Sendek, Fans Call It Quits

by J. M. Pressley
First published: April 7, 2006

Herb Sendek resigned as head coach of the NCSU men's basketball team at the end of the season in 2006. Sometimes, winning really isn't all there is to it.

Call it an amicable divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable differences.

When Herb Sendek stepped down after 10 years as head coach of North Carolina State University's basketball program, the sense of relief on both sides was palpable.

Sendek traded Tobacco Road for Tempe with a five-year deal to coach Arizona State University. The announcement ended two weeks of speculation following the Wolfpack's second-round NCAA tournament loss to Texas.

To listen to the coaching fraternity and national media, a vocal minority of fans had effectively ousted a highly admired coach. To listen to the rank-and-file fan base, Sendek took the best available exit strategy after taking the Wolfpack as far as he could. To listen to Sendek himself, his departure was all about timing and potential.

In truth, it wasn't about Sendek. This was about his neighbors in Durham and Chapel Hill. The Wolfpack won at a nearly 60% overall clip during Sendek's tenure. Against Duke (3-21) and UNC (5-17), the Wolfpack's combined win percentage dipped to 21%. The program in Raleigh now has to live with two Hall of Fame coaches in the same area code.

Life is anything but fair. After the futility of the Les Robinson era, NC State brought in Sendek to win—but to keep intact the integrity of the program. He did both.

Sendek experienced only one losing season in a decade of coaching the Wolfpack. He won 20-plus games in five of those seasons. He coached NC State to the ACC championship game in three of them. He tied Jim Valvano's streak by bringing the team to five consecutive NCAA tournaments. All the while, his players were upstanding citizens who graduated.

Fans inevitably demanded more. Sendek was either caught between the pincers of Krzyzewski and Williams, or haunted by the ghosts of Case, Sloan and Valvano.

The end for Sendek began in late February, when UNC laid a 24-point whipping on the Wolfpack in Raleigh. The ensuing late-season freefall disenchanted even moderate Sendek supporters. An angry exchange with a fan following State's loss to Wake Forest in the ACC quarterfinals seemed the tipping point.

Sendek heard the discontent from the stands. He heard it from the media. He heard it from alumnus legend Tom Burleson. His support was withering away from the bottom up.

The marriages of coaches to programs are exceedingly fragile. Counseling is not usually an option. The struggle between the philosophy of Sendek and the expectations of fans created a rift this season. In the end, Sendek opted for a quiet divorce instead of what increasingly looked to become a protracted domestic fight.

Sendek made a sober, calculated decision. His press conference in Arizona revealed no bitterness toward NC State or its fans. Sendek will likely never publicly voice any other sentiment.

On the other side of the fence, even Sendek's detractors have since voiced their thanks to him. Sendek ran a solid program, not a great one. But it speaks to his credit that he rebuilt the program to the point that simply being competitive was no longer good enough.

Perhaps now both Herb Sendek and the Wolfpack fans can put this season behind them.