Sid Sendek? Herb Lowe? A Pro-and-Pro Discussion

Here’s the latest in a series of what are turning out to be the editors’ totally agreeable exchanges on the issues of the day. Today, we take you all the way back to March 2001. Crazy Town, Shaggy and a young lady named J-Lo were topping the charts. The Russian space station Mir went kaput.

And in Raleigh, North Carolina, the administration of N.C. State University was in an eerily similar position to the one it now occupies

Jeremy: Jimmy, it seems like an article of faith these days that Sidney Lowe is done as the head basketball coach at our alma mater as soon as the Wolfpack’s increasingly disappointing season is over. The calls for Lowe’s ouster take me back a decade to when we were spending late nights on the third floor of Witherspoon Student Center putting a newspaper together and State fans were calling for another fifth-year head coach to be shown the door.

The comparison between Lowe and Herb Sendek has been done plenty of times before. Still, the parallels between Sendek’s first five years and Lowe’s first five are just begging for the IoT treatment, starting with these little charts that I assembled below:

Herb Sendek Era (First 5 Years)
Overall ACC vs. UNC & Duke
Year W L Pct. W L Pct. W L Pct.
96-97 17 15 0.531 4 12 0.250 1 5 0.167
97-98 17 15 0.531 5 11 0.313 1 4 0.200
98-99 19 14 0.576 6 10 0.375 0 5 0.000
99-00 20 14 0.588 6 10 0.375 0 4 0.000
00-01 13 16 0.448 5 11 0.313 0 5 0.000
Total 86 74 0.538 26 54 0.325 2 23 0.080

Sidney Lowe Era (First 5 Years)
Overall ACC vs. UNC & Duke
Year W L Pct. W L Pct. W L Pct.
06-07 20 16 0.556 5 11 0.313 2 3 0.400
07-08 15 16 0.484 4 12 0.250 0 4 0.000
08-09 16 14 0.533 6 10 0.375 0 3 0.000
09-10 20 16 0.556 5 11 0.313 1 2 0.333
10-11 15 15 0.517 5 10 0.333 0 4 0.000
Total 86 77 0.528 25 55 0.313 3 16 0.158

Lowe has more or less compiled the same record as his predecessor did at this point in their respective tenures. Lowe has one more win than Sendek over rivals North Carolina and Duke in six fewer chances, but Sendek made four NITs compared to just two for Lowe (assuming State doesn’t qualify for a third this year). Strictly by the numbers, I’d say it’s a wash.

Of course, we can’t just leave this comparison there. So let me throw this question at you: Do these numbers show that Sid is just Herb 1.2, or are there mitigating circumstances that make his record better or worse than Herb’s?

Jimmy: Jeremy, there must be some misunderstanding. When you said we were going to do a Herb-Sidney comparison, I just assumed you’d be setting the table for the Herb-Sidney rant I’ve been rehearsing for the last five years. As you know, I planned lengthy comments on the shoddy treatment Herb received from fans and media, and Sidney’s utter unfitness for the job in 2006.

Then you come to me with … with … facts. Facts that muddle the situation and nudge me ever so slightly back toward the fence on Sidney Lowe’s future. You broke my heart, Jeremy. You broke my heart.

I’ve been poring through numbers, looking for something hard to support my gut feeling that Sendek ’01 was a markedly better coach than Sidney ’11. It’s hard. My sense is that the ACC of 2001 — before expansion, at the peak of Duke’s, UNC’s and Maryland’s powers — was a tougher conference than today’s. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. I could only find conference RPIs for the last two years of Herb’s first five: the ACC rated seventh in 1999-2000 and third in 00-01. Over Sid’s five years, the ACC has ranked first three times (07, 08 and 09), second (10) and fifth thus far this year.The ACC has placed three teams in the Final Four and won two national titles during Lowe’s tenure; the conference netted five Final Fours and one national title in Herb’s first five years.

I remember the ACC being a much stronger conference in the late 1990s than it is now, but I haven’t found numbers to bear that out.

Here’s where I’ll make my stand: In defending his decision to keep Herb in 2001, Lee Fowler could reasonably point to Sendek’s track record. His three Miami of Ohio teams were excellent, and he had eight years’ pedigree as an assistant under Rick Pitino. Sendek fit the profile of a successful young college coach, and his next five years bore that out. From 2001-2006, he won 64 percent of his games (including 58 percent of conference games), made five NCAA tournaments and built a winning postseason record.

Lowe, meanwhile, has no record of pre-N.C. State coaching success. He is the worst head coach in NBA history. Of 130 men who have coached at least 200 games, none has a worse winning percentage than Lowe (.257). Lowe was an assistant on some good Timberwolves and Pistons teams in the 2000s, but it’s hard to attribute much success to him.

My point is this: like Lowe, Sendek was a pretty bad coach in his first five years with the Pack. But, in 2001, if you looked at his track record, there was reason to believe he would improve. There is no such thing in Lowe’s record.

Jeremy, you weren’t sold on the idea of keeping Herb in 2001. Where do you stand on Sidney today? What factors have we not considered?

Jeremy: Jimmy, you should never let facts get in the way of a good argument. Just look at voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

I don’t think anyone was sold on the idea of keeping Herb in 2001 — except for the guy who mattered most, Fowler.

We’ve pretty well covered a lot of the major numbers in the Sendek-Lowe comparison. I’d say it’s time to make a qualitative comparison, which I’m going to split into three parts:

The shape of the program
Before Herb arrived, State went through five straight losing seasons under Les Robinson. Things were so bad that the play-in game of the ACC Tournament was unofficially named “The Les Robinson Invitational” because the Pack was seemingly stuck there every season. And don’t forget that Sendek’s first team made that fairytale run to the 1997 ACC Tournament final with five players getting nearly all of the minutes in four straight games (with an occasional cameo from the immortal Luke Buffum).

On the other hand, Lowe took over a program that had been to the NCAA Tournament five years in a row. While the 2006-2007 season was going to be a rebuilding year for the Pack no matter who was coaching, the cupboard was far from empty for Sid. He had a senior point guard (Engin Atsur) and a lot of talented underclassmen, led by a former McDonald’s High School All-American (Brandon Costner).

No matter how you slice it, Sendek left Lowe with a much better program in 2006 than the one he inherited in 1996.

Conference strength
Speaking of facts getting in the way of a good argument, you’ve made it harder for me to make my case that the ACC of Sendek’s first five years was a significantly tougher place to play than it is now for Lowe. While the numbers don’t necessarily support that, there is a key difference between State’s ACC schedule a decade ago and its current slate.

Sendek’s teams had to face every conference opponent twice during the regular season. With expansion, Lowe’s teams only get home-and-home series with North Carolina, Wake Forest and three other conference opponents each year. Under the newer schedule, State plays two regular season games against Duke (and the other eight ACC teams) just once every three years.

The difference in scheduling format doesn’t necessarily mean that each of Sid’s teams has had an easier time going through the conference than Herb’s first five teams did. Still, I’ve got to believe playing Duke just once last year instead of twice only lightened the load.

Progress (or lack thereof)
Momentarily putting aside what happened during his last five years in Raleigh, Sendek should have been fired after the 2000-2001 season.

State was on an upswing for the first 3 1/2 years of Herb’s tenure. By the middle of the 1999-2000 season, they were 5-3 in the ACC and looking like a lock for the NCAA Tournament.

(Quick side note: One of those three losses was in overtime at Duke. The then-ranked Pack trailed by five with less than 10 seconds to play in regulation and miraculously tied the game. The Cameron Crazies stormed the court after the Blue Devils finally won in overtime. That was my first trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium, and it’s still one of the two or three best games I’ve ever seen in person.)

As I’m sure you remember vividly, the exact moment that things started unraveling came on Feb. 6, 2000, when Damon Thornton tried to re-enact this dunk against Maryland on a fast break. Instead, he got called for a charge, and the Pack imploded, losing that game on a late run by the Terps and then dropping the next six in a row.

State did eventually recover to make the 2000 NIT semifinals, but the 2000-2001 season was an absolute disaster from start to finish. The team finished 13-16, and the program seemed to be going in reverse.

The large majority of State fans wanted Herb out at that point. Of course, as you mentioned, Fowler stuck with him, Herb adopted a Princeton-style offense, and the Pack made the NCAAs in each of the next five years.

Lowe has no upswing that he can point to over his five seasons. His high point was his first season with Sendek’s players, when State made a surprise run to the ACC Tournament final and wound up with 20 wins. (If not for a mid-season injury to Atsur, I’m convinced that team would have made the NCAA Tournament.)

Sid has generally recruited well since then, but he hasn’t done much with the talented players he’s brought in. Including this year, State hasn’t finished higher than ninth in the conference during his tenure. The team has missed the postseason twice and looks likely not to make it again this season. If Sendek deserved to be fired after his first five years, Lowe certainly should be.

So what do you think, Jimmy? Should Debbie Yow hang on to Lowe the way Fowler did with Sendek and hope he can turn things around? Or is it time for someone new?

Jimmy: Jeremy, I think you know the answer to that question. I believe Lowe should be fired, for all the reasons you cited. Hiring him was a mistake, and it was one forced by the several weeks in 2006 that Fowler and the boosters shopped the job to people who would have been trading down if they’d taken it.

I believe he will be fired for a reason we haven’t discussed, but one that you alluded to in your question: Debbie Yow.

Yow is winding down her first academic year as N.C. State’s athletics director, and I think hiring a new coach for the university’s flagship program would be an ideal way to put her stamp on the department. That factor, as much as anything Lowe has done or not done, weighs against his coming back next year.

If Yow does let Lowe go, I’m sure she’ll be surfing the blogosphere for advice. Here’s what I would offer her: Don’t chase Rick Barnes to placate the Tar Heel-hating boosters. Don’t promote Montie Towe because he played a mean point guard during the Thompson years. Don’t call Jamie Dixon; the State job would be a step down for him.

Find a young coach with the drive to build a program and a record of some head coaching success on the collegiate level. Then settle in for the long, possibly painful process of developing a competitive program. There are no short cuts.

Jeremy, which advice would you write in Debbie Yow’s yearbook?

Jeremy: Jimmy, my advice to Debbie Yow — which I’m sure she’s eagerly awaiting — is that she should put in calls to Barnes, Dixon or Sean Miller to see if they’ve got any interest. As long as she doesn’t let herself get led on by someone who’s clearly just looking for a raise (**cough**JohnCalipari**cough**), it doesn’t hurt to ask three good candidates who are at the top of most State fans’ wish lists.

If she does fire Lowe, I think Yow will eventually end up following your advice and hiring a young coach from a mid-major school. Butler’s Brad Stevens would be my first choice, but that 12-year contract extension he signed after taking the Bulldogs within a half-court shot of winning last year’s national title probably puts him out of reach.

State fans shouldn’t be disappointed if Yow goes the mid-major route instead of getting a big name. After all, Jim Valvano was only 38 and just three years removed from coaching Iona College when he led the Pack to the 1983 national title.

Either way, it looks like we agree that Sidney Lowe’s time is just about up.

-30-

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