COLUMBUS, Ohio – He was going to jump out of an airplane. Even though he is afraid of heights, he was going to sign a waiver, strap himself to an expert and parachute onto the field at a North Carolina State football game.
Why? Partly to draw attention to the Armed Forces during military appreciation week, but mostly to draw attention to Wolfpack basketball. The program had plummeted from its glory days, well below next-door neighbors Duke and North Carolina, out of the NCAA tournament since 2006.
New coach Mark Gottfried was asking the Wolfpack to make a leap of faith.
Bad weather canceled the stunt Sept. 17 – and make no mistake, that's what it would have been, a stunt. Joke away: What goes down does not necessarily come up. If you get a dead-cat bounce, you're still dead. The goal is not to fall but to fly.
"We want to become a program that's relevant on the national scene," Gottfried said. "Jumping out of planes is great, but at the end of the day, it's winning. It's winning. And we know that."
But give Gottfried credit for ambition and guts, and know this: NCSU is back in the tournament, the No. 11 seed in the Midwest Region, set to face No. 3 Georgetown in the round of 32 on Sunday. Gottfried has been selling himself since he arrived in Raleigh less than a year ago, and now people are buying in.
The same group of players described as selfish and lazy while going 15-16 last season – described as a "mystery" by Gottfried himself in October – has become a more mature, more cohesive unit.
"A lot of their guys have progressed and are different players than they were last year," said Georgetown coach John Thompson III, whose Hoyas whipped the Wolfpack 82-67 early last season. "It's a totally different set of circumstances."
Gottfried was not a popular choice among Wolfpack fans. He was not John Wooden. He was not basketball royalty on par with Mike Krzyzewski or Roy Williams. He was an ESPN analyst who hadn't been on a sideline since resigning from his alma mater, Alabama, during the 2008-09 season.
But Gottfried knew Wooden. He knew about the pressure of resurrecting a once-proud program with high expectations. He had joined the staff at UCLA when the Bruins had missed the NCAA tournament five times in seven years. He had spent three years as the coach at Murray State and 10-plus as the head man at Alabama, making the tourney seven times, advancing as far as the Elite Eight.
To have any hope of success at N.C. State, Gottfried had to embrace everything that came with it – a history that included three Final Fours and two NCAA championships, even if those titles were back in 1974 and '83, and a proximity to national powers that raised the bar almost impossibly high locally.
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"Here's the key, I think," Gottfried said. "It has been done at this school. There are some schools that, although they want to be great, it's never been done there. I think that since it's been done, there's more of a belief that it can be done again. And I think that's what we've tried to sell to young guys."
Gottfried's predecessor, Sidney Lowe, had done it as the point guard on Jim Valvano's '83 champs. He just couldn't do it as a coach. He didn't have enough experience.
The story of C.J. Leslie mirrors the story of this team. Leslie clashed with Lowe as a freshman, and he had a bad reputation by the time Gottfried arrived for his sophomore season. It was so bad that Gottfried stopped calling him "C.J." and starting calling him Calvin.
"Every time I turned around, somebody was making a negative comment about C.J. Leslie," Gottfried said. " 'Doesn't play hard.' 'He's disinterested.' 'You're not going to be able to reach him.' 'He's this.' 'He's that.' It was all negative. …
"My thing was, it's time for a change. It's time for you to have a fresh start."
It wasn't that simple. Gottfried tossed Leslie from a practice and benched him for the first five minutes against Wake Forest on Jan. 14. Leslie's conditioning was such that he suffered cramping in the second half of at least four games. It wasn't that simple for the others, either. The Wolfpack couldn’t beat ranked opponents and lost four consecutive ACC games late in the regular season.
But Leslie went from a sulking, aloof freshman to a confident, driven sophomore. Gottfried went from repeating the Wolfpack had a "long way to go" to talking about the tournament. The guys started growing up. They started getting it. They learned to help out on defense and share the load in a balanced offense, trusting the coaches, trusting each other.
After posting 19 points and 14 rebounds in a victory over Virginia in the ACC tournament, Leslie gushed about Gottfried to reporters: "He's done good making sure my head is in the right place. I can't say I did it on my own."
The next game was another loss to North Carolina, N.C. State's 13th in a row to the school whose baby-blue-blooded fans won't even consider the Wolfpack their rival. But it was a narrow 69-67 loss. The difference was a bank shot with 10.2 seconds left.
The Wolfpack was the last team announced on CBS' NCAA tournament selection show. But at least N.C. State was that team. N.C. State was a different team, and it showed Friday in a 79-65 victory over sixth-seeded San Diego State.
"They're well-coached," Aztecs coach Steve Fisher said. "They're playing with a togetherness that you have to have to win."
Gottfried has taken N.C. State (23-12) back to the tournament. He has won a tournament game. He has three McDonald's All-Americans coming in next season. Though he still has a long way to go to catch Duke and North Carolina – a goal that might be unfair and unrealistic, anyway – he shouldn't have to do anything nutty anymore to draw attention to N.C. State basketball. The leap of faith doesn't seem nearly as great.
But he's still willing to jump out of a perfectly good airplane for his program.
"I'll probably still do that," Gottfried said, smiling. "I actually wanted to do that."
Whatever it takes, weather permitting.
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- Mark Gottfried