A Change In Course
By Boosting Confidence and Instilling Belief, Coach Mark Gottfried Has Quickly Altered the Culture and Direction of Pack Hoops
Pack Pride Magazine
As spring arrived in Raleigh, few expected the downtown statue of Sir Walter Raleigh to be sporting a Wolfpack jersey. Not many anticipated North Carolina's capital city to be overcome with Pack Fever. And hardly anybody could have foreseen State captivating the region's imagination with an incredible run to the Sweet Sixteen.
Well, hardly anybody except for first-year coach Mark Gottfried and his band of believers.
After all, it was Gottfried who repeatedly dismissed the term "rebuilding," who bristled at the just-happy-to-be-here storylines that the local media tried to imprint on NC State's berth in the NCAA Tournament. He had instilled a confidence and belief within the program that many observers hadn't seen in a Wolfpack team in a generation.
Taking a team that won just 15 games overall and five in the conference to 24 wins, 11 ACC victories and a berth in the Sweet Sixteen is amazing enough in itself. To do so while changing coaching staffs, losing two senior starters and getting no appreciable boost from a freshman class is nothing short of extraordinary.
So how did Gottfried and his staff pull of this staggering feat? Here are a few of the many reasons why they were able to pull off such a dramatic culture change in less than a calendar year:
Wiping The Slate Clean
Many were surprised to find out that Gottfried and his assistants elected to watch zero game film of the 2010-11 season as they geared up to meet their new team. Assistant Bobby Lutz said that the staff wanted to head into this challenge without any preconceived notions of the players. By allowing the players to prove themselves in practice, the squad got a fresh start with a new group of coaches.
For many Wolfpack players, that approach gave them a new lease on life. With the chance to show their stuff in person, they were given the opportunity to stretch outside of any roles or limitations that they may have carried into the new regime.
Perhaps no one embodied taking advantage of a blank slate better than senior C.J. Williams. The versatile swingman had been a complementary player—usually off the bench—through his first three seasons in Raleigh. While he had developed a reputation as a solid defender and a tireless worker, he had never played more than 20 minutes a game or averaged more than 4.7 points per contest.
Williams admitted that he had reservations about going through a rebuilding process with precious little time left in his collegiate career. Going into meetings with the new staff, he was contemplating a transfer to a winning program, since he had already graduated and would be eligible immediately at a school that offered a graduate program that NC State did not. However, when Gottfried told him that he was not interested in rebuilding and felt that Williams had a skill set that would make him much more than a bit player in the team's new offense, Williams chose to stay with the Pack—a decision that both player and coach would have to consider the right one.
Emerging as both a team leader and a bonafide ACC starter, Williams elevated his game in a big way, averaging 10.6 points in 31.1 minutes per game, shooting 50 percent from the floor and establishing a litany of career-highs. No one was more overcome with emotion than Williams when State's was the last name called on Selection Sunday and again when the Wolfpack advanced to the Sweet Sixteen—and for good reason.
You see, fresh starts can remove imaginary ceilings, and Williams has shown that without that limitation, there's no telling how far you can fly.
Earning The Trust Of The Team
While it could be argued that sophomore forward C.J. Leslie is the more fitting example of the benefits of a blank slate, it would appear the biggest task the staff faced in getting the most out of the enigmatic youngster was earning his trust. Leslie had long been reputed to be uncoachable, with a penchant for playing as hard as he felt like and tuning out well-meaning coaches.
Right away, Gottfried began referring to C.J. by his given first name of Calvin, serving notice that it was a new day for Leslie, and an opportunity to start over as someone new. Leslie admitted that he was confused at first, uncertain whether the new coach was mocking him or testing him in some way. However, it quickly became clear to Leslie that Gottfried and his assistant all cared about him not only as a player, but as a student-athlete. A tough-love suspension for accepting improper benefits early in the season did nothing to shake Leslie's belief that State had the kind of staff that could help him realize his immense potential.
Even during games, Gottfried was constantly communicating with Leslie from the sidelines, urging him to play through bad calls, hustle at all times and eliminate the negative body language that had dogged him throughout this freshman campaign. Slowly but surely, the staff was getting through to Leslie, who responded by playing perhaps better than anyone in the ACC over the last month of the season.
On his way to second-team All-ACC honors, Leslie demonstrated more effort on defense and more of a willingness to share the ball, while proving to be better equipped to let frustration bounce off of him. Late in the season, he was quick to credit his bond with Gottfried, assistant Orlando Early and his teammates with his improved play and attitude.
The bottom line is that Leslie appeared to be having much more fun playing the game of basketball—a reward not only for him, but the coaches who extended the first olive branch of trust early in their interaction.
Demonstrating Trust In The Team
At times, Gottfried's message to the team has seemed to be, "I'm going to believe in you until you give me a reason not to." By assigning larger roles to players who hadn't previously proven that they can handle them, the coach signaled to his team that he was confident that they would eventually reward his faith.
Nowhere was that message sent more clearly than when Gottfried's first big move was to move sophomore shooting guard Lorenzo Brown to the point. While some outsiders thought it was a panic move in the wake of classmate Ryan Harrow transferring to Kentucky, Gottfried had recruited Brown while at Alabama, and knew his background as a prep lead guard. Since Gottfried hadn't watched tape on Brown's uneven rookie campaign, he wasn't predisposed to doubting the youngster—he trusted Brown to make the transition in time.
Early in the season, the move was off to a shaky start. Though he was piling up assists against mostly inferior opponents, Brown was also committing turnovers at an unacceptable rate, leading some to wonder whether both coach and player had bitten off more than they could chew.
As the season progressed, however, Gottfried's instinct proved to be accurate, and his trust was repaid when Brown grew into a consistent, well-rounded point man. And Gottfried's trust in diminutive Alex Johnson, a transfer from Cal State Bakersfield, also paid off when Johnson was able to deliver quality minutes as backup point guard. The lone newcomer who made a sizeable contribution in Gottfried's first year, Johnson not only spelled Brown at the point, but also allowed Brown to shift back to the two when the duo was on the court at the same time.
If Gottfried hadn't sent such a clear message of trust so early on in his tenure, it's hard to tell the path that this season might have taken for State. But by having faith in players like Brown and Johnson, and giving them a chance to prove him right, Gottfried took the first steps toward what would turn out to be a breakthrough season.
Challenging Players To Expand Their Games
Whether it was giving Brown the monumental task of shifting to the point or assigning a new name to Leslie, Gottfried began issuing challenges almost immediately upon arriving in Raleigh. The coach recognized some latent talent within the program, but sought to elicit more well-rounded play. To many, the Pack roster was stocked with too many one-dimensional players, above average in some aspects of the game but deficient in others.
Among the players challenged by Gottfried was junior swingman Scott Wood. Though Wood has established himself as one of the top long-range marksman in the country, he had struggled throughout his first two seasons to create open shots and shake free of defenders. Gottfried and his staff pushed Wood to be more aggressive on the offensive end, fight harder through screens, be more active in the halfcourt and find holes in the defense in transition.
The result? Career-highs for Wood in scoring average (12.4 points per game), attempted (300) and made shots (130), field-goal percentage (43.3), and attempted (223) and made (93) three-pointers. He also more than doubled his previous highs in free throws attempted (91) and made (82), proof of his increased aggressiveness on the offensive end.
The goal for Wood as a senior will be to up his shots per game (8.6), and a big part of that will be improving his ballhandling and gaining the strength needed to fight through screens and beat opponents off the dribble. While Wood has made strides in gaining strength over his career, he'll likely rededicate himself to the weight room in preparation for his final campaign in Raleigh. And in that area, he's likely to challenge himself instead of waiting for the Pack coaches to do it—a vital sign that the approach of the staff is being adopted by the individuals on the roster.
Establishing Accountability in Preparation
As the new staff took over, disturbing accounts began emerging of a program that lacked vital structure and organization under the previous regime. Players admitted that they were largely left to their own devices when it came to strength and conditioning, an approach that may work in the NBA, but involves the type of freedom and self-motivation that teenagers perhaps aren't ready for. Gottfried sought to remedy the situation immediately by hiring highly esteemed Bob Alejo as associate athletics director for strength and conditioning to instill accountability and responsibility in this aspect of the Pack.
One of Gottfried and Alejo's immediate targets was big man Richard Howell. The 6-8 junior had shown an aptitude for offensive rebounding over his first two years in Raleigh, but struggled with stamina and finishing around the basket. Right away, the increased attention dedicated to Howell's conditioning showed dividends, as he lost some 30 pounds and looked and played like a completely different athlete as the season progressed.
Thanks to the dramatic improvement in energy and body mass, Howell emerged as one of the most improved players in the league this year, forging an identity as one the league's very best rebounders and adding several new dimensions to his game. He repeatedly credited Gottfried and Alejo for instilling the discipline needed to adjust his dietary habits, transform fat to muscle—and keep off the pounds as the season progressed.
Howell is perhaps the most notable example in this area, but players such as Johnson, Leslie and junior center Deshawn Painter also made great strides and emerged as true leaders this season when it comes to accountability and preparation. In fact, the entire program seemed to thrive on the emphasis on going the extra mile and being accountable to your teammates to prepare yourself in the best way possible.
Celebrating The NC State Brand Upon arriving in Raleigh, one of Gottfried's first moves was to put the Pack's storied tradition front and center. The coach was taken aback by the bare walls and lack of signage on display at the Dail Practice Complex on campus, and immediately set about rectifying that issue by completely redecorating the interior.
Gottfried told a story of finding trophies in closets, broken and forgotten—an apt metaphor for State's tarnished legacy—and how essential it was to have such proof of past glory on display.
With his most recent experiences being in sports media, Gottfried also has a keen sense of the marketing and brand awareness (Early even tabbed the Pack's Sweet Sixteen appearance as the "perfect marketing tool") that plays such an enormous role in college athletics these days. Dusting off the cobwebs of State's championship pedigree is one thing; gaining attention for a program that has largely been off the national radar for a quarter-century is another. In that sense, there may be no better advocate for telling the NC State story than Gottfried, who appears comfortable on stage, quick with a joke or anecdote.
After all, it was Gottfried who took one look at the Pack's too-easy non-conference schedule and set about buying out "bad" games and establishing matchups with a higher caliber of foe, even when Lutz "questioned his sanity." It was Gottfried who took to Twitter to drum up brand recognition for the Red and White. It was Gottfried who committed to skydiving into Carter-Finley Stadium with a game ball. Though the event was eventually nixed due to weather concerns, it signaled that the media-savvy coach was ready to literally jump out of a plane to put the Wolfpack back on the map. Victories, hard work and publicity have helped the Pack turn heads on the recruiting trails as well.
By combining nods to the past with a willingness to rewrite the present perception of the Pack, Gottfried appears to have State poised to unveil a promising future.