Monday, March 21, 2011

NC State-South Alabama: Just A Scrimmage

When NC State built Carter Stadium, which opened in 1966 and was later named Carter-Finley Stadium, it cost just over $3 million to construct. With interest, the bill came to around $5 million. The deal was simple: all income from the use of the facility, after game-day expenses, was to go to retire the debt. With big crowds at home and no more than six homes games a year, that debt was paid off early, but the athletics leadership had to create significant income to finance the entire program.

As a result, the Wolfpack played several away “money” football games. For instance, in 1973, State traveled to Nebraska, Georgia and Penn State, bringing home lots of money and three losses. It was exciting for the fans as the Wolfpack won the Atlantic Coast Conference title with a 6-0 league record and was 8-3 in the regular season with non-league wins over South Carolina and East Carolina. NC State was rewarded with a trip to the Liberty Bowl in which the Wolfpack defeated Kansas.

For the love of money by the athletics administrators, NC State fans were rewarded with one heck of a schedule, especially the five non-conference games. It’s the way schedules should be made. But not today.

Today, for the love of money and the need for a easy wins, NC State is more apt to compile a very weak non-conference schedule for two primary reasons: the away gates at major colleges do not pay as much as a home game with a perceived patsy; and, football coaches want somewhat guaranteed wins, especially when the team is seemingly young and inexperienced even though football schedules are usually determined years before the results of recruiting are known.

Going to Ohio State with an experienced Philip Rivers is okay because a win is possible. To schedule the same with a first-year starter is akin to killing your program because losing away to a big power with a small income is worse than winning big over a new program and including that game in a season ticket with other ho-hum games. There are some ho-hummers on this years home NC State schedule.

Along with four Atlantic Coast Conference games, you’ll find Liberty, South Alabama and Central Michigan, surely all formidable opponents when you hear the pregame jabber from head coach Tom O’Brien. Each game will gross between $1.25 million and $1.5 million in ticket sales, primarily due to the season ticket which also includes Georgia Tech, Clemson, Maryland and North Carolina, the hook that does the heavy lifting, especially when the Wolfpack seeks a fifth straight win over its primary rival.

On the surface, this year’s NC State schedule looks similar to Alabama’s weak home non-conference list of Kent State, North Texas and Georgia Southern except for one little thing: One of NC State’s non-conference games counts for nothing as a win and is huge as a loss. It might as well be a scrimmage.

The Wolfpack’s September 17th game with the University of South Alabama (USA) will have the look and feel of a football game, but, in the bigger picture of NCAA Division 1A (Football Bowl Subdivision), it counts for nothing as far as wins are concerned. The Jaguars, which started their football program in 2009, are, after two seasons not classified, in the first of two transitional seasons before obtaining its FBS status. In 2011, the first of two transitional years, games with South Alabama count as a NCAA-1AA (Football Championship Subdivision) game but not as a bowl eligible game for FBS teams (read that NC State).

So, a win over South Alabama will not count for the Wolfpack in the required six wins to be bowl eligible which makes the NC State’s season opening game against Liberty a must win. To take a straight-forward look at it, NC State’s game with South Alabama is no more than a glorified scrimmage. And it’s included in the seven home-game-season-ticket price, or you can purchase that game for $39 as a single ticket game. How many do you want?

If there is anything that it counts toward other than padded statistics (and I’m not sure stats compiled against USA count either), it’s that NC State must win the game…er…scrimmage to even think about competing for the National Title. A loss to South Alabama should keep an 11-1 Wolfpack out of the rankings altogether.

But, let’s be positive. The goal for all BCS teams—NC State included—is a berth in the National Title game. Let’s say the Wolfpack beats USA and wins the other 11 as well as the ACC championship game. A spot in the Orange Bowl will be as good as it gets. In my humble opinion, there’s no chance, just based on strength of schedule, that a 13-0 NC State would get a shot at the BCS Championship game, even as the only undefeated team out there. The voters will hold it against State and the computers will malfunction.

I’m sure that Wolfpack coach Tom O’Brien, who along with former NC State Athletics Director Lee Fowler is responsible for scheduling this game, will take the scrimmage seriously, and well he should. If previous results by the Jags are any indication of what’s to come, the Wolfpack could be in for a real tussle in its game #3 because USA probably will come in undefeated. Not just 2-0 for the 2011 season but completely undefeated for the less than storied history of the football program at the Mobile AL college.

The Jags are in their third season of playing intercollegiate football and enter the 2011 season completely undefeated, winning all games in 2009 and 2010 when the program had no NCAA classification.  In 2009, the Jags were 7-0 against Hargrave Military Academy, Army Prep, Georgia Military JC, Louisburg JC, Fork Union Military Academy, Milford Academy and Huntingdon College. Last fall, the Jags went 10-0 against Pikeville, Nicholls State, Edward Waters, Kentucky Wesleyan, Missouri S&T, Lamar, California-Davis, Georgia State, Henderson State and Arkansas-Monticello.

USA is 17-0 for the life of its program, and with 2011 opening games at home against West Alabama—a tough opener for South Alabama because the Tigers website, in announcing its 2011 schedule, says “A season opening clash at South Alabama highlights the 2011 West Alabama football schedule…”—and Lamar (Jags won 26-0 last year at Lamar), the Jags should be 2-0.

Because NC State should be 2-0 as well after opening at home with Liberty and then playing at Wake Forest, that mid-September scrimmage…er…game between the Wolfpack and USA could feature two undefeated teams in two developing football programs. There’s a good chance it make not make ESPN3.

Following USA’s game in Carter-Finley Stadium, the Jags fill out the 2011 schedule with Kent State, Texas-San Antonio, Tennessee-Martin, Georgia State, Henderson State, Mississippi Valley State and Cal Poly. I may be wrong on this because it was just took much trouble look it up, but I believe each school on USA’s 2011 schedule except NC State, is Division 1AA. So, at least the other nine schools get to count the game as a Football Championship Subdivision game.

NC State, though, just has a scrimmage that day with USA, but in 2012, it’s legit when the Jaguars return to Raleigh for a re-match. In 2012, NC State will have the option of using either South Alabama or The Citadel Bulldogs, but not both, as it’s one Division 1AA (Football Championship Subdivision) win on its way to six just to be bowl eligible. (Okay, okay. The Wolfpack also plays Tennessee in Atlanta and at Connecticut in 2012 so winning six is tougher.) even with just six home games, the cash comes in at the Carter-Finley gate and the players gain more confidence.

In 2015, according to USA’s future opponents web-page, NC State will be traveling to Mobile for game three in the series. From looking at each team’s future schedule, it seems USA is scheduling up while NC State, in many ways, is scheduling down. Not to take anything away from future NC State opponents, Wolfpack fans deserve better. Future NC State home opponents look better on paper but not nearly as good as they could and should be. While the money is not as good, I’d much rather lose at Alabama than play South Alabama at all. For strength of schedule, the loss to the Crimson Tide might be better than a win over USA.

Except for the money and the ability to give the unseasoned players a tough scrimmage, I’m not sure of the reasoning behind scheduling South Alabama in 2011, especially since the Jags are in a transitional season when a win counts for nothing for the Wolfpack and a loss would be extremely detrimental. Someone in a position to do so tried to explain it to me, but it still doesn’t make any sense.

If you feel the USA game this season is justifiable, if you feel it makes sense, look no further than 2013 to satisfy the same appetite. That’s when the UNC-Charlotte football team takes to the field to begin that program. Will the 49ers soon get to play in Carter-Finley Stadium? The Wolfpack’s schedule is full that season, but 2014 appears to have a vacancy.
For a look at South Alabama’s football scheduling timeline and information used to write about this scrimmage, go to University of South Alabama Football Scheduling Timeline and click on “program timeline” and “future opponents” found along the right hand side of the page. For a look at NC State future football opponents, go to Wolfpack football future opponents.

Monday, March 14, 2011

It's Tough To Be On Sidney Lowe Watch

The Sidney Lowe watch is on. It has been for a while and will not stop until either a Lowe-coached Wolfpack has a successful season or until he is dismissed as head basketball coach at NC State. As long as he’s the coach, he’ll be under the microscope because in his first five years “success” is not in the program’s description. It’s a painful process, especially when it’s one of your own.

It appears NC State fans are somewhat equally split between keeping him at least through his current contract or firing him before the contract is up, but you can bet the house that fans of the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Duke Blue Devils want him to stay put. Of course, that’s based on his winning percentage against those two. It’s also a prime reason that half the red coats want Sidney out.

This is a test—the toughest of tests—for NC State Director of Athletics Debbie Yow, who is considering her first major coaching decision since accepting the job last summer. And, let’s make something very clear. There are only two major coaching jobs at NC State: football and men’s basketball.

While most of the other sports on NC State’s roster of teams are good for the school, especially when there are more wins than losses and if there are conference titles every now and then. Let's face it, football and men’s basketball are so far above the other sports that Yow’s energy needs to take aim at those programs every day. After the football team did rather well last fall, 9-4 with a bowl win and a fourth consecutive victory over North Carolina, Debbie had no choice but to leave Tom O’Brien in place.

Men’s basketball is a different story. The losses keep piling up. Attendance is going down, especially in the “corporate donor” seats between the end lines in the lower level of the RBC Center. Those are the seats owned by non-Wolfpack loyal businesses who sometimes ask employees if they would like to use the tickets for a game such as NC State-Clemson February 17. Because the Wolfpack was not playing well and losing more than winning, there were few takers, even with a parking pass and the promise of a 10% raise tossed in.

With crowds announced at 14,500 and 16,300, attendance seems to be okay but it just doesn’t seem possible that many are there. I attended all the conference games and the games with reasonably good opposition, but I purposely skipped the games against Tennessee Tech and Fairleigh Dickinson. From looking at the empty seats, there’s no way every ticket stub taken at the door was counted as just one person. The numbers had to be padded.

So, for lack of wins and lack of attendance and other reasons, the Sidney Lowe watch is on. Will Debbie Yow keep him or let him go? Her decision, no doubt, will be based on what’s best for NC State University. Will it look bad for NC State to fire a former star player with time remaining on his contract? Will Debbie see past the record and conclude Sidney has the ability to build a winner from the talent base he’s gathered, moving the Wolfpack up the ladder in conference standings and national rankings? What will Debbie do with Sidney if her mind is on elevating the Wolfpack to Championship status?

Many in the greater basketball community believe NC State should not try to compete at the top level of the ACC. Those fans believe the top spot is reserved for the Tar Heels and the Blue Devils and, in many respects since 1997, that’s been true. Only three times from the 1997 season through the 2011 tournament has a team other than North Carolina or Duke finished at the top of the league standings for the regular season or won the ACC Tournament.

NC State should be able to compete on equal footing with North Carolina and Duke. First the University itself is a fine educational institution that offers a wide variety of majors that can be applicable to nearly any academic desire. Equally important, the Wolfpack’s basketball program is rich in winning tradition, but tradition alone, especially distant tradition, will not build the program to its rightful place at the top of the league. We cannot continue to reach back to conference championship teams coached by Everett Case or National Title winners coached by Norman Sloan and Jim Valvano. David Thompson's reign was nearly 40 years ago; Sidney Lowe's on-court heroics were nearly 30 years back. The last time the Wolfpack finished first in the regular season ACC standings was in 1989. The last time NC State won the conference title was in 1987. You do the math.

A successful and highly competitive basketball program is the responsibility of the head coach who must have a commitment from the entire University from the Chancellor to the Provost to the Deans to the Athletics Director. The basketball coach must have a certain set of skills from coaching to recruiting to game preparation to being a leader to take that university-wide commitment and turn it into a winning program.

So what about Sidney? I’ve known him since he came to NC State in the late 1970s to play basketball. In his senior season, he was Valvano’s coach on the floor. Great story told by Valvano: In the second half of one game, Sidney, playing every minute, was tired and winded, and he wanted to come out just for a short break. He asked Valvano about getting a rest. Valvano told him he could come out of the game when his eligibility was up. Sidney played.

To the casual observer of Wolfpack basketball, Sidney is still on the court coaching the game instead of taking a rest and letting his game preparation take over. Sidney’s personable, nice, and hard-working, but he has coaching flaws, just as I have writing flaws. It is said that 90 percent of coaching a college basketball team is done during practice. The other 10 percent is used to make adjustments during the games. From watching Sidney during the games, it’s as if his 90 percent is during the game. He says the team practices well but sometimes performs completely different. Maybe, just maybe, his practices are not what they should be. But what do I know? I’m not there. But I do see how the team competes or sometimes doesn't.

Sidney Lowe is a hot topic in these parts, these days. Debbie Yow will soon make a decision or she may make no decision which is the same as a decision. She has to come up with some reason to keep him or let him go. It has to be based on one thing: What’s best for NC State University. What will make the men’s basketball program successful?

Sidney had no college coaching experience when he was hired five years back. The overall results are not a very positive reflection on his coaching ability. He’s obviously a pretty good recruiter, but it took him a while to sign the caliber of player needed to win titles. Several players adapted to his professional-style and thick playbook, but he was unable this year to transition a player the talent of CJ Leslie from being an AAU player to college player. Even in the waning days of this season, it appeared many times as if Leslie was playing like a lone wolf instead of like a member of a Wolfpack. It takes a good coach to make it happen.

No one more than I has wanted Sidney Lowe to succeed as head coach at NC State because no one more than I wants NC State to succeed in basketball. I lived those glory days of Case, Sloan and Valvano and want them back.

If Debbie Yow decides that Sidney’s not the person to coach the Wolfpack to the highest level, then so be it. It’s her program and her call. If she makes a change we all hope it’ll be for a replacement that fits with the program, relates to the fans, has major college head coaching experience, and has the drive to get to the top. NC State needs someone with the ego to compete against Roy and Mike, but not so huge of an ego that the coach becomes bigger than the school.

It’s a tough call, Debbie. Or maybe not. But, because of the disappointing achievement by the basketball team the past five years, it’s even tougher to be on Sidney Lowe watch, especially for loyal Wolfpack fans.