. Elder, less than hyped recruits, and they finished first and third in ACC rookie of the year voting last year. This season, he landed stud forward Chris Bosh and talented point guard Jarrett Jack, both eager to play in his up-tempo style.

Even with mixed results this season, Hewitt has given fans hope for the future with his young and exciting squad. He's gotten students more involved at Alexander Memorial Coliseum, in part by moving them onto risers behind the baskets. He consistently thanks them in post-game press conferences.

With more success seemingly on the horizon — Tech doesn't have a scholarship senior on its 2002-03 roster — Hewitt, who signed a five-year deal worth $400,000 annually when he arrived, surely will be a candidate for NBA openings in the future. A husband and father of three, he is a huge fan of the NBA and basketball history. Many have speculated that he would relish the challenge of coaching in the pros some day, but the coach hasn't spent much time addressing that sensitive topic himself.

Lengthy Deal Protecting Gillen

CHARLOTTESVILLE — Even in the best of times, Pete Gillen is a coach who feels the heat, as evidenced by his sweat-drenched shirts, his public admissions to “itchin' and twitchin'” and his irregular availability to the media.

In his fifth season as Virginia coach, Gillen is not experiencing the best of times. In fact, the Cavaliers' program is at its low ebb during the Gillen era.

The Cavaliers had a losing record (14-16) in Gillen's first season, 1998-99, but that was with a roster Gillen inherited from predecessor Jeff Jones, who resigned under pressure following an 11-19 season in 1997-98. Some people still believe Gillen did his best coaching job that first year, when he was left with six able-bodied scholarship players after center Colin Ducharme suffered a broken foot on the night after the opening game.

UVa went to the NIT and finished 19-12 in Gillen's second season, followed by an NCAA trip and a 20-9 record in 2000-01. Before the start of the next season, it was announced that Gillen had signed a new 10-year contract.

Questions were raised at the time about the length of the contract, and the questions did not go away when UVa went 17-12 last year. They only intensified earlier this season, as a team ranked 22nd in November sputtered into the new year.

Moreover, there has been a renewal of the off-court problems that helped bring down the Jones regime. Sophomore guard Jermaine Harper was arrested for driving under the influence, a November charge that resulted in his suspension for the first five games of the season. More recently, Jones had to suspend another sophomore, point guard Keith Jenifer, after Jenifer was arrested for misdemeanor assault and battery in the early morning hours after the Cavaliers' return from an 80-60 loss at Georgia Tech.

It's hard to think of a Virginia player who has been more unpopular than Jenifer, whose nocturnal escapades were the subject of a letter to the editor of the Charlottesville Daily Progress newspaper. Another woman, who described herself as a 30-year Virginia fan, said she no longer would support the Cavaliers because “Gillen recruits street thugs like Keith Jenifer.” On top of that, while Gillen was playing Jenifer, he had the anti-Jenifer, Majestic Mapp, on the bench. Mapp, the only former McDonald's All-American in the program, has won the hearts of UVa fans with his battle to overcome two major knee operations. Upon his return, the early indications suggested he can still play a little.

The Cavaliers will produce another winning record this season, but it will be a challenge to make the NCAA Tournament, mostly because of their continuing inability to win on the road. They were 2-6 on the road even after a shocking come-from-behind win at Maryland in early February.

At the end of the regular season, Gillen is certain to be reminded of the Cavaliers' postseason woes. UVa has not won a postseason game since its Final Eight appearance in 1995 — not an NCAA Tournament game, not an NIT game, not even an ACC Tournament game.

It's a sticky matter for UVa athletic director Craig Littlepage and the two other former Division I head basketball coaches, Terry Holland and Barry Parkhill, entrusted with raising funds for a new arena. Groundbreaking will start later this year, even though UVa has raised little more than $40 million (in two separate gifts of $20 million) for a building that will cost at least $125 million. In addition to a cool economic climate, the performance of the arena's two principal tenants — the Virginia men's and women's basketball teams — can't have anybody enthused. Much was expected of the Virginia women, also, and they can't get above .500.

Regardless of Gillen's finish in 2002-03, it's unlikely that Virginia will fire him or even pressure him into resigning with eight years remaining on his contract. At a time when money is particularly tight, it would be too costly. Cavalier insiders said very little attention was paid to a buyout during the transition to Littlepage from predecessor Holland.

Nevertheless, why there was such a hurry to get the contract signed, when Gillen still had four years remaining on his original pact, nobody has ever ventured to explain.

Sendek Surviving Roller-Coaster

RALEIGH — There might not be a coach in ACC history, at least not one who has been at the same school for seven years, whose job status has been more scrutinized than N.C. State coach Herb Sendek.

His mostly bald and information-packed head has been seemingly on the chopping block like a Thanksgiving turkey for much of his tenure. First he was a hero for getting the Wolfpack to the ACC Tournament final in his first season. Then he was a goat for not advancing his team beyond the NIT in his first five seasons.

That ebb and flow of talk, and the multitude of conversations about whether Sendek is the right person to lead a program with two national titles and 10 ACC championships, has been heard as much in the foreground as in the background. According to the coach, though, he has never given it much thought.

“There are some people out there that seem to (talk about his job security),” Sendek said earlier this season, just before the Wolfpack beat third-ranked Duke. “I am aware of it. Whether it's fair or not isn't relevant for me. Whether they do or do not, I can't control it.

“The one thing on an intellectual level you realize — and it is much more difficult to practice it, although you hopefully want to move toward it — is that when other people judge you, they don't necessarily define you. They almost express their need to judge more than anything else. That is part of sports, part of coaching. Sometimes it is game by game.”

There have been so many highs and lows with Sendek that it's easy to lose count. There have been big wins and impressive recruiting victories, including Damien Wilkins (hey, the pressures later brought by the Wilkins family weren't Sendek's fault) and Julius Hodge. There also have been lots of transfers and some ugly, ugly losses.

The absolute low point came in 2000-01, when the Wolfpack finished 13-16 and seemed to be a team that was pulled apart by off-court divisions, whether the result of the circus surrounding Wilkins or troublesome players such as Kenny Inge and Damon Thornton.

Many fans wanted that to be Sendek's final season in Raleigh, an improbable notion considering that athletic director Lee Fowler, a former basketball coach, had not yet completed his first year on the job. Fowler, in fact, has never wavered in his belief that Sendek, who runs an impeccably clean program, is the right man to lead the Wolfpack.

Though Sendek never said he was worried about his job going into last season, he knew it was a make-or-break year for him professionally. Fortunately for him, he had a great freshman class and a break-out year by senior Anthony Grundy, and the Wolfpack ended its decade-long drought from the NCAA Tournament.

Sendek's loyal supporters definitely should get some sort of award for patience. Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams, no ACC coach has ever returned for a sixth season without at least one trip to the Big Dance in those first five years.

But even last year and this year, there was a vocal contingent of fans — some even believe it's a majority of Wolfpack Nation — who wanted Sendek, who will never win any prizes in a personality contest, to leave. Last year, that sentiment bubbled up after the Pack lost at home to Massachusetts.

That was before the Wolfpack's offense, revamped with the help of assistant coach Larry Hunter, really kicked in. By the time the season was over, Sendek had guided the Wolfpack to a third-place finish in the league, another trip to the ACC final and into the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Over the summer, the school gave its three most prominent coaches the security of five-year contracts, meaning Sendek got a two-year extension. At the time, there was nary a bit of talk about a buyout.

Heading into the second half of the ACC season, the Wolfpack again was poised to finish in the top half of the regular-season standings, no small feat for a team that lost one of its best players, Ilian Evtimov, in the preseason. There were some bad road losses, plus a home loss to Boston College that set off some fans, but later wins over Duke and North Carolina have kept the villagers and their torches, hoes and pitchforks at bay.

At least for now.

Doherty Followed By Questions

CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina coach Matt Doherty watched his team go from the 5-0 November mountaintop to near-.500 postseason purgatory in February, but it could have been worse. He could have been dealing with the knowledge that he was UNC fans' third or fourth choice to succeed Bill Guthridge.

Oops ... that's right, he was. Roy Williams, Larry Brown and George Karl rated higher than Doherty on most fans' wish lists in July 2000. Truth be told, those same folks — and an undetermined number of others, even outside the Carolina family — were higher on Dean Smith's list, too. The legendary coach, while also throwing plenty of verbal bouquets toward his former player, said as much on the day UNC announced Doherty's hiring.

Still, it could have been worse. Doherty could have inherited a squeamish recruiting class that would rebel under his high-tempo, iron-fisted coaching style and transfer en masse, leaving his team low on talent and depth.

Oops ... he did that, too. Sophomores Brian Morrison, Adam Boone and Neil Fingleton fled last year. Only Boone confirmed clashing with Doherty's coaching style — the others cited playing time and playing style — but they left their coach with the youngest roster in the country this season.

Still, it's not so bad. Doherty could have a very public chemistry issue with his most important players, point guard Raymond Felton and swingman Rashad McCants.

Oops ... he has that, too. Both players' parents issued damaging quotes about their sons' early experiences at UNC, prompting Doherty to lash out at the post-game press conference following a win against Connecticut. There, he begged reporters to ask his players — not their parents — how they felt about him. The reporters asked. The players said all the right things. The problem: The players also said all the right things during the past two seasons, when it was later revealed (by Boone, Joseph Forte, Jawad Williams, etc.) that indeed there were significant problems behind the scenes, despite their denials at the time.

It could be worse. His leading scorer and most talented player, McCants, could be an unpredictable rookie who is battling some serious emotional ups and downs.

Oops ... he is. Even though he has been among the ACC's scoring leaders all season, McCants was benched for the start of three games but apparently failed to receive the message. After the recent Wake Forest game, when Doherty said McCants' defensive intensity had been lacking, McCants claimed not to understand his plight. “Whatever (Doherty) says,” McCants said.

That's not pressure. Pressure would be for everyone in the media — from talk-show hosts to print reporters to internet specialists devoted to the Tar Heels — to be sniffing around for The Story, the one that reveals everything wrong within the program.

Oops ... they are. The water is full of blood, and the sharks are swimming. How long before one of them finds enough of it for another article?

But it could be harder for Doherty. It's not like his fans have given up on him, turning on him and calling for his ouster less than three seasons into his UNC tenure.

Oops ... they are. On the Inside Carolina website, probably the most-seen independent site devoted to UNC basketball, message boards are lighting up with threads bearing titles like this one: “The Doherty Experiment.” Click on the thread, and the first message reads like this: “The Doherty experiment is officially a failure!” The second, third and fourth posts aren't any nicer. The overall tone of the site remains positive, but the many exceptions are telling.

But that's not pressure. Pressure would be for Doherty to know that his boss can have an itchy trigger finger when it comes to firing coaches.

Oops ... he does. How many years did football coach Carl Torbush last under athletic director Dick Baddour? Barely three. It was undeniably the right decision on Torbush, probably even a year too late, but it also was a quick one. It's not all bad, though. The team could be losing.

Oops ... it is. The early February loss to Duke was the Tar Heels' fifth straight, sending a team that once was 5-0 into a 6-10 tailspin that saw its overall record fall to 11-10.

The future is much brighter, though. All Doherty really lacks is a post player to complement Sean May — and shoulder the load when the sore-legged May gets hurt, as he did this season. At least Doherty has a pure center coming in this recruiting class.

Oops ... no, he doesn't. After targeting a handful of centers from the Class of 2003, Doherty struck out on all of them. (UNC still is watching a few prep big men.) This means that, other than the return of May, the Tar Heels may not be all that different next season.

Nevertheless, Doherty has a way out of this mess. He can post a winning season, maybe even make the NCAA Tournament with a late run. More importantly, he can prove that his relationship with his players is improving and that they'll play hard for him and play together even when they're bumping heads behind the scenes. He can show that his players are improving their skills under his tutelage.

With those things in place, next season looks promising, and even this year appears salvageable. Without them, Doherty may be about one “oops” away from even bigger trouble.

Shyatt: Great Guy In Trouble

CLEMSON — Because of the constant struggles of the Clemson basketball program, Larry Shyatt used to be a hot topic in the upstate of South Carolina.

Now he's just hot because of the seat he's sitting on. It's no secret. Shyatt is in trouble. There are even rumbles, from both inside and outside the program, that Shyatt already is finished.

For the fourth straight year, the Tigers have settled to the bottom of the ACC standings. It looks as if the Tigers are headed for yet another appearance in the ACC Tournament play-in game, also known as the Shyatt Invitational.

When Shyatt was brought back from Wyoming to replace Rick Barnes, Clemson thought it had a steal. Shyatt was 19-9 his one year in Laramie and brought the Cowboys program some respect when he had a much-publicized run-in with Utah coach Rick Majerus. (Sound familiar? See Barnes vs. Smith.)

In the one year Shyatt was gone from the Clemson program, the Tigers lost numerous close games. Many connected with the team deducted that Shyatt was the difference, and that bringing him back to replace Barnes would keep the program going in an upward direction.

It hasn't happened. What went wrong?

In Shyatt's first year at Clemson, he inherited a team with four seniors who had been worn down by Barnes. The Tigers didn't come close to the preseason expectations. The regular season was disappointing, but somehow Shyatt managed to direct the Tigers to the NIT final. Since that loss to California in Madison Square Garden, it's been mostly downhill for the Tigers.

The first signs of trouble were when Shyatt started losing games in December. Wofford, South Carolina State, Winthrop and Yale all handed the Tigers humiliating defeats in December over the last three years.

Even though the Tigers are one of the best shooting teams in the ACC this season, they never have been a good offensive team under Shyatt. There are a few main reasons for this, led by a lack of quality shooters. Defensively, the Tigers have made a habit of forgetting about the perimeter. Shyatt usually stays with the zone longer than he needs to because the Tigers have serious matchup problems against ACC teams when they play man-to-man.

Shyatt also has failed on the recruiting trail. There may be one or two players on the Clemson roster who could play for other ACC teams, but the talent level is definitely a step or three below the rest of the teams in the league.

Many Clemson faithful will tell you they have tried to get emotionally involved with Shyatt's program but that the lack of success has made it almost impossible. Almost everyone who has an opinion about Shyatt says: “Larry is a nice guy, but ...”

President James Barker saved Shyatt last year. No one knows what Barker is thinking this year. Insiders have a good idea what athletic director Terry Don Phillips is thinking, though, and a short list has been assembled.

Last March, Shyatt received a two-year extension on his contract. It was a move that shocked a lot of observers, who thought Shyatt was gone after last season. But Barker's support, athletic director Bobby Robinson's retirement and the Littlejohn Coliseum renovation all worked in Shyatt's favor. It was not a good environment for a new coach.

Shyatt's base salary is $132,600 annually, and his total package runs about $400,000, or less than half of what most other ACC head coaches collect. If — and that's a small if — Shyatt is fired after this season, Clemson will owe him only $180,000.

“I am the first to say we need to improve in the number of wins and losses,” Shyatt said after signing the extension. “But the ground work has been laid. With four starters returning, I feel we will show considerable improvement next season. I have never been more optimistic about the future of this program.”

Shyatt redefines the word optimistic. If he's feeling the pressure, he isn't showing it. He always talks about just focusing on the positive things and forgetting the negative. From time to time, he is overwhelmed with emotion. If things continue to deteriorate, it will be interesting to see how Shyatt handles an increasingly difficult situation.

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