Article by: Michael Byrne
Looking at today?s (February 9) News & Observer creates a disturbing sense of déª vu. The newspaper lauds for page after page tonight?s marquee game between Duke and North Carolina, programs finding their usual February place (in Carolina?s case fully recovered from Matt Doherty) at the top of the ACC heap.
And while these programs tussle for glory, two equally familiar scenarios exist several miles to the east: (a) NC State?s basketball is mired in the ACC basement, and (b) NC State Athletic Director Lee Fowler thinks, by all evidence, that a greater or lesser majority of Wolfpack fans are kooks These fans are kooks, Fowler thinks, because they want Coach Herb Sendek fired.
While Fowler has not publicly used the term ?kooks? to describe fans unhappy with Sendek, he has referred to such fans as ?crazy? (Charlotte Observer, February 22, 2003) and, of course, the oft-repeated ?lunatic fringe? comment. More recently, one Wolfpack fan reports on PackPride.com that Fowler describes those wanting a coaching change as a group of 50 or so persons whom he hears from all the time ? fans disregarding both Fowler?s view and those ?around the country? (again the Charlotte Observer), who think Sendek is the right man for NC State.
Fowler?s problem today is that a credibility gap exists between his unwavering support of Sendek and the facts of the matter. And it?s not just a case of statistics and won-loss records cited by ?crazy? fans on message boards.
John Brasier is sports editor of the Anderson, South Carolina Independent-Mail, a syndicated columnist for Scripps-Howard News Service, and apparently no kook. In a January 29 column, Brasier wrote, ?State?s fall from power did not start under Sendek, but its continued under his reign ? how much more mediocrity is State willing to ignore?? Predicting that nothing would change, Brasier concluded, ?Ask me again next year.? Then there?s ESPN?s Joe Lunardi, who names NC State as the ?biggest disappointment of the college basketball season.? Most recently, on February 7, Wilmington Star-News columnist Andrew Jones, a self-stated ?support[er] of Coach Sendek on many levels,? stated flatly: ?Even if Director of Athletics Lee Fowler and certain prominent boosters fully support Sendek, the majority of the fan base doesn?t.?
Are the journalists quoted above card-carrying members of the ?lunatic fringe,? or is there a widespread perception on the part of many, in the fan base and media, that Sendek?s performance doesn?t cut it? If so, what explains Fowler?s apparently terminal case of denial? And what makes it possible, i.e., why hasn?t a tidal wave of laughter and derision enveloped Fowler, who has roped himself to the success of his coach in the most public and prominent of fashions?
The second question is more easily answered than the first. Fowler is able to get away with this stuff ? ?We want to win championships, and that?s where Herb has this thing pointed? ? because much of the Wolfpack fan base is now institutionalized: It expects to play third fiddle to Duke and UNC, and now watches (with relative complacency if Fowler?s apparent perception is accurate) as State now slips to fourth with the rise of Wake Forest under Skip Prosser.
There. I?ve said it, and I believe it. Sendek?s performance last season was his unquestioned high point ? ending in a second round NCAA loss that followed the pattern of ultimate collapse in games seemingly well in hand. Sendek earned conference Coach of the Year conference honors for his ACC performance and unstinting praise from Lee Fowler.
But would Mike Krzyzewski earn similar honors for such a result? What of Dean Smith? And what of Georgia Tech?s Paul Hewitt, who in that same season took his team to the NCAA Final Four? Indeed, is it possible that the success ? in State terms ? of Sendek?s program last season is as much an aberration as UNC finishing 8-20 under Matt Doherty or the Krzyzewski-less Duke of 1995? The results this year make a case for exactly that point ? and next season, the best player recruited by Sendek, Julius Hodge, will be gone.
What about the athletic administrations of the other Big Four schools? Would they speak of a similar record in such glowing terms? Wake Forest politely showed David Odom to the door despite Odom being more successful than Sendek over the same period and despite Wake?s tradition of failure under the hapless Bob Staak. And what of UNC?s Matt Doherty, who can almost mark on the same desk calendar the dates of his award as national coach of year and his firing?
Of the Big Four, State alone celebrates mediocrity when it comes to basketball (and not basketball alone, as shown below). The ruinous fallout from the Valvano era, more than ten years after the death of Valvano himself, still serves as cover for those insisting (as Fowler apparently does) that a ?clean? program and overall good conduct substitutes for championship-caliber basketball. It?s as if one can?t build a national basketball program without, at the same time, being a shady character.
State fans aren?t entirely to blame for this mindset. Various media sources, in the past, clearly reveled in and played up ? to the point of manufacturing much of it ? the notion of ?Shady State;? i.e., a top flight Wolfpack program must be a program out of control (Fowler himself, who experienced Memphis State basketball nearly drowning in a sea of scandal following that school?s Final Four appearance in 1985, may be prone to this view).
Indeed, past media conduct ? most blatantly by the Pack?s hometown newspaper when it was owned by the Daniels family ? accounts for some of the reason why Sendek survives as coach: Many State people, stung by the vitriol directed against their school during the Valvano agony, and by a half-century?s drumbeat of ?second rate? talk generated in particular by UNC and its media minions, react to any criticism of the basketball program as ?disloyalty? ? those favoring Sendek?s ouster display ?negativity? and are thus ?not true Wolfpack fans.?
This pattern of attacking the dissenter, while not unique to State?s fan base, is clearly prominent there, and is usually coupled with recitations that Sendek runs a ?clean program? ? as if, again, mediocrity is moral perfection, and as if demanding better results amounts to an attack on our alma mater herself.
State fans have only themselves to blame for buying into this nonsense, which results in a family brawl every time sentiment for a coaching change heats up ? Les Robinson, Mike O?Cain, and Sendek himself being three recent examples. But they are excused to some extent for exhibiting a kind of ?Stockholm Syndrome? when it comes to the basketball program, given its complete immolation under Les Robinson and the inconsistent results reached during Sendek?s tenure.
Simply put, many State fans now believe that their team will generally find a way to lose ? as in the NCAA against Vanderbilt and California, and as in the Sendek era ranging from blown leads against UNC in the early years to the sad parade of Miami, Virginia Tech, Florida State, and Virginia in 2005. Add this to the equally maddening collapses against supposedly overmatched non-conference foes ? Boston College, Temple, and St. John?s come to mind ? and one has a fan base primed to expect failure.
State fans don?t want this failure, but they expect it ? and expect to have it condoned by the very school they revere. Pack fans are like Winston Smith in ?1984? being lectured by the Thought Police ? helpless in the certainty that ?the proletarians will never revolt, not in a thousand years or a million ? there is no way in which the Party can be overthrown. The rule of the Party is forever. Make this the starting point of your thoughts.? The ultimate result, with State basketball, is talk of championship seasons that never occur, much as Orwell?s Oceania produced ?astronomical? numbers of boots ? but only on paper.
Is Lee Fowler, then, a kind of athletic Big Brother, spouting news of phantom gains (The ?Ninth Three Year Plan? substituted by ?Next Year?s Recruits?) to a populace so numbed by paranoia and deprivation that it misses the overall stagnancy of the enterprise? The analogy tempts. But comparing Fowler, by all accounts a decent fellow personally, to Big Brother does him a disservice. And blaming Fowler for the pattern of a fan base numbed by losses and made mildly paranoid by events of the past is to blame him solely for matters that to some extent predate his tenure at State. What role, addressing the initial question, does Fowler play here?
First, Fowler?s conviction that Sendek is the best choice for N.C. State is strongly held ? and Fowler, to be candid, will not soon admit that he made the wrong call. Consider this quote from the Memphis Commercial Appeal (May 15, 1994) on Fowler leaving the coaching ranks for the administrative office: ?I know I could have been a great college basketball coach. ? [T]he ego thing, I could overcome by knowing I could be a good coach. Some people have to have everybody write that they’re a good coach, but it was enough that I knew.?
Those are not the words of man over-burdened by doubts of his own skills. Can it be that Fowler, who defends his coach to the point of claiming interest in Sendek by another school that apparently had none (Pitt), is unwilling to admit that he made the wrong call with Sendek? It?s a possibility, made more so by his characterization of Sendek opponents in such scathing terms ? you are questioning my judgment, ergo, you must be crazy or a lunatic fringe. Those epithets suggest that Fowler sees the dissenters not as mere dissatisfied fans but as persons attacking him personally.
Ironically, though that was not the case a few years ago, more and more fans are doing exactly that: seeing Fowler himself as much of the problem with the basketball program. In response, Fowler hardens his position regarding Sendek still further rather than admit that his judgment over Sendek?s success now appears, at best, questionable.
No one questions an athletic director supporting his coach.. No one expects Fowler to simply toss Sendek over the side in the midst of a season, however dismal. On the other hand, support of an embattled coach is different from personal attacks on dissenters who are, after all, State fans and graduates, and is also different from disregarding the existence of those demanding a change. Fowler has jumped the shark, changing from supportive athletic director, equally mindful of his trusteeship of the program on behalf of alumni and fans (which is fine) to a public perception of blind partisanship regarding a coach (which is not).
Second, Fowler?s proclivity for sticking with a coach thick or thin, regardless of program direction or even success ? comparative or otherwise ? may stem from Fowler?s years at the University of Memphis, formerly Memphis State. Once again the article from the Commercial Appeal gives insight. Fowler was at Memphis during that program?s years of turmoil, which had among other results the imprisonment of men?s basketball coach Dana Kirk, for whom Fowler served as an assistant. The newspaper account of this is worth quoting at some length:
Fowler credits former university president Thomas Carpenter, vice president of business and finance Eugene Smith and athletic director Charles Cavagnaro with ignoring the easiest and most obvious solution: to dump everybody. ?I heard once in Cincinnati, on a trip, someone saying, `They kept Larry and Lee, and they’re just going to cover for them.’ It may have been perceived that way,” Fowler said, “but they knew it was different. The easy thing to do would have been to clean house, but those people had the character to stick with us.
The easy thing to do would have been to clean house: a remark speaking volumes to those pondering Fowler?s tenacious defense of Herb Sendek. Moreover, given that there was actual bad stuff going on at Memphis, Fowler?s emphasis on Sendek?s ?clean program,? which some suggest he uses as a benchmark for success rather than building a championship team, is more understandable ? if not acceptable.
Fowler, who went on to a successful career at Middle Tennessee State before taking the NC State position, was spared the ?housecleaning? at Memphis. He equates ?character,? in the quotation above, with ?sticking with? someone and avoiding the ?easiest and most obvious solution.? Is it any wonder, then, that Fowler would resist terminating Herb Sendek when Sendek has run a ?clean? program?
Or that Fowler would resist terminating other coaches on the basis of either actual or comparative results on the field or court? Fowler retained men?s soccer coach George Tarantini, whose team went 5-14 for 2002, losing all of its ACC games and 4-15 overall for 2001, again losing every ACC game. In 2000, men?s soccer also lost all of its conference games. Women?s volleyball ? 48 straight conference losses ? women?s soccer, and women?s tennis have likewise not been consistently competitive under Fowler?s tenure, yet their coaches are retained as well.
This is not to say that the coaches involved are lousy, nor does it ignore that in some cases ? volleyball appears to be one ? the present coaches inherited programs that were beyond dismal, in terms of facilities and historical performance. These other examples, though, add ammunition to the theory that Fowler will not, unless faced with a direct order, terminate coaches based upon wins and losses, or even, in the case of some, on the basis of fielding programs that are non-competitive in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
This is the likeliest scenario with respect to Herb Sendek. Men?s basketball cannot complain of poor facilities ? it has one of the finest arenas in the county. As for time, nearly a decade to turn a historically great program back to its past ? the confidence that NC State basketball can compete with any team ? is generous from all but the most patient (or jaded) perspectives. I suspect that Fowler, while wanting competitive and championship programs, does not regard building those programs the benchmark of coaching success.
There?s nothing wrong with emphasizing clean programs and sportsmanship; in fact, those are laudable and necessary attributes, attributes with which Herb Sendek is well equipped as a coach and as a person. But basketball at NC State is a special case, and Fowler?s apparent refusal to recognize that championship aspirations are expected here, given both the school?s history and its place in the Big Four and ACC, suggests a limited vision and a lack of full understanding of NC State?s place in the national and local basketball scene. As stated before, demanding a championship contender and a clean program are not mutually exclusive goals, and claiming that program purity substitutes for mediocrity (again at best) in the won-loss column is just as limited a vision as the converse win-at-any cost mentality.
In summary, Fowler?s conduct toward fans and alumni dissatisfied with Herb Sendek?s performance appears to go above and beyond the normal support of an athletic director for his subordinate. Dismissing those dissatisfied fans as a minority of kooks, as Fowler has, not only ignores present reality (recognized by steadily increasing numbers of observers), but also suggests that Fowler has crossed a line better left alone by an athletic director: Placing loyalty to that coach above all else. That?s a fine attribute in a person, but not in an athletic director, whose main concern must always be what is best for NC State athletics ? and that includes consistently competitive basketball teams.
Moreover, Fowler?s possible refusal to consider a prior error of judgment on Sendek stewardship of the program is troubling for those with championship basketball aspirations ? for in the long run this refusal, if true, suggests more of the same for basketball: long term mediocrity garnished with disaster. If personal issues are a factor here, the remedy is obvious and crucial: Fowler simply must put his past statements aside, as well as his ego, and take a clear-eyed and performance-based look at the issue of whether Sendek is the right coach for NC State.
Finally, if Fowler?s benchmark of performance is composed solely of program purity rather than Final Fours, he simply lacks the vision required of an athletic director at North Carolina State University. There?s no other way to put this. Wolfpack fans cannot and must not be satisfied with UNC running their team out of the gym, or with Florida State beating that team at home. They likewise cannot be satisfied with, and cannot afford, an athletic director who fails to take a similar view, or who wholly substitutes personal attributes for athletic success.
Not everyone who favors a coaching change is a kook or a traitor, and there are more than fifty people who want that change made. Fan and alumni sentiment, coupled with the current results on the court, dictate that Lee Fowler respond to these fan concerns and in a thorough and professional manner do what is in the interests of the program he holds in trust ? whether that impacts personal relationships, his prior judgment, or otherwise. Reasonable State alumni and fans can ask no more, but Fowler must do no less.