Sidney Lowe, newly named head men's basketball coach at North Carolina State University, finished his formal press conference and circulated amiably among a milling multitude in the program's expensive new practice gym. The honeymoon had just begun for the former Wolfpack point guard, best remembered as the on-court leader as N.C. State won an improbable national championship in 1983, a victory that forever cemented the celebrity of coach Jim Valvano.
Each time Lowe paused in making his rounds, he quickly attracted a swarm of reporters. At one stop a boy took up a position near Lowe, eager to soak in the moment, only to be relentlessly thrust aside by a WRAL television sports reporter who pushed to the fore, then repeatedly urged his unsuitably polite cameraman to come closer, come closer.
Finally, the big shark finished feeding and moved off, allowing others to fling questions at Lowe.
Perhaps inevitably, a reporter asked, "What do you think your former coach, Jim Valvano, is thinking about right now?" A literal-minded cynic standing nearby, well aware Valvano succumbed to cancer 13 years ago, muttered, "He's not thinking anything. He's dead."
The question, unanswerable on its face, nevertheless hinted at a key to N.C. State's protracted search for a successor to colorless Herb Sendek, who fled to Arizona State after a decade at Raleigh. Anyone coaching the Wolfpack will be measured against, or overshadowed by, Valvano's personal and professional legacy.
Valvano, an overtly ethnic New Yorker, served as N.C. State coach from 1980 through 1990. Eager to charm the locals, he endeared himself to fans by being clever, entertaining, accessible and, above all, successful. Valvano won the '83 national title and a pair of Atlantic Coast Conference tournaments (1983, 1987). He took seven teams to the NCAAs in 10 years. He was also a brilliant and unorthodox sideline strategist and an exceptional recruiter and motivator.
But the complex Valvano liberally mixed excess with success, and was ultimately forced out of his job after a University of North Carolina system investigation found he had repeatedly violated "the spirit" if not the letter of the rules. Not incidentally, Valvano also led a personal life better left unchronicled, saw his program incur NCAA probation, endured several criminal run-ins by players, and set new standards of self-aggrandizement in marketing himself.
Three years after his ouster, Valvano died a publicly courageous death, ascending to a position of quasi-sainthood that would have embarrassed, amused and delighted him.
The sober Sendek, who took over from genial but overmatched Les Robinson in 1996-97, presented a striking contrast. Sendek's players graduated and avoided off-court trouble. His teams won at least 21 games and finished in the upper echelon of the ACC in four of the past five years. N.C. State posted winning records nine times in his 10 seasons and went to five consecutive NCAA tournaments, tying Valvano's teams for the best such run in program history. Sendek was focused, intelligent, sincere and family-oriented. One rival head coach called him "the best X and O guy in the ACC."
What his program lacked was fun and a welcoming air.
Sendek on the sidelines resembled a gum-chewing undertaker. His players often performed as if afraid to make mistakes and executed a deliberate offensive system that was not particularly enjoyable to watch. Personal names did not appear on the backs of player jerseys, a ploy to accent team unity that fostered disconnection among casual observers.
Much has been made of Sendek's teams infrequently defeating Duke and North Carolina, including losses in his last nine meetings with the neighboring national powers. But it is a mistake to wholly attribute dissatisfaction to particular results. More than anything, Sendek sealed his own fate by refusing to come to terms with his symbolic duties as head coach.
People seek affiliation where they can in a fragmented society. Increasingly, in the secular realm they turn to sports. This tendency lately has been celebrated in widespread references to the fans of particular teams as constituting a "nation." The term seemed charming two years ago when widely applied to long-suffering Boston Red Sox followers, but now is as overused as references to "9/11" to explain away any and all violations of civil liberties by the Bush administration.
Still, teams with large followings and extensive tradition do form distinctive groupings in which a head coach or manager stands as the informal leader. Adherents look to him or her to share their passion and pain, not to shrug off a loss to archrival North Carolina as just another game, as Sendek did.
Sendek appeared indifferent to the essential politics of his role. Where others craved inspiration, he offered mostly cerebration, his words creating a picket fence around the inner man that discouraged easy bonding.
Thus, no matter how well Sendek's teams performed, many fans felt something indefinable was lacking. The dissatisfaction crested once the 2005-06 Wolfpack went down in flames, losing five of their last six games after promising to become the best team of Sendek's tenure. With no relief in sight, Sendek took a comparable position in the Pacific-10 Conference.
What followed was a month-long search that was as uncomfortable and anxiety-producing, as frustrating and embarrassing, as North Carolina's 2000 search for a successor to Bill Guthridge. The Tar Heels eventually settled upon Matt Doherty, a former UNC player, who lasted three years.
Lee Fowler, N.C. State's director of athletics, first sought Texas coach Rick Barnes, a North Carolina native who memorably confronted Carolina's Dean Smith on the sidelines as well as the court while at Clemson in the mid-'90s. After Barnes spurned N.C. State, Fowler turned in vain to Memphis coach John Calipari, a candidate back when Sendek was hired.
As N.C. State searched, ACC coaches wondered privately whether the school would hire an African American. "If they want to make a statement and make a splash, that's what they would do," said one black coach. "Why not do something unique and different than the other two places?" he said, referring to UNC and Duke.
Yet, for weeks, rarely was a black man mentioned as a candidate by the media. That conspicuous absence extended to alumnus Dereck Whittenburg, a seven-year head coach at Wagner College and Fordham University, a former assistant to Valvano and to Georgia Tech's Bobby Cremins, and a member of the '83 national championship squad.
Whittenburg doubtless suffered in some State circles from his association with Valvano, whom he readily cites as a mentor. Whittenburg, Lowe's backcourt mate in high school and college, even serves on the board of the V Foundation, dedicated to cancer research and named after Valvano. Yet he never got so much as a phone call from his alma mater.
Instead the school gambled on Lowe, one of the great but forgotten players in ACC history. A two-time conference leader in assists and a first team All-ACC selection as a senior, Lowe was an unflappable presence on the floor. He paced the Pack in assists and steals from 1981 through 1983, earning the nickname "Squid" because he played like "he had eight arms," according to teammate Ernest Myers.
Lowe does have 15 years of experience coaching in the pros, including two stints as an unsuccessful head coach, and is just the fifth ACC head coach who also played in the National Basketball Association. But he has never run a college program or had to recruit players.
And, despite the spin offered by N.C. State officials, the fact Lowe has yet to get his undergraduate degree 23 years after finishing his eligibility is no testament to his commitment to education. More accurately, Lowe's academic lassitude is a commentary on expectations that did not extend beyond maintaining eligibility during the tenures of Valvano and predecessor Norman Sloan, whose team won the 1974 NCAA title. That, too, is part of N.C. State's tradition.
Lowe is the seventh of 12 current men's basketball coaches who is African American. Now only Duke, UNC and Wake Forest have failed to employ a black head coach in a sport dominated by African Americans.
Lowe clearly understands where Sendek failed to connect. He stressed N.C. State's tradition, and backed up his words by hiring two ex-Wolfpack point guards to serve on his staff. The 46-year-old with the deep, rich voice also spoke of "passion" and "fun" during his introductory press conference, promising an uptempo offense and a style that allows those under his tutelage "to express themselves" through their play.
N.C. State fans can only hope Lowe will not prove another Doherty, a well-liked alum thrown too early into the deep end.
Lowe officially becomes head coach on July 1 after completing his degree work at St. Paul's College in Virginia and his labors as an assistant coach with the NBA's Detroit Pistons. He will be hard-pressed to return the Wolfpack to an equal footing with Duke and North Carolina, to surpass Sendek's consistency (19.1 wins per year), and to convince skeptics he places a strong emphasis on academic achievement.
Then again, the '83 Wolfpack directed by Lowe was given virtually no chance to defeat top-ranked Houston, and still managed arguably the greatest title-game upset in NCAA basketball history.