Pack Nation Proves That Hoops Is Still King

Five years ago, NC State hoops was coming off a 13-16 campaign under beleaguered coach Herb Sendek.

Prospective recruits were openly questioning the status of Sendek's longevity with the Pack in the local media, while season ticket requests were dwindling for the then-ESA. Meanwhile, across campus, Wolfpack football was the rage, spurred by fast-talking new coach Chuck Amato and aw-shucks young gunslinger Philip Rivers. Renovations to Carter-Finley Stadium and plans for a new football operations center were being bandied about, and State fans couldn't gobble up ducats fast enough.

Soon enough, onlookers were asking the previously unthinkable questions: Could NC State be turning into a football school? Was it possible that one of the cornerstones of Tobacco Road—a school that boasted 10 conference champions, two national titles and the legacies of legendary coaches Everett Case, Norm Sloan and Jim Valvano—turn its back on a storied hoops past in favor of a promising future on the gridiron?

In the five years since then, Amato has struggled to claim a foothold in the expanded ACC, while Sendek guided the Pack to five straight NCAA Tournament berths, including one Sweet Sixteen appearance. However, many still preferred the image created by Amato's swaggering football teams to Sendek's consistent—but plodding—basketball squads. So when Sendek bolted for Arizona State following the conclusion of the Wolfpack's season, many wondered about the perception of NC State basketball around the country. Had football overtaken basketball as the Wolfpack's calling card? Did coaches around the nation still hold the Pack in high regard? Did State hoops fans follow the program enough to care whether athletics director Lee Fowler and chancellor James Oblinger secured a nationally recognized coach or another fast-rising younger coach similar to Sendek when he arrived in Raleigh?

In the week and a half since Sendek's announcement that he was leaving NC State, the answers have come with resounding impact. Yes, Wolfpack basketball is still a nationally regarded program, and, yes, fans cared deeply about just whom Fowler and Oblinger intend to install at the helm of Pack hoops. Fowler was reportedly inundated with queries about the State head coaching job, lending credence to the belief that it is a coveted position. Diehard members of Wolfpack Nation intently followed the search saga online, with talk of private jets, clandestine meetings under cover of darkness, hurried tours of facilities, evasive maneuvers taken to avoid cameras and tape recorders, 24-hour stakeouts of arenas and airports … even noted that when Memphis coach John Calipari came to Raleigh to be wooed by State officials, he tried to stay incognito, but was caught on a camera phone at a local Dunkin' Donuts. Heck, subscriptions to this site have even grown by 25 percent, showing that NC State's rabid fanbase still possesses a burning passion for basketball.

Fowler and Oblinger have been rebuffed first by Texas coach and North Carolina native Rick Barnes, then by Calipari. Further proof of basketball's significance at NC State is that the Pack administration has put the stamp of approval on offers of $2 million-plus in both cases. The Wolfpack still has to fight the perception that it will be difficult to compete with the powerhouse coaches at Duke and UNC, Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams, respectively. Calipari spurned State at the last minute, agreeing to return to the Tigers for $400,000 a year less than State was offering. Why? "His eventual change of mind was not because of compensation concerns, however," wrote "Rather, he was concerned he wouldn't have enough of a shot at doing what Wolfpack officials want: consistently beating Duke and North Carolina."

There is little question that Calipari is a dynamic coach, though questions about alleged improprieties at both Massachusetts and Memphis would have dogged him in the Triangle. However, the last thing NC State wants is a coach who is troubled by the presence of "K" and "Roy." The program needs a fiery, passionate, driven leader who will see his corner of the hoops triangle as territory he'll need to fight for, gain—and protect. He needs to view his established peers as challengers, not obstacles to success. So who will seize the reins and fill that description? Will it be a demonstrative sideline worker such as Villanova's Jay Wright or Texas A&M's Billy Gillespie? Will it be an experienced, respected tactician such as George Mason's Jim Larranaga or former Stanford coach and current Golden State Warriors head man Mike Montgomery? Will it be an outgoing personality like former UCLA coach and current television analyst Steve Lavin? Will it be another Final Four participant like LSU's John Brady? Will it be a fast-rising coach such as Miami's Frank Haith? Will it be a darkhorse candidate like Kentucky's Tubby Smith or West Virginia's Jim Beilein? Moreover, would a top-tier coach such as Wright or Smith accept a job that comes with the widespread acceptance that they were no better than the third choice for the position?

There are as many questions as candidates, and Wolfpack fans continue to wear out their keyboards and test their "Refresh" buttons in search of any tidbit of news, any indication of leaning, any hint of a rumor. They are eager for a coach who will come out swinging, ready to claim turf on Tobacco Road and send a message to everyone who will listen—and even those who won't want to believe—that the Pack is a national player again. They won't settle for a head man who will back down from the competition or struggle with embracing NC State's past. Raleigh-based Pioneer Strategies considered that to be one of Sendek's problems at State. "Herb Sendek realized that the ghosts and shadows would haunt him as long as he remained the head coach at NC State, and he made the decision that he believed was in the best interests of his family."

The true Pack faithful tip their hats to Sendek, thank him for his hard work and wish him well in the desert. Yet they bristle with anticipation in turning their attention to the cloud of dust that announces the arrival of the next NC State driver on Tobacco Road. Who will emerge from that swirling tornado of confusion? It remains too early to say. But at the very least, Wolfpack Nation has spoken loud and clear, making it well-known that State remains a proud basketball school with lofty expectations—and a powerful desire to welcome a uniting, brave coach to throw its considerable weight behind as the Pack continues its climb up the national ladder.

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