What does being the most successful coach in franchise history in terms of winning percentage get you? What does winning a division title and leading a team to its best record in the club's 43-year history get you? What does sweeping your crosstown rival for the first time in nearly 40 years get you? If you're now former Los Angeles Clippers' coach Vinny Del Negro, it gets you shown the door when your team's star decides that Doc Rivers is the coach the team needs to lead it to an NBA championship.
That's right, folks. Chris Paul seems hell bent on literally or figuratively ball punching the Pack: first slugging Jules in the jewels and now orchestrating the ouster of Del Negro, who piloted the Clipper ship to a franchise best 56 wins in 2012-13. That win total was good for fifth in the NBA and helped L.A. win the Pacific Division. Del Negro's club also swept that slightly more historically successful L.A. franchise known as the Lakers, and the former N.C. State star's .557 winning percentage on the Clippers' bench is far and away the best mark for any coach of the mostly moribund franchise.
But now Vinny's looking for work, and odds are that he will not be without a head coaching gig for long, as he is rumored to be a possible replacement for Rivers in Beantown and has an interview lined up for the Nuggets' vacancy.
As this is the summer of occasional looks back at non-1983 N.C. State basketball history, I was planning on looking back at Del Negro's Wolfpack career. His retrospective was a logical next step after the piece on Nate McMillan, as he followed him at the point for the Pack, was a tall (6-5), thin point guard just like Nate, enjoyed a long and successful professional career just like Nate, and has (you guessed it, just like Nate) been a mainstay on NBA sidelines as a coach for a number of years. The recent drama in La La Land just makes the timing all the better.
When I remember Del Negro, the first thing that comes to mind is the lost art of player development. Once upon a time, I thought the norm was for a player to come in, maybe get a few minutes as a freshperson, show some promise as a sophomore, take over a major role as a junior, and then continue to develop right on through the senior season. That was more or less Del Negro's career arc, and his development demonstrates how spoiled Pack fans of the era were to not only have a coach like V who could develop talent, but also to live in a time when players did not transfer at the first sign of not being "the man."
In fairness to the current staff, Richard Howell certainly took huge strides forward under their stewardship, and Lorenzo Brown and C.J. Leslie, if maddeningly inconsistent, at least improved. In V's day, it seemed like everyone reached their potential (though part of that could be the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia talking). Developing into a player that maximized his (somewhat limited) talents was certainly the case for the skinny kid from the birthplace of basketball, Springfield, Massachusetts.
Del Negro, whose father Vince played for Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, was born in Springfield but starred as a prep at Suffield Academy in Connecticut, where he became the school's all-time leading scorer and twice won New England championships. But upon arriving at N.C. State, Del Negro was somewhat lost in a sea of guards that included Spud Webb, McMillan, Kelsey Weems, and Quentin Jackson. He managed just 264 total minutes over his first two seasons, but he decided to stick it out and earn his time, and that decision ultimately culminated in the Pack's last ACC tournament championship in 1987.
During the 1986-87 campaign, Vinny's junior year, he emerged as the team's chief ball distributor. He was the team's third leading scorer, averaging 10.4 points per game, and he led the team in assist-to-turnover ratio while shooting 88.7% from the charity stripe. Perhaps most impressively, he made 50% of his heaves from the bonusphere (36-for-72).
Del Negro led the Pack to an opening round overtime win over Duke in the ACC tournament, scoring eight points in the extra frame. Those Blue Devils featured names like Ferry, Amaker, and King, and they had a pretty good coach on the sidelines, too. After that, the Pack needed a pair of overtimes to dispatch of a brutal Wake Forest team that had also sprung a first-round upset after winning only two games in the regular season against ACC foes. Del Negro set his career high with 12 boards against Muggsy's Deacs.
Now all that stood between the Pack and an NCAA tournament trip was, gulp, North Carolina. The Heels went undefeated in league play and marched into the ACC finals on an 11-game winning streak. Their starting five of Kenny Smith, Jeff Lebo, Dave Popson, Joe Wolf, and J.R. Reid all averaged in double figures. They were 28-and-freaking-2 overall at the time with their only losses on the road at UCLA (who had a guy named Reggie Miller) and Notre Dame (who had a guy named David Rivers). But, behind tournament MVP Del Negro and some V magic, the Pack outlasted Deano's boys, 68-67. Del Negro sank the game-winning free throws with 14 seconds left.
My family had tourney tickets that year, which I had to split up with my brother. I got to watch the double overtime win over Wake Forest but was not in attendance for the final. Rest assured I watched every second on TV and delighted at how Jackson, a six-foot guard, frustrated the mammoth Reid in V's box-in-one defense. The Pack collapsed on Reid every time he got the ball, and with Jackson ready to swipe the rock if he brought it below his chest, Reid was forced to simply dump the ball back out. With the Heels' superior size, V was going to make them win it from the outside. On that day the shooters went cold.
I was waiting with much smack talk when my brother got home. He, like the rest of my liverless-frontrunner-pulling-for-family, is a Heel. He is also 11 years my senior, which means that, now, I could totally kick his old ass. But, then, he was a young man and I was still a boy. The ass kicking I received that late March afternoon was the sweetest ass kicking on record. I laughed at the pain of every sweet punch.
Del Negro, who had gone from bench after thought to ACC champion guard in one season, was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player. It was the Pack's 10th ACC title, a figure that then matched UNC for the most among league schools and three more than Duke had at the time. (See, it is OK to expect us to compete with the Blues).
The season mirrored 1983 in some ways, as N.C. State would not have gone dancing without winning the ACC tournament. The Pack, fresh off back-to-back Elite Eights, lost Chris Washburn and McMillan to the NBA and also missed the scoring of Ernie Myers. They endured the Kenny Drummond exodus, and, well let's just not even talk about Kenny Drummond. Bottom line, at 17-14 and 6-8 in the league, they had to win the tournament, and they did. Unfortunately there would be no glass slipper in the NCAAs, as former Pack coach Norm Sloan and mullet man man Dwayne Schintzius dispatched State in the first round.
As a senior, Del Negro moved off the ball to accommodate the Fire part of Fire and Ice. Chris Corchiani ran the point but Del Negro still managed 3.6 assists per game to go with 15.9 points and 4.9 rebounds. He was first-team all-ACC. With the infusion of talent brought by Corchiani and Rodney Monroe, the Pack jumped from sixth to second in the ACC but suffered another disappointing NCAA tournament, getting upset by #14 seed Murray State in the first round.
It was another first round exit that ultimately cost Del Negro his job. Blake Griffin performed a disappearing act in the opening round of the playoffs and the Memphis Grizzlies upset the Clippers in six games. If Del Negro takes the team deep into the playoffs, even a power-wielding, prima donna, peas punching point guard like Paul could not have run him out of town.
(Well, maybe, Paul is a free agent and used that leverage to make it clear that he would not be back unless he got his man as the coach. But, due to the NBA's wacky salary structure, he can make a lot more money with the Clips than anywhere else, so it would have been nice to see ownership call his bluff, but I digress.)
Better luck in your next gig, Vinny, and thanks for the memories, both sweet and painful. (And may one of your future players neuter Chris Paul at the bottom of a scrum for a loose ball...insert loose ball joke in the comments).