Lauren Brownlow

NC State Stuff: The 'Tough Neighborhood'

Posted March 14

— Now-former NC State head coach Mark Gottfried used the phrase “tough neighborhood” a couple times during of his tenure - the beginning of it, and the end.

In the beginning, it was used to show bravado. He wasn’t afraid of being a short car ride away from both North Carolina and Duke, behemoths in college basketball. He wasn’t going to back down.

And he never did, really - in either recruiting or on the court. His teams usually played either North Carolina or Duke competitively and beat the latter more times than many ACC teams have over that same span.

But on his way out the door, in his final press conference last week, he used the phrase “tough neighborhood” a bit differently.

“You look around all these banners, all these other schools, nobody else is compared daily the way our guys and our program is to North Carolina and Duke. They're just not,” Gottfried said. “In six years, four (NCAA) tournaments, two Sweet 16s, two years missed the tournament, they're hunting for a new coach. I'm not sure that's happening at about 50 percent or 60 percent of the rest of the league, quite honestly. In that regard, I've said it many times, 'tough neighborhood.'”

The implication, of course, that UNC and Duke being in NC State’s backyard makes that job impossible.

Nothing will make NC State fans roll their eyes faster - the rational ones, especially. They don’t want to be North Carolina and Duke right now. Or ever, really, because they do love NC State. But they don’t want to be on a par with them. They’re not dumb. The implication is, seemingly, if you don’t win national titles and get to Final Fours like THOSE teams do, NC State will fire you in a heartbeat. History would suggest otherwise.

All most of them really want is some modicum of consistency, and an identity as a program. If they can’t be Duke or North Carolina or Louisville or Syracuse, all of which have Hall of Fame coaches and have reached Final Fours or won national titles in the last decade, why can’t they be Florida State or Miami, both of which have won the ACC? It’s not an unreasonable expectation. Nor was it unreasonable for NC State to expect that this basketball season wouldn’t fall apart in spectacular fashion. And yet, here we are.

So all that aside, it would be disingenuous to suggest that the success Duke and UNC have had - and, yes, of course their proximity - hasn’t amplified the power of NC State Stuff. Only, how? And how much?

The Other Kid On The Block

In a sense, growing up a NC State fan is growing up a sports hipster of sorts in the state of North Carolina, especially for kids much younger than 40. There’s a lot of bragging and ribbing and back-and-forth banter that goes on between all four fanbases, really, when you include Wake Forest. And it starts nearly from the moment of birth.

James Curle, formerly of the Riddick and Reynolds podcast, understands this phenomenon. He was raised by both of his grandfathers to be a State fan, with little-to-no hesitation. And when NC State started experiencing hard times athletically, he questioned his fandom even less.

“I grew up in a rural part of the state where most everybody was a Carolina fan. There were very few Duke fans at that time," he said. "(Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski) was just getting things going in the late 80’s and early 90’s, so you were either State or Carolina. In the rural part of the state, even though there was a lot of farmers in the communities where I grew up, a lot of them were Dean Smith-era Carolina basketball fans. And so it gave me something to argue about and have a flag to plant in the ground and say, ‘You know what? You’re wrong, I’m right. This is where I stand.’

"So maybe I was kind of anti-culture from a very early age and didn’t quite realize it," Curle continued. "As a kid, if you needed something to latch onto that was counterculture at that time, NC State was a good one to go to.”

When Krzyzewski really “got things going” though, it was around the same time that NC State started falling off. And you did start seeing more and more Duke fans statewide, not fans because their parents went there or anything - but when you’re young, you pick a team (often for any number of reasons) and you generally try to stick with it.

Generations of North Carolinians that didn’t go to college at all grew up rooting for one of the Big 4 teams (yes, Wake Forest is included in this). A modern generation could even be included in this narrative. There are legitimately Duke fans in this state that happen to have grown up rooting for the Blue Devils since Vic Bubas and 1960s-era Duke. I know some in my own family. They didn’t go to Duke - or any college - but that was the team they chose, and the team they stuck with, through good times and bad.

Local fans often pass those allegiances onto their children, but sometimes children rebel. Either way, when Curle was about 10 years old, NC State had the same number of national titles as North Carolina and two more than Duke. Just a few years later, Duke had two titles and North Carolina added another to pull ahead of the Wolfpack.

Since 1991, Duke has five national titles. North Carolina has three. The teams have combined to win 19 ACC titles. State doesn’t have a Final Four, an ACC title or anything remotely resembling that in that stretch of time.

And just as bad as being passed by Duke and North Carolina, perhaps, was that a decades-old and very intense rivalry with the Tar Heels was suddenly just...forgotten.

Only Room For Two In A Rivalry

If you are younger than 35, you probably have no idea that NC State and North Carolina was once the most intense rivalry in the area. Duke basketball had its ups and downs until Krzyzewski’s arrival, but North Carolina was mostly steadily good from the late 1950s on. NC State was above .500 every year from 1968-91, and finished in the top 5 of the ACC all but three times.

Consistency. Steadiness. And some really great years thrown in too -- like two national titles and six Sweet 16s.

So those two programs, more often than not, went at each other. Heck, it even started when Frank McGuire built the foundations of the North Carolina program we know today, hiring a young assistant named Dean Smith who would ultimately take over for him. He and Everett Case had a (mostly for-show) heated public rivalry, and the two schools have always had that.

They’re still considered main rivals in football, but once Duke and North Carolina became the preeminent teams in the area, NC State was cast aside in the eyes of the folks at ESPN and such in favor of the UNC-Duke rivalry. That’s not to say UNC and Duke had not been rivals before, but it had always been more Carolina and State. As Duke built itself up, though, so did that rivalry and the mythos behind it.

So now, not only does NC State not have the basketball success it once did, it’s now seeing a very important part of its program’s history shoved into meaninglessness as it’s almost like the two teams never had a rivalry at all.

In that way, the proximity HAS to make a difference.

“When you’re wedged in between Duke and UNC, and basketball is so important in this area, yeah, I think it does,” WRALSportsFan.com’s Caulton Tudor said. “I think psychologically, it does make a difference.”

Get Them On The Gridiron?

The football side of things has had an effect, too. The programs are certainly on a par with each other at worst. But recent successes by both teams - like both going to the ACC title game in the last 5 years - have made it sting a little more, too.

“I’ve talked to a lot of really smart fans that don’t seem crazy to me, and they said, ‘we ought to beat them in football," said former sports information director Josh Rattray. "'I’m not sure we can usually win in basketball. I’d like to, but I don’t expect that. But I do think we should beat them in football all the time.’

“So now, when (Duke head coach David) Cutcliffe gets them better and (UNC head coach Larry) Fedora gets them better and State’s up-and-down in football, it’s like a ton of bricks on them" Rattray added. "That’s the one they thought they were going to get. I think that affects the whole mojo and the whole thing.”

To be fair to NC State, although they are 0-2 against Duke in the last two meetings, they’re 7-3 in their last 10 against North Carolina and won the last meeting.

And really, if we’re limiting this to NC State Stuff, there’s an important distinction there.

“We’ve had so many weird, bad breaks against any number of teams,” Backing the Pack’s Steven Muma said. “NC State Stuff doesn’t see color, so.”

Blue Isn't The Only Color

Just ask any NC State fan and they can rattle off a number of weird or crazy circumstances that came against any number of teams not named Carolina or Duke. Former NC State basketball manager Tor Ramsey mentioned a particularly painful example that most NC State fans cite frequently - the 2004 NCAA Tournament collapse against Vanderbilt.

“What I say about NC State fans is this - give them a little bit. Just give them something that they can smile about, that they can laugh about," Ramsey said. "I’ll give you an example: is it unrealistic for NC State to expect that they should have a team finish in the top 20 every year? Is that too unrealistic? Because it never happened under Gottfried and it only happened one year under Herb Sendek. Is it unrealistic for us to watch a game and hope that we don’t do the classic implode, which Herb was always known for imploding in February?

“I don’t think it’s got anything to do with Duke and Carolina. We might try to out-recruit Duke and Carolina every now and then. That’s the one thing. But I don’t think that the proximity," Ramsey added. "In today’s day and age, why would you want to coach anywhere? Why would you want to have a team anywhere in any conference? Because you’re going to go up against somebody. You're going to go up against Jimmy Boeheim. You’re going to go up against Rick Pitino."

Does The Topic Go Beyond The Block?

Ramsey is among many NC State fans who have lamented what they see as unfair treatment of their fans by mostly the national media. The narrative that is out there suggests that NC State is an impossible job because of fan expectations. And that those fan expectations have to do with what the Wolfpack does against North Carolina and Duke.

Then there’s also this idea that most head coaches are afraid to come to NC State because they can’t possibly succeed with Duke and North Carolina right there. Recruiting has become so national that that’s not really an issue, and NC State even won some of those battles anyway under Gottfried. So it’s more just, 'what, that the head coaches might come over and lurk over your shoulder? That you have to play those coaches a lot?'

So do most ACC schools. And if you’re scared of playing against elite coaches, why go anywhere, really?

As NC State searches for its next head basketball coach, the Wolfpack will have to find someone who not only accepts the so-called proximity challenge, but embraces it, the way Gottfried did for much of his tenure when he wasn’t trying to publicly plead his case for another job.

“Valvano came down, I remember his classic statement, he used to say ‘I grew up in a neighborhood where basketball is a matter of life and death. Down in North Carolina, it’s much more important.’ You’ve got to have that kind of attitude,” Ramsey said. “You've got to be the kind of guy who says, ‘You know what? Bring it on, man. I want to have it. I really want to have it.’ You can’t back down from anybody, whether that’s Mike Krzyzewski or Roy Williams or Duke or Carolina or whoever replaces those guys.

“It’s like playing chess, right? I remember a guy told me that one time, he said, ‘You’re never going to get any better playing chess unless you play against somebody better than you are,’" Ramsey added. "Do you want to schedule the top 15 teams in the country out of conference? No, not really. But having those guys as your neighbors, if you don’t see that as an asset then you don’t really have that personality.”

It Just Takes One

Duke and North Carolina are looked at is negatives for the job. But all it took was an NC State win over Duke earlier this season - a win that made NC State just 14-7 on the season with a daunting schedule ahead - to have students rushing the Bell Tower in pure jubilation.

This fanbase is ready to love you, if you are ready to give them something they can believe in. And the fanbase can be as big of an asset as it’s made into a detriment.

“I don’t buy the notion that their existence or proximity makes it tougher for us to succeed necessarily," Curle said. "It does in some sense maybe, but I think it also adds - I think there’s a plus and minus to it that balance out. Guys, especially in basketball, they want to play top teams and they want to face off against the best. Well, you’ve got them in your own backyard.

“I’m proud of the fact that NC State’s support level for football in particular is as high as it is given that we’ve been as historically mediocre as we have," he continued. "We enjoy the games and the experience. I know we get loud and angry when things don’t go our way like they did against Boston College, but the worst thing is apathy. You wouldn’t want people to not show up just because they don’t care. The passion is there.”

It is.

Somehow.

Next week, we’ll look at why.

1 Comment

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  • Keith Bonham Mar 14, 12:46 p.m.
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    Only tough part of this neighborhood is having to compete against programs who dont make their players actually attend classes for 30+ years....

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