NC State working back to good times
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Monte Towe opened his office armoire door and proudly showed off the late Norm Sloan's famed plaid jacket, the same one Sloan wore when coaching Towe during NC State's 1974 national title season.
Towe's wall is a true shrine to his past, to the Wolfpack's history, with framed photos of himself and former teammates, such as Wolfpack great David Thompson, and newspaper articles of the victory over Marquette and Al McGuire in '74.
You can see the tenacity of the 5-foot-7 Towe in every shot on the wall, especially in one in which he's driving the lane against North Carolina's Phil Ford.
Towe, wearing a red sweater, red sweat pants and reading glasses that are even a deep ruby red, came back to his alma mater three years ago after being the head coach at the University of New Orleans to team up with a player he once helped recruit to the Wolfpack: Sidney Lowe.
"This is the only job I would have left for and Sidney is the only person I would have left for,'' said Towe, the associate head coach of the Wolfpack. "We both had great runs here.''
Lowe's office isn't nearly as much of a shrine to the past, but that's only because there aren't as many photos. The fourth-year NC State coach may have fewer, but his are larger -- of him, former teammates Dereck Whittenburg and Lorenzo Charles and the late former coach Jimmy Valvano, celebrating the dramatic last-second 1983 national title win over Houston. There's even a candid shot of a classic Valvano, peering in on the conversation between then-President Ronald Reagan and Lowe at the White House.
"We're trying to take this program to the level that we experienced here,'' Towe said. "We feel we're getting closer.''
The unique situation at NC State is hard to match. The Wolfpack are being led by two coaches who won national titles as players at the school in two different decades. Yet, Lowe and Towe are in easily one of the hardest situations in trying to duplicate what they each did during their youth.
Lowe said he was told by college coaches that NC State is one of the most difficult jobs in the country because of the level of competition in the ACC, particularly on Tobacco Road. He could have easily left for another NBA assistant's job in the spring, when good friend and former mentor Flip Saunders was hired by the Washington Wizards. But he didn't.
NC State offered the head-coaching job to John Calipari before Lowe, but Calipari decided to stay at Memphis, ultimately going to the 2008 national title game before leaving for Kentucky a year later. An exhaustive search that seemed like it touched nearly every big name in the biz ended with NC State athletic director Lee Fowler pulling Lowe away from the NBA back home.
You can debate which coach would have landed more pro-ready talent or coached a more succinct game, if you'd like. That's all fair fodder. But it's hard to argue that there would've been another set of coaches who bleed Wolfpack red like Lowe and Towe. You can see it in the way they celebrate their past in their daily lives.
"No one could come close,'' Lowe said. "Sometimes it's frustrating for him [Towe] and me. We know how bad our fans want it. I don't think they really know how we hurt. We have more invested in NC State being successful [than anyone else].''
Lowe said after every loss, while he's doing his media obligations, he knows where to find Towe. He will be in the coaches' locker room shower -- not with the water on but standing, "fuming.''
We're going to do everything we can to get this program where it's supposed to be, not where it should be -- supposed to be, where he left it and where I left it.” -- NC State coach Sidney Lowe
"I don't think people know how we feel about it,'' Lowe said. "We're going to do everything we can to get this program where it's supposed to be, not where it should be -- supposed to be, where he left it and where I left it.''
To do that, NC State has to make sure it stays with ACC foes Wake Forest, Boston College, Clemson, Maryland, Virginia Tech, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Miami and Virginia, let alone Duke and North Carolina.
And if you're going to be in that company, you can't just produce a random pro such as J.J. Hickson, who came for one season (2007-08) and -- whether it was fair or not -- left the Wolfpack after their worst record of Lowe's three seasons so far.
"You've got to have the right players,'' said Lowe, who has four seasons left on his contract. "We won a championship when I was a senior. If they were fed up with Coach V after two years, he would have been gone. We understand the passion of the people who support us. I'm committed to getting NC State where we should be and stick to that until they tell me I can't do that.''
NC State is playing in the enormous shadow of North Carolina and Duke. Carolina has won two national titles in the past five seasons. Duke is perennially on Carolina's heels in the ACC. Both coaches -- North Carolina's Roy Williams and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski -- are in the Hall of Fame, and the Blue Devils' coach just won an Olympic gold medal in 2008.
Former NC State coach Herb Sendek went to the NCAA tournament from 2001 to 2006 and yet never felt truly appreciated before he jettisoned himself west to Arizona State.
Lowe won 20 games and reached the ACC tournament title game in his first season, beating North Carolina in the regular season and Duke in the ACC tournament with a roster loaded with Sendek's players, notably point guard Engin Atsur.
But without Atsur -- a point guard whom Lowe said was invaluable to the team because of the way he knew how to run the offense and someone they are still searching to replace -- the Wolfpack went 15-16 (4-12 ACC) and 16-14 (6-10 ACC) the past two seasons. To be fair, they also weren't far off from reaching the postseason in March. Last-possession losses to Marquette (68-65) and at Florida (68-66) could have meant 18 wins and a possible NIT or CBI berth.
"I knew when we lost Engin we would be different, not better,'' Lowe said. "You can't put a price tag on what Engin meant. There aren't a lot of true point guards out there. So many point guards think they need to be scorers and have to score to get to the NBA. They've got it drilled into their head.''
Towe said what they're trying to find is a guard like Lowe.
The anticipation is that they have found their backcourt of Lowe and Whittenburg -- in the class of 2010, ranked at No. 12 by ESPNU with the expected arrival of Lorenzo Brown (Hargrave Military Academy/Roswell, Ga.) and Ryan Harrow (Walton HS/Marietta, Ga.). Brown could have gone to NC State this season but needed a fifth year of high school. Since neither player is signed yet, the staff can't talk about them individually. But they said the future is "bright," as both Lowe and Towe smiled and chuckled with delight.
And so, in year four, the Wolfpack will be younger and less experienced.
"I don't know if we have a 'pro' right now, but we definitely have guys who can play,'' Lowe said.
The Wolfpack had a two-hour workout session early Wednesday morning in preparation for the start of practice Friday night. Towe pointed to junior Tracy Smith as ready to have a breakout season; Smith averaged a dozen points in starting 12 of the last 13 games last season. Junior Javier Gonzalez, redshirt senior Farnold Degand and sophomore Julius Mays will have to be the committee playmaker.
This has been a trying 15 months for Lowe, personally, as his son Sidney Lowe II spent a 15-month sentence at the Guilford County Prison Farm for a home invasion and a shooting in 2007 at UNC Greensboro. The police had accused Lowe II and another man of going to a house and hitting a man on the head with a bottle. UNCG freshman Stephen Cobb suffered gunshot wounds that weren't life-threatening in the dorm room shooting.
Lowe made an impassioned plea at his son's trial for leniency, but to no avail, as his son was sentenced for pleading guilty to six counts of robbery with a dangerous weapon and kidnapping, along with possession of a weapon on educational property and possession of intent to sell and deliver marijuana and ecstasy.
"Things have settled,'' Lowe said. "He's home now, he's out and he's getting ready to take some classes online to finish his degree. That's not a worry anymore. I feel good that I don't have to worry about that because it had been something I was thinking about every night.''
Lowe said his priorities as a parent dominated his thinking, as they should have, but now Lowe II has to make his own way as an adult. Lowe said his son will be around the program some, but not as much as he searches for his own identity.
Lowe's and Towe's identities are tied to their alma mater. They're not letting go of that.
The Wolfpack will likely be projected near the bottom of the ACC. But Lowe and Towe aren't buying they can't finish higher. They surely expect to be contending in the coming years with what they're saying is a stellar class entering next fall.
The coaches don't mind boasting that they were rated No. 1 in the ACC in the APR, earning a score of 995 out of 1000, which ranked top 10 nationally. With six players earning GPAs above a 3.0 last year, Lowe and Towe are handling things off-court right. But the reality is they have to work in concert with winning at a high level.
Reaching the NCAA tournament, something Sendek did regularly in his final five seasons, would "solidify what we feel we've been doing and why we think we're going in the right direction,'' Lowe said.
"We want the kids to have the same feeling we had when we were,'' Towe said. "I fell in love with this place and [Lowe] did too when he came here. This place reeks of tradition and great moments.
"We've had some good wins. We just need to string more of them together. We're getting closer all of the time.''
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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