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Billy and Herb

It was Florida . The field of 65 was whittled to one Monday night, as the Florida Gators made short work of UCLA to capture the school’s first-ever NCAA men’s basketball championship. It was a triumphant moment for coach Billy Donovan, who ended a decade of building at Florida by etching his name into school and NCAA record books. It was quite an accomplishment.

Looking on from the front row of the Florida cheering section was Donovan’s old coach and boss, current Louisville coach Rick Pitino. Pitino looked to be a proud papa as he watched Donovan snipping the nets at the RCA Dome. One of his ‘boys’ had done good.

While Billy Donovan had been masterminding his championship in front of his old boss, another of Rick Pitino’s protégés was not basking in the glow of the CBS eye, instead house-hunting in Tempe , Arizona . That would be Herb Sendek.

Herb had finally grown weary of attempting to appease the rabid and vocal fan base at NC State as well as compete with Triangle-area coaching legends Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams and thrown in the towel. As the Final Four was getting underway Saturday evening, news broke that Sendek had accepted the job at Arizona State . Herb is gone.

The careers of Sendek and Donovan had displayed remarkable similarities. Herb had joined Pitino’s Providence staff while Donovan was a player. Four years later, Donovan joined Pitino’s Kentucky staff, where Herb was already an assistant. Donovan left for the head job at Marshall the year after Sendek had taken over the Miami of Ohio program. Two years later, both landed in the ‘big time,’ Herb at State and Donovan at Florida . The ensuing decade has ended with Donovan claiming a championship and Herb a new job.

Ten years ago when both were hired, it appeared that Sendek had the better position. He was at NC State, one of college basketball’s glamour schools. Donovan was at Florida , where basketball was a largely-ignored exercise in futility that marked the time between football season and Spring football practice.

Both took over losing programs. While State was considered a proud basketball school, holding two national championships, it was also a place where the major probations out-numbered those championships 3-2. The most recent of each had been claimed by Jim Valvano. In the end, Valvano’s probation that led to his ouster created program wreckage with which the next coach, Les Robinson, had been unable to deal. Robinson had been kicked upstairs to the AD job and Sendek brought in to undertake a salvage operation of Pack basketball.

Donovan took over what seemed to be a daunting challenge at Florida , where basketball was tolerated mainly because the SEC required a team. While Sendek was entering the center of the college basketball universe, Donovan was going to a place where football is the dominant religion, holding the position of interest that basketball holds in North Carolina .

Donovan had been advised by Pitino to pass on the Florida job; Rick felt there was no real commitment to winning basketball. Had he been asked, former State coach Norm Sloan would have likely told Donovan the same. Sloan had produced both a championship and probation at State, but finally grew tired of the NC media’s worship of a guy named Dean and left for the Gators’ job. Sloan felt that playing second-fiddle to a sport at Florida was preferable to a neighboring coach in his sport at State. Stormin’ Norman never won big at Florida and was known to complain about the lack of interest in his program.

Despite the warnings of a lack of commitment to big-time basketball at Florida , Donovan took the job. He took it because he had been assured that his new bosses did indeed want to win at basketball. They poured cash into the program, building a magnificent new basketball-only training facility that set them back $10 extra-large. He also was given a huge budget that now approaches $3M, Kentucky-like numbers in the football-centric SEC. It was easily afforded by the Gators, a pittance compared to a total athletics budget now in the $70- million range, fueled by the amounts of long green people are willing to shell out for the privilege of buying football Swamp tickets.

Despite the strong basketball interest at NC State, Herb took over a program where to call the facilities lacking was understatement on a par with calling France ’s military prowess lacking. Sendek coached in Reynolds Coliseum, a charming but antiquated barn that did not come off very well at all when compared to the shiny Dean Dome across the metro area or the plush support building Coach K was getting at Duke. It made competing a bit of a chore.

Herb did get a facility upgrade, in spades. Shortly after he arrived in Raleigh , the political maneuvering begun that was to result in what is officially known as the RBC Center , unofficially the Pork Palace . The taxpayers may have been out a huge chunk of change, but State had basketball facilities second to none.

Herb and Donovan had very different challenges facing them. Herb was expected to bring back the glory days of Valvano, Sloan and even Everett Case, the guy who came to State after World War II and eventually turned the ACC, a conference that had been founded out of football concerns, into a basketball powerhouse. He was also expected to bring them back without the probations incurred by Valvano, Sloan and Case, especially the program-destroying one brought on by Jimmy V.

Donovan was building a program out of whole cloth. His challenge was to not only create a good program, as well as interest in one, but to do it while operating in the shadow of school icon Steve Spurrier and the football culture that dominated both the university and state. Results would indicate that he was the man for the job.

The youthful, brash Donovan quickly made his mark. Armed with a huge recruiting budget and a beautiful campus in a state offering a warm climate, he immediately began recruiting on a national scale, talking large numbers of top-shelf recruits into joining him in Gainesville . Success quickly came on a national scale, with a Final Four appearance in 2000 and now this championship.

Donovan cultivated a fan base at Florida , too. He began by appealing to the student body, who responded by creating the Rowdy Reptiles cheering section. Winning brought the rest of the Gator Nation around. Tickets are now every bit as tough to find at the O’Connell Center as they are at the Swamp. I’m assuming that very soon plans will be commissioned for a sparking new arena to replace the smallish O’Connell.

Herb approached things a little differently at State. He built from the ground up, establishing a local recruiting base and gradually expanding it. The methodical Sendek was the anti-Donovan, and, more importantly, the anti-Valvano. JimmyV had won his national championship in his third year, 1983, with a nucleus of players left him by Sloan. Herb did not inherit quite that level of talent from Robinson. He did inherit the debris left by Valvano, passed along by Robinson.

Herb gradually made the Pack better. Starting with nothing, he quickly had State an NIT-caliber team, then built them, year-by-year, into an NCAA one, five straight. After a decade, he had built State into a solid program that would be valued at most anywhere else other than the area in which Herb coached. And that was the problem.

Sendek never created the enthusiasm among his fan base as Donovan did at Florida . While Herb’s bosses appreciated the job he had done of both winning and running a clean program, a dual task that had not been accomplished by Valvano, Sloan, or Case, winning with integrity did not go over quite as well with the Loonpack segment of State. His annoying inability to beat Coach K or, more recently, Ol’ Roy further enraged the PackPride crowd. To say they didn’t like him is to say the Carolina faculty has only a mild distaste for George Bush.

Herb never seemed to much care whether the Loonpack liked him or not. He reacted to the howling for his neck by studiously ignoring it, at least in public. I do believe we are aware that privately, it bothered him very much. Enough to finally give the radio talk-show screamers and message board howler monkeys the finger and move on.

Moving on has turned into Herb taking over Arizona State . Like Donovan at Florida , Sendek is taking over a place that has experienced scant basketball success over the years. It is also a place where a guy who wins twenty a year and goes to the NCAA tournament six years in a row while running an exemplary program will be much more appreciated than it seemed to be among crazed elements of State’s fan base. It is also a state that contains a coaching legend, but that is only half the number there was at Herb’s last job. Arizona ’s Lute Olson is 71; time will be on Herb’s side. As Wolfpack AD Lee Fowler undertakes the tough job of finding a coach that will have two very tough jobs, working in the same neighborhood as Coach K and Ol’ Roy, as well as appeasing State’s lynch mob of vociferous fans, it seems safe to assume that the Arizona program is going to get better while the NC State one will get worse.

Two former assistants of Rick Pitino will spend this week engaged in very different activities. Billy Donovan will be basking in a national championship at Florida . Herb Sendek will be beginning a reclamation job at Arizona State . Both are very good coaches. So far, things worked out a little better for one.

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