By David Glenn
May 2, 2006
One full month into its search to replace Herb Sendek, N.C. State had received public rejections from Texas coach Rick Barnes, Memphis coach John Calipari, former UCLA coach Steve Lavin and West Virginia coach John Beilein. During the same period, many others quietly spurned inquiries from the Wolfpack.
According to multiple sources in the coaching community, the following coaches -- or, in some cases, their representatives -- received very early preliminary inquiries from intermediaries claiming to be working on NCSU's behalf but ultimately said they were not interested in further discussing the job: Tom Crean (Marquette), Mark Few (Gonzaga), Tom Izzo (Michigan State), Mike Montgomery (Golden State Warriors), Rick Pitino (Louisville), Lorenzo Romar (Washington), Tubby Smith (Kentucky) and Jay Wright (Villanova).
More recently, these coaches joined that list: Mike Brey (Notre Dame), P.J. Carlesimo (San Antonio Spurs assistant), Tim Floyd (Southern Cal), Billy Gillispie (Texas A&M) and Bo Ryan (Wisconsin). Keep in mind: These were not job offers, just unofficial, preliminary inquiries.
When presented with the information above, a high-ranking N.C. State official said the list was an accurate representation of the scope of the Wolfpack's search and that "almost" all of the names on the list matched his information. However, he also said that there have been "one or two" cases where people claiming to be acting on NCSU's behalf have contacted coaches who in fact were not on the Pack's list.
Among the many coaches who inquired (either themselves or through intermediaries) about the NCSU job but were rebuffed were Larry Eustachy (Southern Miss), Jeff Ruland (Iona) and a bevy of Division I assistants.
Entering May, coaches such as (former N.C. State star) Dereck Whittenburg of Fordham, Frank Haith of Miami and Bob McKillop of Davidson were known to be interested in the Wolfpack vacancy but had not been contacted by Fowler or any other high-ranking NCSU official.
"I was interested three weeks ago," one coach said. "I'm not interested now."
"To be where we are right now, a month into this search, with so much criticism from the media and our own fan base, is embarrassing," the NCSU official said. "But that doesn't mean we won't find the right coach in the end."
The Sports Journal has received hundreds of questions from readers during the course of the NCSU search. Below are a few of them, selected in part because they have not been fully addressed in the mainstream media.
Why have some chapters of this search taken place with even the smallest details finding their way into media reports, yet other periods moved forward essentially in an information vacuum?
Everyone agreed that the flow of information on the N.C. State coaching search slowed to a trickle after Barnes and then Calipari turned down the job, then again after the Lavin and Beilein rejections. Everyone also agreed that NCSU athletic director Lee Fowler kept things very close to the vest in the aftermath of those misses.
There are several explanations for this phenomenon. First, State officials didn't mind at all that the world knew they were pursuing Barnes. Wolfpack fans wanted to know that their representatives were aiming high, and media members could see that the school was making a very serious ($2 million per year) financial commitment to the long-term future of the program.
NCSU sources said the Calipari pursuit wasn't intended to be played out in public, but the wonders of flight tracking, along with some excellent reporting by a handful of media members, ultimately made that an impossibility. When the private plane that carried Fowler, his wife Carol, chancellor James Oblinger and other State officials to Memphis landed back in Raleigh, the media was waiting.
"So much for keeping this a secret," Carol Fowler said.
"The nature of coaching searches has changed," one ACC athletic director said. "Even 10 years ago, nobody was tracking flights, and it was much more difficult to reach people to find out what was happening. The internet wasn't such a big factor. A lot of people didn't even have cell phones or e-mail. Information didn't flow as freely.
"You go back even more, and reporters would have to camp out at somebody's office to look for information. That could take all day, and you might not find anything new. Information was harder to find. They didn't even have easy access to newspaper reports in other parts of the country. Everything was different."
From the moment of Calipari's "no," of course, State officials had every reason to go underground with their search in an attempt to avoid a third public rejection. Most college basketball observers were surprised when the Lavin and Beilein discussions became public, then shocked when prolonged negotiations with both men fell apart almost simultaneously.
The other main reason for the ebb and flow of public information is money. Remember, the Wolfpack's contract offers to Barnes and Calipari included "retention bonuses" -- in Barnes' case, they would have been worth $5 million -- that would have been earned only if the hired coach stayed at NCSU for a specific (e.g., eight or 10) number of years.
That extra money was not going to come from the athletic department. It had to be raised ahead of time, mainly through contributions from 10-12 prominent boosters, and placed in a trust fund that would mature to the designated amount by the designated date. Beilein's massive ($3 million) buyout, which ultimately caused negotiations with NCSU to break down, also raised the question of private funding.
"When you ask people for that kind of money," one NCSU official said, "you'd better be ready with a pretty good explanation of what you're going to do with that money."
Those 10-12 boosters all received phone calls, and they turned around and told some of their close friends what was happening, and they turned around and told their close friends, etc. Unless the Wolfpack plans a similar contract offer to one of its remaining candidates, that chain of communication won't be necessary, so there shouldn't be nearly as many leaks.
What does it mean when fans read in media reports about the search that NCSU has (or has not) asked for "official permission" to speak with a coach?
Years ago, "official permission" meant a lot. Today, it means so little that it's surprising to see so many media outlets continue to make reference to the term.
Prior to the turn of the century, almost all athletic directors abided by an unofficial courtesy code. If one AD wanted to talk to a head coach at another school, he or she asked that coach's AD for permission to speak with the coach. At the very least, "official permission" was requested before serious conversations took place, even if previous contact was made through intermediaries or even by phone on a preliminary basis.
In the information age, those rules clearly are changing.
"Some still do it (ask for official permission), but probably most don't," the ACC athletic director said. "There are two main reasons. It's not good for my school if the coach says no and everybody finds out about it. If you go through official channels, there are more people involved, and that makes for more leaks. A quiet 'no' is a better 'no.'
"The second reason is the coach. Some don't want their names to come out unless they're ready to take a job. Some don't want to risk alienating their athletic directors by showing their willingness to listen to others. It can damage the relationship, even if you end up staying. Again, quiet is usually better, and official permission' doesn't keep things quiet."
NCSU actually went through an entire month of a coaching search -- and endured four very public rejections -- without ever asking for official permission to speak with anybody. Through the final moments of the Barnes pursuit, Texas officials said nobody from State ever contacted them. West Virginia officials said the same when Beilein was front and center. Even in the old days, the courtesy probably would not have extended to ESPN, Lavin's current employer.
If there is going to be a 21st century landmark that signifies the unofficial death of the "official permission" phrase, though, Calipari's flirtation with State certainly must qualify. All sorts of two-way communications occurred without anyone from State ever alerting Memphis officials of the Wolfpack's discussions with Calipari, who did inform his athletic director of important developments.
But every conceivable line was crossed when NCSU sent a private plane to Memphis with a party that included the school's chancellor and athletic director with the specific purpose of meeting with Calipari. The coach even turned around and made a secret late-night visit to Raleigh with his staff, again without State ever -- even to this moment -- making contact with Memphis administrators.
Official permission? After this NCSU coaching search, if it's not dead, it's close.
What is so different about N.C. State's academic standards that Calipari (and likely other candidates) considered it such a negative?
Much has been made of Calipari's doubts about State's ability to compete successfully against Duke and UNC on a regular basis, but there was far more to those sentiments than simply a coach who was afraid to go head-to-head with Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams.
State officials said that, during their discussions with Calipari, he asked many questions that fell into the domain of the school's compliance director, admissions office and academic support staff. During his brief trip to Raleigh, he even asked to meet with some of those people. He later said that State's academic requirements made the job less attractive.
One of the things that alarmed Calipari was the significant difference between UNC-system academic requirements and those of the NCAA. As a public university in North Carolina, N.C. State is part of the UNC system, which also includes UNC, East Carolina and a dozen other schools. Each of those universities must abide by the rules set forth by the UNC-system Board of Governors, which in recent years has raised minimum academic requirements to a point well above the NCAA minimums.
"I didn't even know about (the new rules) in North Carolina," one ACC coach said. "Anybody who tells you it doesn't matter doesn't know recruiting. If your school's (academic) requirements are higher than the NCAA requirements, whether it's because of these state rules or your university's philosophy or any other reason, it makes your job tougher. It's not the only variable -- lots of other things impact whether a job is good or bad -- but it's an important variable.
"Calipari probably looked at his roster at Memphis and asked himself how many of his best players would have been admitted under the new rules at N.C. State. If he doesn't think he can get players into State, there's no way he can take the job. It's that simple."
At Memphis, generally speaking, the coaching staff could sign and enroll anyone who met basic (GPA, SAT) NCAA minimums. The Tigers even could sign non-qualifiers, who under NCAA rules must sit out a year and meet certain academic guidelines during that year before becoming eligible during their second year on campus, at the earliest.
State abides by the ACC rule against non-qualifiers, and the school (as part of the UNC system) also has several requirements that are higher than those of the NCAA. For example, starting this fall, all UNC-system schools will require at least two units of foreign language. (The NCAA requires none.) UNC-system schools also now require four units of math and three of science. The NCAA requires only two math and two science units.
As recently as 2004, the UNC-system had no requirements for foreign language and demanded only three math units. The extra (beyond the NCAA minimums) math units involve classes beyond algebra I and algebra II, such as geometry and calculus. The extra science unit typically involves biology, chemistry, physics or a laboratory course.
"Those are important differences," the ACC coach said. "Can you imagine recruiting a star player, and Memphis tells him he can take so-and-so classes as a senior, and you have to tell him that he still needs calculus and physics? Hell, yes, that matters. Many kids are thinking about basketball and girls going into their senior year, and the last thing they want to hear from you is that they have to take difficult classes that this team over here is telling them they don't have to take."
There is some good news on the horizon for N.C. State, UNC and the other UNC-system schools. Beginning in 2008, the NCAA will require all Division I athletes to meet academic minimums in 16 core courses, rather than the current 14, and this is expected to lessen the impact of the UNC-system rules. Under the new NCAA rules, for example, recruits will need at least three math units, up from the current two.
"That will help to level the playing field a little bit," the ACC coach said. "Just remember: The more flexibility you have, the better it is for recruiting. Every school draws that line in a different place, and coaches know what (academic) questions to ask when they're considering a new job."
Why did some newspapers write long articles about Phil Ford and the NCSU job, and then another newspaper wrote the next day that Ford was not a candidate? Doesn't that mean one of the reports was wrong?
Answer: Not necessarily.
This is where reasonable fans can separate themselves from the message-board dolts who like to blame the media and the referees and the NCAA for all of their problems. It takes a little bit of effort and thought, something those people aren't willing to give, but this is how it happens, and it reinforces (for the millionth time?) how unfair and misinformed the lunatic fringe often is toward the media. Ready?
Phil Ford is a native of Rocky Mount, N.C., a former All-American at North Carolina and an assistant coach with the New York Knicks. His only head coaching experience came with the UNC junior varsity team, but he was an assistant on the varsity under Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge, and now in the NBA under Larry Brown, another Carolina product.
Wendell Murphy is a member of the N.C. State board of trustees, a big-money supporter of Wolfpack athletics, and a key figure in the Pack's coaching search. It was his private plane, remember, that the NCSU group took to meet Calipari in Memphis.
Ford has known Murphy for many years. Everyone, including Murphy, knows that Ford wants to be a college head coach some day. But Ford, while an exceptional recruiter, never has been a self-promoter, and he often has relied on Smith and others to call athletic directors on his behalf. Ford decided not to pursue any other jobs this year until the end of the Knicks' season (April 19). By that point, most desirable vacancies in college basketball had been filled.
While Lavin and Beilein were still State's top targets, Murphy called Ford -- that's the initial contact from NCSU fans saw in media reports -- and they discussed Ford's career goals. Murphy suggested that Ford should have a conversation with Fowler, and that he would give the AD a heads-up on Ford's behalf.
Later, Ford and Fowler talked on the phone. (Ford told the Sports Journal about that conversation, without saying who made the initial contact from NCSU. The Sports Journal found out about Murphy's call later, through other sources.) Ford had a genuine interest in the NCSU job, and Fowler knew that because of Murphy.
Probably as a courtesy to Ford and Murphy, Fowler spoke with Ford and told him that, while NCSU currently had other candidates (still Lavin and Beilein at that point) in mind, the Wolfpack wanted the best guy for the job, regardless of school affiliation.
On April 26, when State's negotiations with Lavin and Beilein broke down, Ford's phone started ringing. A few media members had found out about the Wolfpack's contact with Ford, and with Lavin and Beilein out of the picture everyone was a potential candidate.
"I'm flattered to be in the conversation," Ford told the Sports Journal. "I would do everything I could to make N.C. State the best program in the nation. Anything else would have to come from the people at State."
So, the newspapers that wrote about Ford (perhaps in excessive detail) weren't completely crazy. Ford clearly had stated his interest in the NCSU job, and it was clear to anybody who asked that he had spoken with both Fowler and Murphy, two of the most important people in the search. Wolfpack officials didn't return calls seeking comment.
The next day, the Charlotte Observer apparently found an NCSU official who would say what Fowler and Murphy would not (for whatever reason) say to Ford or to the media, that there was no way Ford would be approved as the next coach. The mutiny in the school's fan base would have been uglier than anything from Sendek's tenure.
So, the two newspaper reports were correct on the evening of April 26, and the April 27 report (with new information) also was correct. Fowler could have avoided it all if he had just told Ford that he would never be a candidate for the NCSU job, but (for whatever reason) Fowler didn't say that. But things change. Events happen. This stuff is not static. What was right yesterday may not be right today, and vice versa.
The brief Ford episode reminded some in the media of when many fans -- again, thankfully, mostly the lunatic fringe -- got mad at reporters for writing about NCSU officials' optimism about landing Calipari on April 11. That morning, State officials did think Calipari was coming. He didn't come, obviously, but that doesn't mean that the reports of NCSU officials' optimism were false.
Those in the media who were predicting a press conference to announce Calipari as the next coach obviously were jumping the gun and being irresponsible. The same thing happened on the last day (April 26) of the Beilein negotiations, which broke down after that marriage was halfway down the aisle. Some outlets reported a done deal and paid the price.
But those who reported optimism, about either Calipari or Beilein, were absolutely correct. If anyone as a fan added his or her assumption that the optimism would be automatically rewarded with a new coach, that's a reading comprehension problem, not the media's problem.
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