The Syracuse-Arizona State NCAA basketball tournament game was on earlier this afternoon, and I watched most of the second half — all the while thinking about the power of perception in forming public opinion.
Among the topics I discuss with my public relations classes is how public opinion is formed and the importance of that for the PR practitioner. And I tell them that I’ve always strongly believed that “perception is reality.” It’s not what the truth is, but what people perceive to be the truth — that really matters. If the public thinks you have a problem, you have a problem, and you must deal with it.
And in the last few years, I’ve connected this — in my own mind, though I’ve never shared this with a class — with the case of Arizona State coach Herb Sendek. Basketball fans who read this blog will probably remember him as the former coach of the North Carolina State Wolfpack. He left Raleigh to go out west three seasons ago.
The reasons he left had everything to do with perception and very little to do with reality. I’ll walk you through it.
Sendek spent 10 reasonably successful seasons as coach of the Wolfpack. The resume: 191-132 record, and in nine out of 10 of those seasons, State got post-season bids. Sendek took his team to the NCAA tournament each of the last five seasons and Wolfpack teams won 20 games or more in four of the last five.
Not too shabby, right? Well, a significant number of State fans would have disagreed with you and some die-hards may still. Sendek became the target of increasingly virulent criticism in his final years as State’s coach. He finally packed it in and took another job in a more hospitable environment, which at that point would have described just about anywhere.
He went to Tempe, Ariz., to coach the Sun Devils, a program with a negligible basketball tradtition.
How could this happen? Again, power of perception. N.C. State, of course, is a founding member of the ACC with longtime natural rivalries with what many ACC fans perceive as the conference’s two evil empires, North Carolina and Duke.
And Sendek’s State teams didn’t do very well against them, with a record of something like 9-38 (couldn’t find the exact figure in a little cursory research but I think this is in the ballpark) against the Blue Devils and Tar Heels in his tenure.
But what was worse was that many State fans perceived that these failures — which meant a lot to them — didn’t matter to Sendek, who didn’t grow up in ACC country (he was born in Pittsburgh). Sendek — who has a fiery bench manner but a rather bland public/media persona — didn’t appear to believe that a game against UNC or Duke mattered any more than one against Virginia or Georgia Tech.
The inability to respond to that perception, I’ve always thought, was Sendek’s biggest problem. And I’ve been quite amused to watch the aftermath of all this in the years since he left.
State fans’ perceptions changed soon after his departure as the school hired Sidney Lowe, a key player on N.C. State’s second national championship squad in 1983, as head coach. And joining his staff as an assistant was another of the Wolfpack’s most beloved players of all time, Monte Towe, a guard on State’s first national championship squad in 1974.
These guys knew how important beating the neighbors was, and they went out and did it. In the first season after Sendek, the Wolfpack beat both the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels. No matter that State ended up 17-14 and in the NIT, snapping the streak of NCAA invites at five. The season was a success. There was finally something to look forward to.
Unfortunately for Wolfpack fans, the team hasn’t repeated that feat in the last two seasons, with a few pretty one-sided losses among the meetings with UNC and Duke. And the team has finished near the bottom of the ACC standings. Will Lowe survive, even with his State pedigree?
Meanwhile, in three seasons Sendek’s teams have gradually improved from an 8-20 record to a return to the NCAA tournament for the first time in five years.
And maybe he’s learned something about this rivalry business. The Sun Devils, who had beaten archrival Arizona only once in 11 seasons before Sendek’s arrival, have now beaten them five times in three years. He’s the toast of the town, today’s 78-67 second round loss to Syracuse notwithstanding.
A similar situation has played out at Kentucky, where fan expectations make State supporters look benign and infinitely patient by comparison. Coach Tubby Smith averaged 26 wins a game in his 10 seasons in Lexington and took the Wildcats to the Final Four in his first season. Unfortunately, he never got them back there — the longest absence from college basketball’s last weekend in school history.
Fans planted “For Sale” signs on his front lawn, vilified him on talk radio and Internet sites, and Smith left two seasons ago for Minnesota. Kentucky lured Texas A&M coach Billy Gillispie away from College Station. The ‘Cats lasted one round in the 2008 NCAA tournament and didn’t make the field this year for the first time since 1991. And they’ve had embarrassing losses to the likes of Gardner-Webb and VMI along the way.
I call it hoops justice. Be careful what you ask for, basketball fans, because you might get it.