Brand Awareness

Whoever becomes NC State's next basketball coach will have plenty of challenges, but also ample opportunity for glory.

To achieve the aspirations of the school's athletics department (and meet the expectations of the fans), State's new coach will have to do more than compete, he will have to rebuild the NC State brand.

NC State doesn't just need a good coach, it needs someone that can make the Wolfpack a nationally-known name again. True, hiring an A-list candidate is one way to do so instantly, but such home runs are rarely hit in college hoops coaching searches. Regardless of whoever is hired, charisma and leadership beyond the bench will be traits needed to make NC State more than just pretty good.

According to many, the name "NC State" was more than well-known to casual sports fans in the Jim Valvano era (yes, I mean before the scandal). If not approaching the Pepsi/Coke status then, it was at least a Dr. Pepper. Nowadays, it's not even RC Cola. And that matters, because if you're going to compete against Pepsi and Coke, you've got to convince a lot of people why they should give you a try. People don't need convincing to play at Duke or UNC.

Make no mistake, Sendek was a very good recruiter.

Name recognition isn't built simply by winning, but it absolutely helps you win. Sure, a Final Four will do wonders for a school's name, but a coach has to capitalize on that brand awareness to get in the horses to compete next year. The day after Dean Smith won his second NCAA title, he flew to Philadelphia to personally say hi to Rasheed Wallace. Why wouldn't he haven't wanted to commit to UNC then and there? In college sports, there is no free agency, there is no draft. The rich get richer because players want to play for the cool teams. If a coach doesn't immediately take advantage of his program's recognition to woo top talent, perhaps as happened at Georgia Tech and Maryland, his achievements simply become good arguments to present for joining his program. After he gets the recruit to listen.

An oft-quoted quote by oft-quoting pundits is "great recruiting always beats great coaching." Make no mistake, Sendek was a very good recruiter. Anyone that can convince Julius Hodge to come play at NC State without ever leading the Wolfpack to the NCAA Tournament must be a pretty good salesman. His last few recruiting classes have been outstanding, yielding prizes like Cedric Simmons and Brandon Costner, but during the same period Duke and UNC have loaded up almost exclusively on McDonald's All-Americans. They can do that, they're Duke and UNC. NC State is going to need that kind of pull.

Sendek's problem at NC State was that he did not embrace the spotlight in a way that helped build up the school's name, at a school that needs to jockey for national attention. On the other hand, football coach Chuck Amato's charisma alone has at times literally turned the spotlight onto NC State's football program, often building up plenty of preseason hype for the Wolfpack (if still finishing disappointingly). When the big talker's ability to preen for the camera was coupled with on-field success, as in the 2002 season when the team started 9-0 and finished with a Gator Bowl victory, the fruits were a 2003 and 2004 recruiting haul that featured likely top-five NFL draft pick Mario Williams and five-star prospect Derek Morris. Who could forget the ABC sports spot of Amato tooling down Hillsborough Street with his Oakley's on and the Soprano's theme song playing in the background? Of course, being a good brand manager isn't enough, taking advantage of your talent, i.e., coaching, is what brings in the wins. To become elite, you need to do both year in and year out.

"Chuck Amato's charisma alone has at times literally turned the spotlight onto NC State's football program."

The pressure at schools like UCLA, Kentucky, and Indiana exists because both basketball fans and casual sports fans across the country recognize these names, and know them to be synonomous with great basketball. The names of these schools are so big that things like a year-long top five ranking are not necessary to keep them in the limelight. Or, to put it another way, their names are always recognized by a potential recruit anywhere in the country. Duke and Carolina are in that same class. That's partly why UNC was able to steadily haul in the country's best recruiting classes in the midst of and after the fallout of the Matt Doherty era, a well-publicized train wreck. It was still the Carolina train, after all!

The pressure at NC State is unique. Everyone across the country assumes that schools like Indiana should have no trouble succeeding, because they should have no trouble recruiting - they are the Hoosiers, after all. You hear similar chatter regularly when Notre Dame football is discussed. Despite being mediocre for several years and possessing some stringent admission requirements, oft-quoting pundits and oft-complaining fans know that high school kids want to be Rudy, so Notre Dame should clearly have a long line of talent asking to come.

NC State has no such assumptions being made about it nationally. No one thinks recruits should be lining up to play at NC State, because no one even thinks about NC State. NC State thoroughly dissolved from the public consciousness after NC State was put on probation in 1991. During the Les Robinson years that followed through 1996, NC State went 28-66 in the ACC, which conveniently happened to overlap the Mike O'Cain football years from 1993 to 1997, in which the football team compiled a 41-40 overall record. Sendek's series of NIT bids in his first five years did nothing to take advantage of the concurrent media explosion, including the boom of the Internet and sports on cable TV. In the early nineties ESPN began televising college basketball around the clock, and then came ESPN2, ESPN Classic, FoxSports, and then digital cable. During this boom programs like Texas, Cincinnati, Arizona and even Gonzaga became national fixtures, while NC State was totally missing. From 1990 to 2003, NC State only appeared twice on the national radar screen that is the AP top 25. And by twice, I mean literally two times: in two weeks of the 1999-2000 season we blipped at number 25 and 21. And if you want to be included in the national sports scores and highlights, being in the top 25 is generally the criteria networks use when deciding which of the 288 schools they want to share news about.

NC State has been virtually absent from the national basketball scene for the past decade and a half. Despite the Wolfpack Club being the third largest booster group in the country, and despite NC State being the fourth-most profitable program in the country last year, the Wolfpack pretty much ranked last in merchandise sales in the ACC the last five years. According rankings released by the Collegiate Licensing Company, between June 1, 2004 and June 1, 2005 NC State ranked 96 out of 100 licensees - right behind the university of Tulsa. Who was number 1? UNC. Maybe it's something to do with wolves - the Nevada Wolf Pack were number 97.

The Wolfpack has no brand to use as a reason to expect it to be easy to win big at NC State. The facilities are outstanding, the fan support is great (if you win), and the monetary funds are ample, but there has been nothing to show for it. But, I don't think State fans expect it to be easy to win big here. They just expected it to be possible at some point within a 16-year time span. And it is possible, with the right coach. NC State's new coach needs to know how to take advantage of the spotlight that comes with success.

Considering that two big spotlights are shining next door right on Durham and Chapel Hill, it shouldn't be too hard to steal some attention. NC State is not trapped in anyone's shadow. The sun casts shadows, a spotlight can shine on whomever it wants.

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