Dereck Whittenburg Back At NC State: Does Player Returning as Coach Work Out?Posted by BHayes on August 2nd, 2013
North Carolina State announced earlier this week that Dereck Whittenburg, one of the heroes of the 1983 Wolfpack NCAA Championship squad, would be returning to the basketball program as an assistant coach. On paper, as it almost always does in these circumstances, the move looks great. Whittenburg’s arrival helps maintain a connection to NCSU’s past glory years, with his mere presence on the staff providing a constant reminder to players, fans, and most importantly, recruits, that the NC State program has summitted the mountain before. Pack fans must admit that this all sounds pretty good, but wait — haven’t they heard this one before? And didn’t it actually not go so well? Mark Gottfriend has done his best to erase the memories of the five-year Sidney Lowe era that preceded his hiring, but the half-decade with the former Pack star (and teammate of Whittenburg on that 1983 title team) at the helm was far too ignominious to have already slipped the consciousness of the Raleigh faithful. Now, of course, we needn’t note that Whittenburg is not running the program as Lowe did, which should figure to make this a far lower-risk hire. But with another Pack star returning to the PNC Arena sideline next season, it begs the question: Is the college star-returning-as-coach really the slam dunk hire fans believe it to be?
Lowe’s failures aside, you don’t have to scan the country long to find examples of alums returning to their old program and succeeding – both as assistants and head coaches. Most notable among current head men is Fred Hoiberg, who in 2010 took over the helm of the Iowa State program he starred at in the early 1990s. Early returns have been good for “The Mayor” in Ames, as Iowa State has won an NCAA Tournament game in each of the last two seasons. Other recent successful examples at the head coach level include Bob Huggins (West Virginia) and Sydney Johnson (Princeton).
If we look further down the line and examine the assistants, the obvious torch bearer there has to be Danny Manning at Kansas. He left Lawrence a year ago to take over at Tulsa, but his five seasons as an assistant to Bill Self showed exactly how successful a program legend can be as a teacher and mentor. The 1988 NCAA Tournament MOP played a crucial role in the development of the Morris twins, Thomas Robinson, and Jeff Withey during his return to Lawrence, and while Bill Self is without a doubt one of the finest coaches in college basketball today, Manning’s work with the KU big men goes to show just how important the complementary voice of a former player can be. If you need further proof that the model works, just look to the paradigm of all college basketball programs – Duke. Coach K has used a slew of former players as assistants over the years (Johnny Dawkins, Tommy Amaker, and Wojo, just to name a few), and I’d say it’s gone well enough for everyone in Durham.
The sample size with these situations is not nearly large enough to draw any firm conclusions, but it does seem like it works out more often than not. It will be hard to thoroughly evaluate the Whittenburg hire in the coming years – judging the overall impact of any assistant coach is a difficult task – but it feels like a safe bet that this remarriage will work out. He’s not being asked to run the program, and unlike Lowe, he has some college head coaching experience under his belt (at Wagner and Fordham). Lowe was an NBA guy before arriving in Raleigh, and that lack of college coaching experience has to stand as the best explanation for why he flopped so badly at State. Sentimentality does have its limits, but in the college basketball world, star alumnus turning coach is usually a winning proposition.