It might not be the only reason No. 11-seed North Carolina State will be playing in tonight’s Midwest Region Sweet 16 game against No. 2-seed Kansas, but we like to think it’s more than coincidence.
You see, NC State head coach Mark Gottfried, 48, the former Murray State and Alabama mentor, spent the past two seasons as a college basketball analyst for ESPN, working mostly on SEC games for the network.
He was named the NC State head coach last April 5. Now he has the at-large bid Wolfpack, who entered the Tournament with zero combined games of NCAA experience — back in Big Dance for the first time since 2006. NC State is in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005.
Front Row caught up with coach Gottfried on Thursday as his team prepared for the Jayhawks to find out what his ESPN experience has meant for him in his first year in Raleigh, N.C.
How did your time at ESPN help you as you returned to coaching?
It helped because it kept me around the game. I got to watch a lot of different coaches at work everyday and to use it as personal development.
What was the significance of the early season all-access you did with ESPNU?
It helped get our program exposure. I think young people we’re recruiting watched and saw how we did things. [They] saw the facility improvements, saw our players and watched our interaction. So I thought it was a big advantage for our program to do the all-access.
Do you keep in touch with any of the folks here at ESPN? Have you been hearing from them more and more these past couple of weeks?
I do. Obviously the analysts, but also the people behind the scenes. There are producers and directors that I worked with closely over the last couple of years that have been good friends. They are excited for our success, but more importantly I’ve developed good friendships with people over there.
Which is harder: Coaching a team to the Sweet 16 or working with [former ESPN play-by-play partner] Carter Blackburn?
Whew! That be a hard one. I had to carry Carter for two years. My back hurts from carrying him so much. Coaching is much easier.
This being an election year, Front Row felt it only right to offer equal time to Gottfried’s former sideline table-mate:
“I will say that Mark was more TV-savvy than my previous partner, Pete Gillen. Pete was afraid the production truck would explode when he hit the talkback button,” said Blackburn, who, for the record, would not be that tough to carry.
“Mark didn’t have that issue and I was happy to spend the time with him during his time away from coaching. I was able to teach him some offense off the double-high ball screen and therefore I expect a piece of the net when they cut them down in New Orleans!”
Note: ESPN Communications’ Mike Humes also contributed to this post.