Can Mark Gottfried bring the Pack back?
His North Carolina State news conference stood out from the run-of-the-mill introductory functions that dot the college campus landscape.
But not because of anything Mark Gottfried did or said. No, because his new boss, Debbie Yow, grabbed a Molotov cocktail and heaved it in the direction of her former staff member.
"I don't have a reputation across all men's basketball of being difficult to work with," Yow said during the April 6 news conference. "I have a reputation of not getting along with Gary Williams, who has tried to sabotage the search. Come on, we all know that. OK, so whatever. It's not a reputation. It's Gary Williams out there doing his thing. Whatever."
Ah yes, Gottfried thought, this is what I've been missing.
Not the verbal barbs, necessarily, but the in-the-thick-of-it action that a dancer on the periphery of college basketball just can't appreciate.
Critics argued that Yow's outburst against Williams did little to dispel the notion that Gottfried was more the first coach to say yes to the NC State job than the first choice for the job.
Gottfried could care less. First pick or 50th, after being out of college basketball for two years, he's just happy to be picked at all.
Forced to resign midseason at Alabama in January 2009, Gottfried never quite removed himself from the college basketball world. He spent two seasons as an ESPN analyst, traversing the country for game coverage. He'd sit in on team meetings and watch as assistant coaches broke down film about their opponents.
He'd hear the game, see the game, watch the game but he wasn't a part of the game.
"At the end of the game, we may have had a great broadcast but we didn't win," Gottfried said. "There was no joy in the TV truck, or hugging and high-fiving. It's that competitive nature that I still felt that I missed so much."
Which is why going to work with Yow, a woman who has never backed down from a fight, and at NC State, a place that desperately needs a saber rattler, appealed to Gottfried. This is a program in need of a presence as much as a coach. And although labeling Gottfried a savior is a bit of a stretch, there is no doubt his mission is to resuscitate the languishing Wolfpack, who have missed the NCAA tournament for five straight seasons.
Once a proud program with a rich history of its own, NCSU now exists as a mere sideshow beneath the shadows of its Tobacco Road neighbors, Duke and North Carolina.
Instead of the third arm of the triangle, NC State has become the ugly stepsister in a basketball-crazed state.
At the end of the game, we may have had a great broadcast but we didn't win. There was no joy in the TV truck, or hugging and high-fiving. It's that competitive nature that I still felt that I missed so much.” -- NC State coach Mark Gottfried
Conventional wisdom holds that, contrary to Yow's insistence that Williams did her in, the Pack did themselves in. Coaches said no not because the Maryland coach told them the athletic director was difficult, but because coaches believe the job is difficult, if not downright impossible.
That defeatist attitude annoys Gottfried, a man who spent 11 years in a far more oppressive shadow, that of Alabama football.
"I spend a decade where football dominated the conversation for 365 days," Gottfried said. "So when people ask me how will I satisfy the expectations of the fans, coming from where I'm coming from, I'm happy we have such passionate fans with such big expectations."
Selling those passionate fans with big expectations on a coach who spent the past two years talking about the game won't necessarily come easily. NC State aimed for rising star Shaka Smart but couldn't land him and a slew of other names were said to be in the running but also declined, a rude awakening for a fan base that still considers itself among the nation's elite.
But memory has a way of clouding reality, and in truth, the Wolfpack -- unquestionably one of the country's top programs in the 1970s and 80s -- have made exactly one Sweet 16 appearance in the past 20 years.
Now, Yow, a little more than a year on the job, has hitched her wagon to a TV talking head who was fired from Alabama. It is her first basketball hire since tabbing Charlie Spoonhour to take over at Saint Louis in 1992. So it's a risk to many, if not to Yow.
"I believe this is the perfect fit for State and for [Gottfried]," Yow told ESPN.com via email. "Mark has had a coaching career in which he has been on the top of the mountain (Alabama was ranked No. 1 under Gottfried in 2003) and also been through disappointing times. I was drawn to that set of experiences and the wisdom that comes through such a diverse background of achievement and challenge."
Certainly those who preceded Gottfried were lauded in the same way, only to be beaten down and run out by the cold reality of stoking the flames on a dying ember.
Five years ago, Sidney Lowe wore a red tie and a black suit when he was introduced as the new coach, promising to bring back the glory he helped create as part of the school's 1983 national champion team. Instead, he resigned with an anemic 25-55 league record, zero NCAA tournament berths and dwindling attendance as his legacy.
Before him, Herb Sendek led the Pack to five straight NCAA tournaments, a place they hadn't been since 1991. But fans grew disenchanted with his deliberate offense and his inability to beat his in-state rivals, so he hoofed it on his own accord, packing for Arizona State.
So Gottfried is hardly naive about the task at hand, but he also thinks he has a clearer vision of what he needs to do now than when he took over at Alabama in 1998.
With the benefit of an analyst's more critical lens, as well as having had the ability to peek into some of the nation's top programs, Gottfried sees his mistakes more clearly. He took five trips to the Big Dance with the the Crimson Tide, including a run to the Elite Eight in 2004. But he admits that, in the end, he was a hamster on a wheel, spinning and grinding instead of working like he did in the first few years of his tenure.
"You learn quickly when you're out of it, your team, your success, the business side of the profession is ultimately the bottom line," he said. "I thought I was building up credits with great graduation rates, doing good community service -- and all of that is important -- but you also see things more clearly from the outside. You lose the rose-colored glasses a little bit."
So, when asked the first order of business, Gottfried doesn't hesitate: He needs players.
Gottfried needs to worry about the future, building a foundation that is more stable than merely the fleeting images of the program's past. He got a big piece when Torian Graham, the 24th-ranked player in the ESPNU 100 committed to State, a boost made even bigger because Graham is an in-state kid who included the key words -- Duke and North Carolina -- on his original wish list. In that class of 2012, NC State also has pulled in a commitment from point guard Tyler Lewis, another North Carolina product in the ESPNU 100.
Now, Gottfried needs even more players like them, kids who see the value in building something or who view themselves as the personification of NC State -- kids with a chip on their shoulder for a program with a chip on its shoulder.
"I tell kids all the time, Magic Johnson could have gone anywhere in the world, and he chose Michigan State and was the start of everything that program is now," Gottfried said. "We need guys who want an additional challenge, who want to take ownership and build something new. It's not that there isn't a tradition. There is. But we have to be honest, too. It's been awhile."
It's been awhile for Gottfried, too. In two weeks, he will begin the arduous task that is July recruiting, a month greeted by plenty of coaches with the same enthusiasm as a visit to the dentist office.
Not Gottfried. He is giddy with the prospect of uncomfortable bleachers and bad food at midnight.
He's tired of talking about basketball.
He wants to live it again.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.
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