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June 23, 2011
Two years away could have caused Mark Gottfried to get rusty. He believes the time off instead helped make him a better coach.
Even though he wasn't coaching the past couple of seasons, Gottfried never was far from the game. He spent those two seasons as an analyst for ESPN. He sat in the offices of the nation's greatest coaches while preparing to broadcast their games. Whenever a game entered a critical phase, Gottfried would wonder what he might have called in that scenario. Now the newly hired North Carolina State coach is eager to show what he learned during his sabbatical.
"I tried to take my two years away from coaching as personal development," Gottfried says. "It was kind of a situation where I could watch guys and evaluate the good, the bad and how I would do it if I was in those situations.
"The coaches were terrific because I had no dog in the hunt. They opened their doors to me. I sat in staff meetings, team meetings, film sessions
Gottfried, 47, has much to prove. Although he led Alabama to five consecutive NCAA tournament berths from 2002-2006
Moreover, North Carolina State hired Gottfried to replace the fired Sidney Lowe only after Arizona's Sean Miller and VCU's Shaka Smart indicated they were staying put. The decision to hire Gottfried widely was viewed as settling for someone.
That criticism doesn't concern Gottfried. He relishes the chance to begin the next chapter of his career.
"It's a program that has the potential to be as good as anybody in the country," he says. "That's the way I've always viewed it. Since I've been here, I think those things have been confirmed. I think we can be as good as anybody. There's no inherent reason why North Carolina State can't at some point in time be as good as anybody in the country."
Gottfried's words should boost the confidence of a fan base that took plenty of hits during this coaching search. Although North Carolina State won national titles in 1974 under Norm Sloan and 1983 under Jim Valvano, the Wolfpack's recent struggles have led to debate over how good a job this is. Skeptics argue that the tremendous success of neighboring rivals Duke and North Carolina gives NC State fans unrealistic expectations.
"People might say sometimes that it's a hard job," Gottfried says. "Show me an easy job. I don't care where it is. I don't know if there is an easy job. Everything's relative. For us, where we're located is an advantage. It's a plus. It's something we'll never view as a negative."
Another popular theory was that some coaches shied away from this job because of the presence of NC State athletic director Debbie Yow, who clashed with Gary Williams while she was AD at Maryland. At the news conference announcing Gottfried's hiring, Yow said Williams
But there's no bad blood between Gottfried and Yow, who have known each other for more than a quarter-century. Gottfried played at Oral Roberts when Yow was ORU's women's basketball coach in the early 1980s. Gottfried even dated one of Yow's players.
"We've stayed in touch throughout the years, and I've always admired her competitive nature," Gottfried says. "I think, No. 1, she wants to win. Sometimes people can mistake her competitive nature and think she'd be tough to work for, but I've never envisioned that with her and I've known her for a long time.
"You've got somebody who really wants to win. As a coach, what more can you ask for?"
Yow knew Gottfried well enough in his stops at Murray State and Alabama to believe he can succeed at North Carolina State.
"Mark has been at the top of the mountain, so to speak, with a team ranked No. 1 nationally [Alabama in 2002-03]," Yow wrote in an email. "He has built two programs, and he has overseen one that had less success than he wanted at times. What all of that means is that he has pretty much experienced the full gamut of achievement and the corresponding emotions and public responses to each situation. I respect those experiences and believe they made him the best choice for State's program revival.
"There is no substitute for experience. We needed a builder, someone who could have the tenacity to stick with the building process when we hit the wall. That describes 'Coach G.' "
NC State lately has hit the wall much too often. The Wolfpack reached the NCAA tournament in each of Herb Sendek's final five seasons as coach. But a portion of the fan base grumbled and Sendek eventually tired of the criticism and left for Arizona State after the 2005-06 season. NC State didn't receive an NCAA bid in any of Lowe's five seasons.
Lowe signed three of the nation's top 37 prospects in the 2010 recruiting class, but the Wolfpack still struggled to a 15-16 finish that included a 5-11 mark in ACC competition this past season. The Wolfpack now must find someone to replace Tracy Smith, who led the Wolfpack with 14 points per game as a senior last season.
Gottfried also arrives at a time when the ACC is going through a down period. North Carolina probably will open the season atop the national rankings and Duke could crack the top five, but the league doesn't have much depth.
North Carolina State ranked 11th in the league in scoring defense (70.5) and eighth in field-goal percentage defense (.424) last season. If the Wolfpack upgrade that defense, they could make a major move up the standings.
"He did tell us we were going to do a lot of running, that he wants us to be an up-tempo team that runs up and down the court and uses our athleticism to our advantage," senior guard C.J. Williams says. "Probably the most important thing he said is we're going to defend at all times.
"He already has explained that he doesn't care who scores the ball. He just wants to make sure that if we need a defensive stop, he has people on the floor who are going to get it."
Just as Gottfried wants his players to correct the weaknesses they showed last season, he also wants to make amends for the mistakes he made at his last coaching spot. His time away from the game gave him time to reflect on what he did right and what he did wrong at Alabama. He now believes he has a better sense of what it takes to build a winning program.
"We did a lot of things well, and it's those things you build upon," Gottfried says. "And there were things we didn't do well. I didn't recruit nearly as well [as I could have]. I made mistakes in staff hires. All the mistakes I made, they're my responsibility
Gottfried doesn't need to look far to see how a coach can come back refreshed and rejuvenated after a few years off. Steve Lavin spent seven years as a TV analyst after getting fired at UCLA. He returned to coaching last season and promptly guided St. John's to its first NCAA tournament bid since 2002.
Lavin and Gottfried worked together as assistants for Jim Harrick on UCLA's 1995 national championship team. As he prepares to launch his comeback, Gottfried takes comfort in Lavin's success story. He refers to himself and Lavin as "second-act coaches."
"The experiences you have in that first act only make you better," Gottfried says. "I know Steve feels that way. I feel the same way. I feel more prepared and better prepared than I would have been.
"Steve and I talk regularly about this. I've been able to draw on some of his wisdom and from other coaches as well. The important thing is to make sure you learn. What happens when you're out of coaching is you begin to learn what's really important
The second act of Lavin's coaching career got off to a smashing start. Gottfried would love to begin his own second act by ending a similar NCAA drought at North Carolina State.
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