NC State should make Geno Auriemma a “Godfather” offer to be the program’s new head basketball coach – an offer that the UConn legend simply cannot refuse.
Mark Gottfried’s fate was likely sealed before getting waxed by North Carolina on Wednesday night. After losing 97-73 to the Tar Heels – the Wolfpack were swept by their in-state rivals by an aggregate score of 204-159 – it was only a matter of when, not if, NC State’s head coach would receive his walking papers. The hammer was dropped on Thursday afternoon.
As NC State athletic director Debbie Yow begins the hunt for a replacement, her first call should be to Storrs, Connecticut to speak with head women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma. In fact, Yow should make a house visit, with prominent State boosters in tow, driving a Brink’s truck if possible. She should roll out the red carpet and make a Godfather offer – one Auriemma cannot refuse.
When discussing the possibilities of this proposition, it’s easiest to examine it from the two parties involved: Auriemma and NC State.
Auriemma finds himself in a situation not unfamiliar to any great coach: the intersection where advanced age and the potential for new challenges meet. Mike Krzyzewski was heavily courted by the Lakers not too long ago. Ditto for Tom Izzo and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Both ultimately stayed put at their respective schools and will likely remain lifers.
At 62 years old, the window for Auriemma to leave UConn is shutting. He’s a living legend, and is arguably the best women’s basketball coach ever. His team has won 100 consecutive games and counting, its last loss coming back in 2014. This is the second winning streak of his career that has spanned 90 games or more.
Only two games this season have been decided by single digits, and at this point UConn is competing against itself. The challenge now becomes keeping the winning streak alive. A search for the basketball nirvana about which Bill Walton always waxes poetic. By extension, championships have become expected and somewhat marginalized.
If Auriemma wants a new challenge, now is the time to leap. And a move to the men’s game isn’t completely out of left field. During a January interview with Kentucky head coach John Calipari, Auriemma opened up on a time where he nearly left UConn.
“I had until midnight to make a decision. And I thought I had made the decision, and at the last minute my daughter, especially, talked me out of it. … But I was ready to go.
“I was ready to go from here to go coach a men’s team. I knew what my staff was going to be, I knew exactly what it was going to look like. And it was something that I wanted to do.”
Were he to be offered, and subsequently accept, a position from NC State, Auriemma would end his career with a new bag full of challenges: competing in the nation’s best basketball conference, managing the egos of men versus women (if there’s even a difference here), rebuilding a once-proud program and recruiting from somewhere other than the head of the pack.
Media members tend to be more concerned with legacies than the individuals they cover – it’s an easy topic to write on when deadline is closing in. Auriemma’s legacy as one of the greatest American sports coaches is intact and can never be diminished. If Auriemma goes to men’s basketball and fails, then he becomes a Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban, Rick Pitino or Calipari as greats who couldn’t quite piece it together at a different game. If he goes to men’s basketball and succeeds, then Auriemma is a Pete Carroll or Larry Brown-like figure whose coaching acumen excels in different spectra.
At this stage in his professional career, there is no negative for Geno Auriemma, should he want to move on.
NC State has long been the third wheel of The Triangle, a perceived little brother to UNC and Duke. Yet it has a proud fanbase that has always eschewed any notion of an underdog role, believing full-well that the Pack is on the same tier as its Blue Blood rivals. After all, this is the program of Everett Case, Norm Sloan and Jim Valvano. Of David Thompson, Monte Towe, Tommy Burleson, Tom Gugliotta, Lorenzo Charles, Sidney Lowe and Chris Corchiani. Its old-ACC roots run just as deep as any program within the new-money iteration of the conference.
And yet, since the firing of Herb Sendek in 2006, the Wolfpack have fallen by the wayside in terms of national recognition. Sendek was good, but not great, and fielded perfectly adequate teams that would occasionally make a postseason run. After a decade, such consistent averageness ran its course, and State sought a splash. They brought in a prodigal son, the aforementioned Lowe, despite the fact that he had never been a head coach. Other than his sharp red blazers, worn during rivalry games, Lowe’s tenure was unmemorable (he never won more than six conference games in a year). In came Gottfried, who briefly injected life into the program before the bottom fell out over the past season an a half.
If there’s a parallel to NC State, it’s that of Tennessee football. The Volunteers ousted Phil Fulmer because he had perceivably fallen off, meaning fans and boosters wanted something new. Bad hires, negative press and constant turnover followed (and given Butch Jones’ performance this upcoming season, again looms large). The program, once a perennial title contender in the nation’s best football conference, is an afterthought.
Like Tennessee football, NC State basketball is nationally irrelevant.
Casting a line to Auriemma would immediately perk up ears. Whether Yow lands Auriemma or not, the mere offer would signify a willingness to think outside the box and go for broke. If rebuked, NC State would have at least shown that it was willing to chase the best college basketball coach this side of Mike Krzyzewski.
Current reports have surfaced that State will target Archie Miller, an alumnus, to replace Gottfried. Said reports also have it that Miller could rebuff his alma mater in order to stay at Dayton. For NC State, a program that considers itself above most in the country, such a public rejection would be crippling. Not only would it have been turned down by someone within the family, but by a coach from a mid-major – think Roy Williams turning down UNC the first time around, only if Ol’ Roy coached at Wichita State, not Kansas. With Auriemma, State could say it swung for the fences and then methodically climb down the ladder to potential coaches – this as opposed to risking rejection by the coach at a Rust Belt program.
If Yow were to pursue Auriemma, she would have to leave her ego at the door and willingly accept no longer being the face of NC State athletics. Not that such shielding would be a bad thing, considering she’s likely another 10 months away from replacing the program’s other revenue sport head coach – Dave Doeren, who escaped last football season by the skin of his teeth.
There’s a common bond shared by Yow and Auriemma, given that the former was once a women’s basketball coach. Moreover, her sister, Kay Yow, was a legendary figure in the sport, having won over 700 games. It would be momentous for Debbie Yow, possessing such deep roots in the sport, to dig and say she wants the best basketball coach out there. That college basketball is the same no matter what gender is on the court, and that it’s her belief Auriemma’s abilities transcend gender.
In cases such as this, a myriad of factors come into play. But given the timing, Auriemma’s age, his complete domination of the women’s game and NC State’s relative place in the pantheon of ACC basketball, if there was ever a time and place for the UConn legend to move on, this is it.
At its absolute best, State sits behind no fewer than five ACC teams in terms of national clout. But imagine the buildup to an NC State-Duke game featuring the two greatest living college basketball coaches on opposing benches. For the first time in three decades, NC State would be relevant beyond The Triangle.