Give Coach Whittenburg His Shot — Let’s Not “Pass” on This “Longshot”

Dereck Whittenburg is Wolfpack through and through. If there’s one thing Wolfpack fans agree upon in this coaching search, it’s this. Some fans, however, fear that Coach Whittenburg’s candidacy is based on that fact alone.

Let’s put that fear to rest right away: it’s not. What it is to Whittenburg’s candidacy I will get to later. But first, there are very good reasons why those of us who know about Coach Whittenburg wish him to be the next coach of the Wolfpack.

These are reasons that I think would make Coach Whittenburg an attractive candidate regardless of where he went to school.

Such as this: Over the seven yeas that Dereck Whittenburg has been a head coach, he is the only coach to improve his team’s record from the previous year each year. His team’s record was better than it was the previous year for each of those seven years.

At his first head coaching job, Wagner, Whittenburg inherited:

— a team that had just posted a record of 9-18 (7-9 conference) in 1998-1999

— a program that had never won its conference

— a program that had never gone to the NCAAs

Here is how Coach Whittenburg’s teams did:

In 1999-2000, his first team went 11-16 (6-10).

In 2000-01 he posted winning seasons in conference and overall: 16-13 (11-9).

In 2001-02 he improved on that mark, and his team ranked in the top 10 nationally in scoring while nearly reaching 20 wins: 19-10 (15-5)

In 2002-03, Wagner under Coach Whittenburg again ranked in the top 10 nationally in scoring, posted a record of 21 wins and 11 losses (14-4), won the conference title, and went to their first NCAAs.

In four years.

Impressed by that, Fordham came calling. Already the phrase “Whittenburg magic” was entering the lexicon. But maybe Whittenburg got lucky?


Here’s what Whittenburg faced at Fordham. If Wagner was a mountain to climb, then Fordham was Everest. Fordham had never posted even a .500 conference record, let alone a winning record. They had never even won a single game in the conference tournament. In fact, the Rams hadn’t had a winning season since 1991-92.

And the team Whittenburg was inheriting had just posted a grand season total of two wins. The previous coach’s record at Fordham was 36-78 in his four years there – and a paltry 2-26 his last season.

Coach Whittenburg wasn’t daunted by that challenge. Why would he be? He invited challenge. His attitude at Wagner was “play us any time, any day.”

About Fordham, he said, “I am very passionate about Fordham basketball. I know it will be a hard task. I welcome the challenge. I embrace the kids in the program.”

He also gave a hint about his success.

“I concern myself with the character of the program and the kids. Start with that and the winning will come.”

Fordham’s administration was impressed by Coach Whittenburg. Their decision to hire him was unanimous.

As Fordham president Rev. Joseph O’Hare said, “Dereck Whittenburg’s record, first as an assistant coach and more recently as head coach at Wagner College, demonstrates that he is the kind of coach who can achieve athletic success on the hardwood while maintaining academic integrity.”

His first year at Fordham, 2003-04, was a rough one. His team won only six games – 6-22 (3-13).

His second year, 2004-05, Coach Whittenburg had a team of five freshmen and only four scholarship players. But this team became Fordham’s first to avoid a losing record in conference. Their final record was 13-16 (8-8).

That year Fordham won its first-ever conference tournament game. There’s an excellent report about this here:

Though Duquesne spoiled the Fordham’s Senior Night a week earlier, this year’s Rams enjoyed the success the Dukes had aspired to. Six wins turned into 12, and a sixth-place finish became a four-seed. There was no great secret to the turnaround – an energetic and charismatic coach named Dereck Whittenburg was beginning to work his magic

This year Coach Whittenburg’s team posted Fordham’s first conference winning season ever. They finished .500 for the season at 16-16 (9-7) – a far cry from the two-win team he had inherited and on the doorstep of Fordham’s first winning season since Les Robinson’s first year at NC State.

In short, Coach Whittenburg has put Fordham on the same path of ever-building success that he had his Wagner teams on. He did it with his “magic”: kids of integrity, his own unflagging energy, his charisma, his delight in a challenge, and his tireless effort.


Overall, Coach Whittenburg’s career record is 102-104. Detractors are quick to point out it’s a losing record. That’s accurate without telling the whole story. Whittenburg inherited losing programs and made them winners – his record reflects the years in turning those teams around. Here’s a little year-by-year breakdown for you in his rebuilding both Wagner and Fordham:

— Coach Whittenburg’s predecessors’ win percentage in their final years: 11-44 (20.0%)

— Coach Whittenburg’s win percentage in his first years: 17-38 (30.9%)

— Coach Whittenburg’s win percentage in his second years: 29-29 (50.0%)

— Coach Whittenburg’s win percentage in his third years: 35-26 (57.4%)

— And of course during Coach Whittenburg’s fourth year at Wagner, his win percentage was 65.6%.

Well, OK, but that’s just Fordham and Wagner. What could Coach Whittenburg do in the ACC?

Coach Whittenburg is no stranger to the ACC. In fact, Coach Whittenburg has experience recruiting top-notch players and All-Americans to two separate ACC schools, Georgia Tech and N.C. State. He learned under two of the ACC’s best coaches: Bobby Cremmins and Jim Valvano. As an assistant coach under both coaching legends, he has won ACC titles.

That is to say, Coach Whittenburg is no stranger as a coach to the ACC, to success in the ACC, and to successful recruiting coups in the ACC. (He’s also no stranger as a player to winning championships, as we all know.)

Furthermore, not only has Whittenburg learned under the tutelage of great ACC coaches, he has also played for great coaches – Jim Valvano, of course, and in high school, the legendary Morgan Wooten.

In my view, this is an impressive coaching pedigree. Coach Whittenburg is a winner. He knows what winning takes, and he knows how to achieve it, and he does so with passion and integrity.

And here’s where Dereck Whittenburg’s ties to NC State should matter. The position of NC State men’s basketball head coach should be more than a job. It should be a dream. It was Valvano’s dream. It was Norm Sloan’s dream. Remember how the Sports Illustrated cover story on David Thompson (prior to our first national championship) described Sloan’s decision to take the Wolfpack job? “Sloan, another player under Case at N.C. State, hurried back to his alma mater.”

Dereck Whittenburg is a great coach who loves NC State, and if he’s our coach, you can bet he’s going to put his reputation for energetic coaching, charismatic salesmanship and character-building to work for something we all love: NC State basketball. He would make us proud. And we know it. Hiring Coach Whittenburg would do more to unite this fractured fanbase than anyone. He’d hurry home. And we couldn’t help but become excited.

Coach Whittenburg’s bona fides stack up favorably against anyone else’s before you speak of his being “in the family.” His being a Wolfpack alumnus doesn’t matter – but it does. It matters that NC State is Whitt’s dream job. It matters that he knows what it means to Wolfpack fans to beat Carolina and Duke. (Anyone remember seeing him limp out onto the court to celebrate after Sidney’s between-the-leg pass setting up Thurl’s slam that sealed Valvano’s first win over Carolina?) It matters that he can show his recruits and his players those championship rings and talk about dreams and what it takes to make dreams come true. It matters that he’s stood before cheering fans in Reynolds Coliseum in April to talk about winning the national championship. It matters that he stood by in Reynolds Coliseum ten years later watching Jimmy V give his farewell address to the fans and talk about how his team taught him what love means.

Some would say hiring Whittenburg would be a longshot. Maybe even a 30-footer.

I think it would be a slam dunk.