By David Glenn
April 19, 2006
In late March, as the NCAA Tournament played out without any input from the ACC, it looked as if it would be a very quiet spring for the league's basketball programs.
All 12 head coaches said good-bye to their seniors, gave their underclassmen some recommendations for the offseason, and prepared to hit the April recruiting trail. Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt and Virginia Tech's Seth Greenberg had losing seasons in 2005-06, and Wake Forest's Skip Prosser finished last in the conference standings, but nobody even came close to the chopping block. There would be no turnover among head coaches this year.
Behind the scenes, however, N.C. State's Herb Sendek had other ideas. Finally frustrated by an angrily divided fan base, and the intense criticism that followed him throughout another 20-win season, the coach decided to consider his options. He would put his name out there for other jobs, and he would see what responses came back.
"Herb always said (the fans' criticisms) didn't bother him, and I think it bothered him a lot less than it would bother most people," a source close to Sendek said. "But, over time, it just became ridiculous for everyone. Even after four (ultimately five) straight NCAA Tournaments, every big game was like a referendum on his job. He took (NCSU) from nothing and made it one of the best in the ACC, but there he was being heckled (at the ACC Tournament) by his own fans. It was ridiculous.
"It wasn't about the school or the administration or even the fan base as a whole. Many people, including (athletic director) Lee Fowler and a lot of other people at State, were strong supporters all along. Herb will take a lot of positive things away from his time at State, and he's too classy to talk about the negatives.
"But no matter what he did, there was a part of the fan base that would just never accept him -- that hated him, really -- and in the end that was very hard to take."
Sendek kept his decision extremely quiet, in part because he knew there was a possibility that he would remain at State, despite the negatives. He was not willing to leave the Wolfpack for a lower-paying job, or for an opportunity in a second-rate conference. He wasn't willing to resign, and Fowler had assured him that he wasn't going to be fired.
Sendek would, however, listen to anyone in a BCS conference with a vacancy. He shared those thoughts in mid-March with Fowler, who told Sendek that he wanted what was best for the coach and that he would support him wherever his path led. The two men agreed to remain in close contact as the situation unfolded.
As it turned out, Sendek received his first contact from Arizona State, his eventual destination, during the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament. After the Wolfpack lost to Texas in the second round, the coach told ASU officials that he didn't want his name connected to their job unless he became their No. 1 candidate. Meanwhile, he passed along the developments to Fowler, who by this time was meeting with other NCSU officials and beginning to formulate a list of possible replacements for Sendek.
As the end of March neared, it looked as if Sendek was going to remain in Raleigh. Jobs came open at Cincinnati (Mick Cronin), Indiana (Kelvin Sampson), Iowa State (Greg McDermott), Kansas State (Bob Huggins), Mississippi (Andy Kennedy), Oklahoma (Jeff Capel), Rutgers (Fred Hill) and Seton Hall (Bobby Gonzalez), but Sendek was not a factor in any of them. Lower-level vacancies, including those at Alabama-Birmingham, Duquesne (he has Pittsburgh roots) and Temple, did not interest the coach.
Missouri contacted Sendek after the dismissal of Quin Snyder, but Sendek ultimately decided that he was not interested in the Tigers, who then hired Mike Anderson of UAB.
Meanwhile, Arizona State officials continued to talk with Sendek, but their focus first turned to Jamie Dixon of Pittsburgh, then to former Utah coach Rick Majerus. Dixon turned down ASU and remained with the Panthers, and Majerus withdrew from the running, reportedly because of health concerns.
By the time Arizona State offered Sendek the job (and he accepted) on April 1, NCSU officials already had a working list of primary targets to replace him. (As they had discussed with the coach in advance, they did not make a counter-offer to keep him.) First, though, they thanked him for his service and wished him well with the Sun Devils.
"Herb did a huge, huge number of things right for us," said Frank Grainger, an active member of the UNC system Board of Governors and a former member of the Wolfpack Club board of directors. "He brought us a tremendously credible program, and all (NCSU) fans should thank him for taking this program as far as he did.
"Personally, I hated to see him go, but I respect and support his decision. He was a great person and one of those coaches, much like a Mike O'Cain in football, who represented our university (NCSU) the right way. They were truly wonderful people. To this day, and into the future, I would do anything for either one of them."
Upon Sendek's departure, N.C. State administrators were able to begin their search for a new coach. In the discussions leading up to April 1, the three names most commonly mentioned by high-ranking officials as top-tier targets were (in order) Rick Barnes of Texas, John Calipari of Memphis, and Jay Wright of Villanova.
Many at State also liked Oklahoma's Sampson, and his was another prominent name in the discussions that took place during Sendek's two-week-long contact with ASU, but Indiana hired Sampson away from the Sooners on March 28. That was a case of bad timing, at least from the Wolfpack's point of view.
Numerous other high-profile coaches were on the Pack's original list, but the decision to prioritize Barnes -- and, if necessary, Calipari and/or Wright -- was a pragmatic one. Simply put, they were the best coaches the Pack had the best chances of landing.
For many years, Barnes had told his NCSU friends and coaching associates that he viewed the Wolfpack as one of his dream jobs. A product of Hickory, N.C., he grew up on ACC basketball, experienced it personally as the head coach at Clemson, and always privately had said he could see himself back in the conference some day. It didn't hurt that he has the same distaste for Duke and North Carolina that most NCSU fans harbor.
Calipari and Wright, meanwhile, were among the few big-name coaches whose annual compensation packages were a lot closer to $1 million than to $2 million. They were accomplished leaders of high-profile programs who, in theory, could be overwhelmed by the big money State officials were willing to bring to the table for the right candidates.
First, though, came Barnes. In the Texas two-step, dancing partners begin by standing with their feet together, with one hand on each other's waist, and their other hands grasped together. They do this while facing each other.
In college basketball coaching searches, prospective partners rarely even see each other until the song is almost over. Many times, they decide not to dance after all, without ever even speaking to each other one-on-one.
Cut out the middle man? Heck, no. In coaching searches, it's all about the middle men. The basic rule of thumb is that athletic directors prefer to handle prospective coaches the same way court-room attorneys treat witnesses on the stand: They don't like to ask an important question unless they already know the answer.
Such was the approach when State's search to replace Sendek launched on April 2 with a quiet, unofficial, behind-the-scenes chat with Barnes.
According to sources close to Barnes, Fowler was not directly involved in the discussions, but State-affiliated individuals (including former Wolfpack player Chris Corchiani) with pre-existing relationships with the coach approached him on State's behalf. They talked mainly about money matters and Barnes' potential interest in the job.
"(Barnes) was given the impression that he is State's No. 1 target, but he's aware that they're talking to others, too," one source said on April 3. "He has always had a lot of respect for that job, and they're talking about over $1.5 million (a year). That's a lot of money.
"It was done in a way to protect everyone's interests. At this point, when (Fowler) says he hasn't talked to Rick, he's telling the truth. When Rick says he hasn't talked to (Fowler), or he hasn't talked to anyone who's acting in an official capacity (for N.C. State), he's telling the truth. This stuff happens all the time. That's the way it's done."
Barnes made $1.3 million (excluding postseason incentives) last season at Texas, and his contract with the Longhorns called for annual raises of $50,000. He has told friends and associates for several years that while he is very happy at Texas overall, he misses the passion of ACC basketball, as the hoops coach at a school where football always will be king.
Barnes met with Texas athletic director Deloss Dodds on April 3, after the "unofficial" contact from N.C. State. According to sources, the coach came out of that meeting with a promise that the Longhorns will re-work his contract to include a larger raise than originally scheduled, to more than $1.7 million a year. Barnes also asked for raises for his assistants.
In his eight years at Texas, Barnes has averaged almost 24 victories per season. He is one of only three coaches who have been to the Sweet 16 in four of the past five seasons. The others are Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Connecticut's Jim Calhoun.
In 2005-06, the Longhorns finished in a tie for first place (regular season) in the Big 12, set a school record with 30 victories and fell one win short of a second trip to the Final Four in the past four seasons.
With a returning nucleus that will include guard Daniel Gibson, forward P.J. Tucker and perhaps center LaMarcus Aldridge (a top NBA target), plus an incoming recruiting class (led by amazing 6-9 forward Kevin Durant) that is rated among the best in the nation, Texas could be one of the preseason favorites for the NCAA championship next season.
"I can tell you with absolute certainty that Rick is fascinated with the idea of coaching at N.C. State," the source said. "But I also know that he likes just about everything where he is now, and -- all things being equal -- it would be extremely difficult for him to walk away."
That ultimately proved to be the case. According to sources close to Barnes, though, N.C. State officials made the perfect sales pitch. They came at him with huge money, and they supplemented it with an appeal to his heart: come home to Hickory, come back to the passion of ACC basketball, come fight the evil Goliaths otherwise known as Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams, and make yourself immortal.
According to three NCSU sources, the Wolfpack's proposal to Barnes included a compensation package that -- if all terms were met -- would have averaged more than $2 million per year. Only two college basketball coaches, Rick Pitino of Louisville and Tubby Smith of Kentucky, are believed to be working under deals of that magnitude. Both have won NCAA championships.
One key aspect of the Pitino/Smith contracts and State's offer to Barnes is a "retention bonus," which can be earned only if the coach remains at his school for a specified number of years. The Wolfpack's proposal to Barnes included a $5 million bonus if he stayed in Raleigh for 10 years. The $5 million was raised privately, mainly via prominent members of the Wolfpack Club, and would have supplemented the school's hefty contract offer to raise its average over the $2 million per year mark.
"If Rick Barnes turns this job down," one high-ranking NCSU source said on April 5, "it won't be because of the money."
Sources close to Barnes said he was genuinely torn about his options throughout the first week of April. Even after the coach broke off discussions with the Wolfpack on April 6, and media outlets (again led by ACCSports.com) reported his "no" answer to N.C. State, the Pack came back with an even more lucrative offer. Still, Barnes declined.
"I've known Rick for so long that I know how serious he was about the N.C. State job," one of Barnes' former assistants said. "For about four days, I could hear in his voice that he was considering it, but I never thought he'd pull the trigger. Then, on (April 6-7), when they made their last offer, I talked to him, and for the first time I thought he might leave Texas.
"He thought long and hard about it, believe me, but he just couldn't do it. It was nothing at all against State. He just has too many great things going on at Texas."
At more than one point in the negotiations, Fowler himself spoke with Barnes via telephone, but the Wolfpack AD remained out of sight and made no public comments related directly to the search, before or after Barnes' decision.
"Coach Fowler operates as he sees necessary," said Butch Wilson of Burlington, N.C., a member of the Wolfpack Club board of directors and a former university trustee. "When he has something to tell us, he'll share something with us. It hasn't reached that point yet. Until then, he'll move forward -- away from the public eye -- with a very small circle of advisors, and that's a good thing. No news can mean good news."
"We're working very hard, and we want to do it as quick as possible," said Herman Rooker, a Raleigh resident who served on the Wolfpack Club board for eight years. "I think this process will tell us a lot about Lee Fowler."
Eight days into its search for a new coach, State targeted Calipari with a full-court press that included a Sunday morning (April 9) trip to Memphis via private plane by Fowler and NCSU chancellor James Oblinger.
Three high-ranking State sources confirmed that the school presented Calipari with a lucrative, long-term contract offer that was similar in structure -- but not identical in financial numbers -- to that of Barnes.
The sources said the offer to Calipari was for more than $1.7 million per year in base compensation (including salary, radio/TV money, shoe contract, etc.), and that the contract would be worth more than $2 million per year (on average) if the coach stayed at NCSU long enough to earn a "retention bonus" or bonuses built into the latter stages of the deal.
"It's his job if he wants it," one NCSU source, a former member of the Wolfpack Club board of directors, said on April 9.
According to a coach who's close to him, Calipari was extremely impressed and a little bit surprised by the size of State's offer.
"He used the word overwhelming,'" the source said. "He said, going into the meeting, he was just going to listen. He came out and said he doesn't think there's any way Memphis can afford to pay the kind of money N.C. State is offering."
Calipari's base compensation package at Memphis was worth about $1.1 million per year, and including incentives (NCAA Tournament, etc.) he had made as much as $1.5 million with the Tigers. In addition, the coach will collect a $2.5 million "retention bonus" if he remains with the team through the end of his deal in 2009-10.
One possible explanation for Calipari's apparent skepticism about Memphis' ability to match NCSU's offer was the stark contrast in the size of the schools' athletic budgets. According to tax forms, NCAA-sponsored data and other resources, the Tigers' athletic department spent about $24.3 million during the 2004-05 fiscal year, compared to more than $37 million for the Wolfpack.
Memphis finished 33-4 this season, after losing to UCLA in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. If stars Shawne Williams (a rising sophomore) and Darius Washington (a rising junior) stay in school, the Tigers are expected to be a preseason top-10 pick in 2006-07.
After 14 years as a college head coach, Calipari has a 341-130 record and eight NCAA Tournament bids. He was 193-71 in eight seasons (1988-96) at Massachusetts and is now 148-59 through six seasons (2000-06) at Memphis, with an unsuccessful (72-112) stint with the NBA's New Jersey Nets in between. Calipari took over the UMass program at a time when it had suffered 10 consecutive losing seasons.
The NCAA ultimately took away the Minutemen's surprising 1996 Final Four berth after finding numerous violations involving star center Marcus Camby, but Calipari was not implicated in any of the wrongdoing. After the 1996 season, Calipari was honored as the national coach of the year by several organizations.
According to records kept at Raleigh-Durham International Airport and Memphis International Airport, the private plane used by Oblinger, Fowler and other members of the NCSU traveling party departed RDU at 9:05 a.m. on April 9 and landed in Memphis at 10:43 a.m. (all times EDT). The plane later departed Memphis at 2:14 p.m. and landed in Raleigh at 3:49 p.m. The plane began and ended its flight plan at Duplin County Airport in Kenansville, N.C.
The nine-seat aircraft, an 1125 Westwind Astra model built in 1990, is registered to MurFam Enterprises of Rose Hill, N.C.
The chairman and CEO of MurFam Enterprises is Wendell Murphy, N.C. State's most prominent athletics booster and the chairman of the university's board of trustees. Murphy, a 1960 graduate of NCSU and a Duplin County resident, joined his father in developing Murphy Farms Inc., which has become one of the world's largest pork producers.
By the morning of April 11, N.C. State officials were extremely confident that Calipari would be their coach, and Memphis officials were scrambling to put the final touches on a lucrative, long-term contract offer that they hoped would turn the tide back in their direction.
By the evening of April 11, those roles were reversed, and Calipari was on the verge of signing an extension with the Tigers.
Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson met with Calipari on the afternoon of April 11 to discuss the school's latest contract offer. One day earlier, before the coach's late-night trip to Raleigh, Calipari had granted Johnson's request for a 24-hour period in which the AD could speak with prominent boosters in an attempt to put together the best possible counter-offer.
Sources said Memphis matched the basic terms of State's offer to Calipari -- an average of about $2 million per year (assuming achievement of "retention bonuses") -- and actually exceeded the Wolfpack's overture after tax consequences were taken into consideration. Tennessee has no personal income tax. North Carolina's personal income tax hits 8.25 percent for its biggest earners.
Sources said the Tigers will increase Calipari's base compensation package from about $1.1 million to an average of more than $1.4 million per year. The coach also is scheduled to receive a $2.5 million "retention bonus" in 2010, a factor that in effect (assuming he stays) will add another $625,000 per year in value (excluding inflationary effects) to the deal over the next four seasons.
Several NCSU officials had leaked extremely optimistic updates to some North Carolina-based media outlets on the morning of April 11, after Calipari's secret late-night visit to Raleigh, but that optimism turned to concern by mid-afternoon. Sources said Calipari never accepted the Wolfpack's offer, but that he had left the impression he was coming.
A league source with knowledge of the situation said that ACC associate commissioner Fred Barakat, who had been assisting the Wolfpack with its search, sounded "angry" and "upset" when he reported his findings that Memphis and Calipari appeared to be on the verge of a new agreement. The league source said Barakat and "everyone" at State had been extremely optimistic about landing Calipari when the day began.
"Herb Sendek handled his departure the right way. Rick Barnes handled his decision the right way, even though his answer wasn't what we wanted to hear," one high-ranking NCSU source said on April 16. "(Calipari) didn't handle this the right way. We were warned about him, and in fact we were divided about him. At this point, we're glad he said no."
Brought to you by: