There were times when it seemed that Mark Gottfried was the revivalist that NC State desperately needed. There were other times when it seemed like he was engineering a train wreck. It was a wild roller coaster ride of a tenure for the Gott man, and now the whole thing is history.
Gottfried’s very first year with the program was arguably his best. At one point the Pack was 18-7 and 7-3 in the conference. There was a buzz around the program for the first time in a while. That was quickly killed by a blown 20 point lead at Duke and a subsequent four game losing streak. When it seemed like the wheels were coming off, State then won six of seven games on its way to the Sweet Sixteen. Up and down the gottcoaster went.
Most of the players from that 2011-12 Sweet Sixteen squad returned for the 2012-13 season. They were joined by a top shelf recruiting class that featured the greatest basketball player of all time in T.J. Warren. There had been a revival. The basketball program that had been dead in the water since the early nineties was back and carrying a top ten ranking into the 2012-13 season. This was the point where we all thought that the sky was the limit, but shortly after the season began we all started to realize Gottfried’s limitations as a coach.
His teams were awful defensively and they couldn’t finish games. The biggest reason we are where we are today is that these things never changed. The top ten ranking and ACC championship hype evaporated as the Pack snatched defeat from the jaws of victory three times in the first nine ACC games. The team was plagued by poor end of game execution and fundamental failures in those losses, and these things became a staple of the last six years. State lost two games on last second tip-ins. Despite wins over Duke and UNC, the Pack was 5-4 in the ACC because of losses to Wake Forest and Maryland. Up and down the gottcoaster went.
The Pack laid an egg in the tournament that year and lost to Temple. After a fifth place ACC finish, the program was higher than it had been in a long time, but it felt like it couldn’t get out of its own way so it could take the next step. That became a familiar feeling.
Some seriously good basketball players made their way through Raleigh over the next few years. Gottfried was a phenomenal recruiter. His ability to get elite players to play for him despite mediocre results became a trademark of his. Unfortunately other things that were a trademark of his put a cap on his teams that should have had a much higher ceiling.
The Pack had serious potential as a Cinderella in the Warren and Lacey years. Once again though, the Pack got in its own way, missing a gazillion free throws against St. Louis in 2014 and not benefiting from some questionable coaching decisions in the 2015 Sweet Sixteen. A ceiling had been established. I had not realized it yet, but Gott’s limitations as a coach made his program at best an eight seed caliber team every year. Regardless of who was on the team, State was always going to be bad at the same things and it was always going to cost the team games. Gottfried had elevated the program significantly from the Lowe years, but he could only elevate it so much. The ceiling really was the roof.
Those Warren and Lacey years provided some of the best moments of NC State basketball that I can remember. The road win at UNC and BeeJay Anya’s game winner against LSU were personal favorites of mine. The sweet sixteen run in 2015 was the best moment of the entire tenure, but tournament runs like that one made us ignore the larger issues that kept State mediocre and would eventually lead to Gottfried’s dismissal. It wasn’t until now that I realized that around .500 in the conference and a tournament run to the sweet sixteen was as good as it could have gotten.
Year five was when they wheels fell off. And when they fell off, they really fell off. The issues that held State back under Gott were exacerbated over the next two years and it culminated with a product that would be insulting to dumpster fires if it were called that. I don’t know how things got so bad so fast. Maybe Bobby Lutz made that big of a difference, maybe it was something different. Ultimately though, it doesn’t really matter. For whatever reason, Gottfried’s shortcomings as a coach had begun to overshadow his strengths and things were going downhill fast. Add to that the fact that State will lose some of its best players after this season and has only one recruit signed, and it becomes clear that things were not going to get better. There was no choice left for the administration and they had to cut their losses.
When all the factors are considered, it’s obvious that it was the right decision. Some people would like to take a short sighted approach to analyzing Gottfried and look only at what transpired during his first four years. These people are idiots. The program isn’t in a bad spot for a new coach right now (assuming no transfers and other such things), but had State waited one more year, we could be looking at a total rebuild. This had to had to be done now. It’s about more than what happened in the past.
I’m not sure if I know how to give a final judgement of Gott’s time in Raleigh. There were a lot of good things that happened, including the Pack being relevant in March again. It feels like it ended at the same spot it started though, with the firing of a coach that wasn’t good enough to turn a talented group of players into a successful team. It was a better product than we saw before he arrived, but now State needs a coach that can take it beyond eight seed and tournament sleeper.