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.

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