‘Who the heck is that guy?’ Wolfpack coach Wes Moore relishes his rise from anonymity

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There was a time when Wes Moore could maneuver around Raleigh with some sense of anonymity.

Moore could walk around football games or go to his favorite local eateries for a burger on Tuesday. He would get the look, and know what that expression on people’s faces said, even if they never opened their mouth.

While most onlookers’ lips remained sealed, their eyes asked the question every time.

“Who the heck is that guy?” Moore quipped in front of a scrum of reporters at ACC Tip-Off in Charlotte.

He saw the ‘Who the heck is that guy?’ look on people’s faces too many times when he went to lunch at Sammy’s near the N.C. State campus, or if he was walking through the crowd at Carter-Finley Stadium, decked in Wolfpack paraphernalia, hosting a group of recruits.

“At football games, my first few years,” Moore explained, “I don’t think anyone knew who the heck I was.”

Who is Wes Moore?

Well, who is he?

Moore is a coach who’s won a lot of basketball games — 748 games to be exact — and 190 of those wins have come over the past eight years in Raleigh. He has led the Wolfpack women’s basketball team to consecutive ACC tournament titles, and he has thrust the team into the national conversation.

With his entire roster back, plus some solid transfers, N.C. State will start the 2021-22 season ranked No. 5 in the country.

The Wolfpack has been knocking on the door for some time now, and If the team is going to break down the door and make it to the Final Four, Moore insists it’ll be because of the players on the floor.

No doubt they will play a major part, but it’ll also be because of Moore and his system. Not just his system, but the winning culture he’s built at N.C. State.

“I know when I was getting recruited that N.C. State was kind of the middle of the pack,” All-American center Elissa Cunane said. “They would win some games they weren’t supposed to win, and then lose games they weren’t supposed to lose.”

Now, the Wolfpack has started to win those games, turning the corner, piece by piece, building a national contender.

“I think it’s just the talent that we have, the culture that we have on the team,” Cunane said. “Ever since we get new people it keeps growing and we all keep getting better. The better the team gets, the more competitive we get and we get better.”

And that starts with the nagging, yet, nicer, coach leading the way.

N.C. State head coach Wes Moore talks with his team during the first half of N.C. State’s game against Clemson at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, February 11, 2021.
N.C. State head coach Wes Moore talks with his team during the first half of N.C. State’s game against Clemson at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, February 11, 2021.

Please remain calm

Kayla Jones, a graduate senior who returned for an extra year, (along with Kai Crutchfield) have been around Moore longer than any other players.

Jones committed to Moore early out of Riverside High School in Williamston, N.C. She’s probably the most qualified to evaluate the coach.

Day in and day out she’s seen him get after the team, never lowering his standards, expecting perfection from them. Sometimes that requires him to raise his voice a little bit. State fans have certainly seen it on the sidelines during games. Jones and company see it daily behind closed doors. This is year five under Moore for Jones, and she’s noticed a slight change for her coach now that the team is in the national spotlight.

“Coach Moore is nicer, y’all,” Jones told the media at ACC Tip-Off. “I don’t know if he’s getting older or what. Really. He’s more patient and he’s calm. He doesn’t turn as red, but he’s so calm. He’s still a great coach, he still holds us accountable to do the little things.”

That’s right: Moore still stresses the little things. According to Cunane, even if they win by 30, Moore will get on them about boxing out to rebound.

“He wants us to do everything right, which I think is what makes us great,” Cunane said. “At the same time he thinks he can nag a little bit, but I think he realized he needs to give us more praise. I think that makes him the coach that he is and makes us the team that we are because he wants everything to be perfect.”

When asked about the comments of his new demeanor, Moore credits a children’s book he has his team read titled, “The Coffee Bean.” He said it takes about 30 minutes to read and dives into how things react when you put them in hot water. One example, he said, is a carrot, which gets all soft. Another example is an egg, which gets harder in the hot water.

“I’ve been told that I’m more of a carrot than I used to be,” Moore said. “Maybe that’s a good thing.”

‘I’m never satisfied’

Moore would prefer to say that he is passionate, not emotional, about what he does.

Why settle for less? It started when Moore was coaching at Division III Maryville College, from there to Francis Marion, to Chattanooga where he finished in first place 12 times in 15 seasons, to N.C. State, where the Pack has played in the NCAA tournament five times under Moore.

And even though N.C. State made it all the way to the Sweet 16, Moore is still slightly haunted by Jones missing the team’s elimination game with an injury, knowing they are a different team with her in the lineup. That’s part of the reason why, even with so much experience returning, the — ahem — passion is still strong with Moore.

But even if Moore wasn’t coaching a national contender, he still strives for the best no matter what he’s doing.

“Anything you do you want to be great,” Moore said. “I have trouble with average. I have trouble being satisfied and settling. I’m never satisfied, we want to strive for perfection.”

When one of his players comes to him and has a B in a class, Moore pushes them to get an A.

“They say I nag them, I’m going to nag them,” Moore said. “I just want them to have an unbelievable life. Not an average life.”

Being better than average is what led Moore back to Raleigh. He was an assistant under the legendary Kay Yow from 1993-1995, before venturing out to become a head coach. Plenty of success followed, and Moore could have stayed at Chattanooga, where he won 358 games and was a regular fixture in the NCAA tournament. If he stayed there long enough, they probably would have built a statue of him, or at least named the court after him, like Yow at N.C. State.

But he wanted to be better than average.

“I could have floated down the river in my inner tube and enjoyed life (at Chattanooga),” Moore said using an analogy of a lazy river. “Instead I’m crazy. I go get in a little kayak and go upstream, with currents and rocks and everything else at N.C. State, because it’s a challenge, let’s see if we can build something. That’s when you really get rewarded and enjoy life.”

N.C. State head coach Wes Moore poses with seniors Kai Crutchfield, left, and Kayla Jones during senior day activities before N.C. State’s game against Pittsburgh at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, February 25, 2021.
N.C. State head coach Wes Moore poses with seniors Kai Crutchfield, left, and Kayla Jones during senior day activities before N.C. State’s game against Pittsburgh at Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, February 25, 2021.

Unique coach

Debbie Antonelli played at N.C. State under Yow, and now watches the Pack closely as a women’s basketball commentator for ESPN.

Antonelli has the unique ability of being able to speak on behalf of the 150 former Pack players who suited up for Yow. It’s a responsibility in which she takes great pride. She’s noticed that Moore has bridged the generational gap between the former players and the current ones. They all have an interest in the program and where it’s headed. Antonelli saw the vision of what Moore was building years ago.

“When he took over, he got more out of the talent that he didn’t recruit than I thought he was going to get,” Antonelli told the News & Observer. “I’ve watched his career. I’ve watched him do the right things inside the game, and he’s a hard worker.”

Antonelli warned, don’t let the quirks fool you when it comes to Moore.

“He has that perfect, ‘Oh shucks’ kind of way,” Antonelli said. “But when his team plays, it’s like bright lights, big city. His humbleness definitely comes through in his team, but don’t mistake it for how hungry and how aggressive they are.”

Moore will tell you it’s about the players. The players will tell you it’s all about their leader. Regardless of who gets the credit, something special is brewing in Raleigh ahead of the 2021-22 season. The Sweet 16 trips have been cool, but there is another level and many believe Moore is the perfect guy — quirks and all, nicer, calmer — to lead the team to a national championship.

If he does that, it’ll be really hard for him to walk around unnoticed when he’s out to lunch.

So, how is it being Wes Moore in town these days?

“It’s fun,” Moore said. “No doubt, a lot better than just being, ‘Who the heck is that guy?’”

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