Wake’s Resurrection

The word dead, as with the word unique, is absolute. Nothing can be more unique than unique and nothing can be deader than dead.

But just try to tell that to the downtrodden faithful joyously awakening from the dead(est) decade in the once-storied history of Wake Forest basketball.

The alarm has sounded loud and clear across the ACC. Long-slumbering Wake is awake. Deacon basketball is back.

And not only are the Deacons good – good enough to win 10 of the 14 conference games they’ve played going into Saturday’s home game against Miami – but they’re also great fun. They play fast and loose basketball, a style so loose, in fact that they’ve been known to make 26 turnovers (as they did at Florida State) and still win.

They also play fearless basketball. Otherwise they wouldn’t be making left-handed 30-foot skip passes into the corner as Alondes Williams did in last night’s 69-51 victory at N.C. State. Otherwise they wouldn’t rank tied for first in the ACC (with Notre Dame) with five conference road victories, second in the ACC (behind Louisville) with 609 3-pointers attempted, second (to UNC) with 924 offensive rebounds, second (to Duke) with 78.9 points a game and third (to Duke and Virginia) with 100 blocked shots.

Sure they can occasionally drive this former coach with impeccable Biddy-League basketball credentials crazy by reaching for a rebound or loose ball with one hand, or barrelling hopelessly pell-mell into heavy traffic. They may be sloppy at times, and they may be fool-hardy.

But no one can call them scared.

A team, it has often been said, takes on the personality of its coach, and no ACC coach in recent times has been as colorful as that bald, beer-bellied native of Lone Tree, Iowa, (population, 1,312) Steve Forbes. Throughout my 40-year sportswriting career, I was always especially drawn to the great characters of the game, the likes of Bobby Cremins and Jim Valvano and Skip Prosser, the coaches who not only won but constantly reminded folks that basketball, at its heart, is a game, and all games should be fun.

And few have been more fun than Steve Forbes. He naturally likes people, and people naturally like him. He’s what we call in the sportswriting game, great copy. Five years into blissful retirement, my life is grand. One of the few regrets of my career is I never got to cover Steve Forbes.

In this age of Covid and Zoom, Forbes artfully assembled a team on the fly consisting of players who already knew how to play the game well. His remaining task was to teach those players how to play together.

Who knew Williams (6.9 points, 2.8 rebounds at Oklahoma), Jake LaRavia (12.5 points at Indiana State) and Dallas Walton (6.5 points, 2.8 rebounds at Colorado), were as good as they’ve proven to be?

Well at least one man had an inkling, and he’s coaching Wake Forest basketball.

Since the ACC moved the championship game back to Saturday night and expanded to 15 teams, the tournament has tipped off on Tuesday. And since that time, starting with the 2014 tournament, teams finishing in the top four have received a double bye and sat out until Thursday, while teams five through eight have received a single bye and debuted on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Wake has played on Tuesday all seven seasons of the new five-day format. It also bears mention that the Deacons have played on Wednesday only twice, in 2014 and 2017, and never on Thursday.

Maybe, just maybe, the Deacons will pull off the miracle of all miracles and finish first in the ACC. Remarkably, sitting here on Feb. 10, it’s within their grasp.

But short of that, what an accomplishment it would be for Wake to finish in the top four and receive a double bye. Let the dregs begin play in Brooklyn on Tuesday, and the middling teams show up for Wednesday.

It’s time – some would say well past time – for Wake fans to sit back and watch the rest fight it out for two days for the right to play their team. The old-time faithful might have forgotten what it’s like, but would have great fun remembering.

ACC basketball has always been the tonic to help me get through the dead of winter.

Thanks to Steve Forbes and his team, this is the season the dead of winter has come alive.

Cory Alexander: Lord of Babble-On

Seems like every time I pose the question, “Is it just me, or. . . ‘’ I’m interrupted with an immediate and emphatic “Yeah, it’s just you.’’

Obviously those who know me know me all too well.

Undaunted, I’ll nevertheless pose the following question.

Is it just me, or does Cory Alexander drive you to distraction and beyond every time you listen to him analyze an ACC basketball game?

He’s not Bill Walton bad, mind you. At least he usually knows what planet he’s on, and even occasionally who’s playing. But Alexander’s constant recounting of “The Life and Times of Cory Alexander,’’ leads me to wonder how ESPN, by employing Alexander, could show less regard for the game that is actually being played or for those who actually care what happens.

Who cares how Alexander, during his playing days at Virginia, supposedly engaged in these epic battles with Randolph Childress of Wake Forest?

Who cares that Alexander feels he that, even today, he could destroy anybody in the gym in a game of H-O-R-S-E?

Who cares why Alexander grew a beard, or how long it got?

Who cares that Alexander has to win every round of tit-for-tat he invariably instigates with every play-by-play guy he works with?

Who cares who Alexander coached in AAU, and all he did to prepare that player for college ball?

To all the above question, I give an immediate and emphatic response.

Not me.

To hear Alexander recount his supposedly halycon days at Virginia (1991-95), one might get the impression he was the Wahoo’s answer to Michael Jordan. His constant bragging drove me to the record books to refresh my memory of just how good Alexander was in college.

Alexander was an All-ACC player, though the distinction comes with a caveat. He made second-team one season, his sophomore season. And even that distinction comes with a caveat. He barely made second-team, as the player with the 10th-most votes cast that season by the ACC Sportswriters Association.

And it was a distant 10th. Bob Sura received the eighth-most votes, with 220. Doug Edwards received the ninth-most votes, with 207. Alexander, for his part, received 148, only 29 more than Thomas Hill, the leading vote-getter on third team.

And Alexander, for the record, did make first-team All-Tournament that season when the Wahoos beat Wake in the first round and lost to North Carolina in the semis.

But to hear Cory Alexander tell it, you’d think he was surely one of the leading scorers in Virginia basketball history. At least Top 10, right?

Think again. Through last season, Alexander ranked 27th in career points scored at Virginia with 1,286. Mel Kennedy scored more (1,415). So did Elton Brown (1,356) and Norman Nolan (1,321).

Alexander, for the record, does rank No. 10 with 401 career assists, though the statistic wasn’t recorded at Virginia until the 1969-70 season. So truth is, we don’t really know where Alexander ranks, other than that it wasn’t the Top 10.

And as for that dead-eye shooting touch from anywhere in the gym, Alexander ranks 16th in career-3-pointers, even though the NCAA didn’t adopt the 3-pointer until the 1986-87 season.

Listen, Cory Alexander was a good player. Any player who plays 85 games in the ACC and scores more than a thousand points is a good player. And Alexander was also good enough to forge an eight-season career in the NBA. He was, for the most part, a journeyman, though he did start 19 games and average 14 points for a 1997-98 Denver Nuggets.

So again, granted, Cory Alexander was a good player.

And the few times I was around him before retiring as an active sportswriter in 2017, I got the impression he was a pretty good guy – loose, friendly, willing to give-and-take in the usual pre-game-gather-around-the-drink-machine banter. Folks seemed to like him.

So I have nothing personal against Cory Alexander, a good player in college who was fun to be around before a game.

My problem is that he’s not what he presents himself to be, and never has been. The truth, in this case, is definitely not in the advertising.

Best I can tell, it all started with Howard Cosell – or maybe Heywood Hale Broun – when commentators felt like they had to make the occasion more about themselves than the game they were analyzing. They needed a persona, or maybe even a shtick to help brand themselves and further their careers.

We all suffered through the verbal exclamation marks from Dick Vitale, but I’ve always defended Vitale for three reasons. I got to know him well enough to know he’s a warm, caring individual, he has helped me on several occasions, and he really, really knows the game of basketball and the people who coach and play it.

Nowadays we’ve got Walton telling us how he danced with the Grateful Dead at the Pyramids and all that. Maybe the Cory Alexanders of the broadcasting world see that as the way to go, to make it all about them. The direction has worked well enough for Alexander to get seemingly every big ACC game ESPN carries.

And with each passing year, there seem to be more analysts going that route. I call them the Lords of Babble-on because all they do is babble on and on and on while what could be a hell of a game is unfolding before us all.

Give me a good-old Dan Bonner, who shows enough respect for the game to actually tell me what’s happening.

Give me Dave Odom, who I thought was getting better and better every game he worked.

For that matter give me Billy Packer, who has an ego every bit as big as that of Cory Alexander but was smart enough to do what he was ostensibly hired to do.

Cory Alexander was hired by ESPN to tell us what is going on in a basketball game.

Instead, he’s become the Lord of Lords of Babble-On.

Am I the only one suffering through his babble?

Didn’t think so.

Forbes’ Fire in the Belly

Even before Steve Forbes first won an ACC game, I was sold.

The long lost decade of Wake Forest basketball is coming to a merciful – and long overdue – end.

Even before Steve Forbes first won an ACC game, his Deacons were a handful for pretty much every team they played – the obvious exception being Georgia Tech. Even while losing their first six conference games, the Deacons reminded me of bubble gum stuck to a Nike.

You can take a butter knife and dig at that bubble gum, by gum, but it’s all but impossible to carve away.

The Deacons play hard. They play tough. And, most of all, they are tenacious.

And sitting on the couch of my locked-down Oldtown hacienda, I’ve been loving it.

Those faithful fans who have stuck with Wake Forest deserve better than they got over the past 10 seasons. The once proud basketball tradition was shredded by one losing season after another, but what was most depressing was a sense that nothing was changing.

To ever crawl out of the wilderness, the Deacons needed a real coach.

And in Steve Forbes, they have one.

Unlike his two most recent predecessors, Forbes has personality. And as the likes of Jim Valvano and Skip Prosser have taught us, personality can go a long ways toward building support and passion for a program.

But the biggest difference among Forbes and his two most recent predecessors is his hunger. He wins as a coach because he can’t afford to lose. He has no comfortable seat on an NBA bench or a mic in an ESPN studio to fall back on.

All successful coaches are hungry. Mike Krzyzewski, the most successful coach in college basketball history, arrived in the ACC as hungry as any coach I’ve ever covered – with the possible exception being his fellow Hall-of-Famer, Dean Smith.

To find a good college basketball coach, look for the fire in the belly.

And if you’re looking for a coach at Wake Forest, where nothing is guaranteed, that fire had best be raging.

The fire was raging in Forbes’ belly when he decided, as a Sports Information Director at his alma mater Southern Arkansas University, that he wanted to coach. It was raging ever hotter as he clawed his way up the ranks of the profession as an assistant at Southwestern Community College, Barton Community College, Idaho, Louisiana Tech, Texas A&M and Tennessee.

And when he suffered a fall from grace that would have extinguished the flame in most of us – the firing from Tennessee when head coach Bruce Pearl was busted by the NCAA for recruiting violations – Forbes simply rolled up his sleeve and started over at Northwest Florida State.

Do you reckon any of the two most recent Wake coaches have ever heard of Northwest Florida State? If so, that makes one of us.

Undaunted Forbes made enough of a name in two seasons as an assistant at Wichita State to get a crack at a head coaching job at East Tennessee State. With failuire, once again, no option, Forbes won 130 of 173 games and two conference championships in his five seasons in the backwater of Johnson City, Tennessee.

Still he arrived at Wake with something to prove. A man like Steve Forbes of Lone Tree, Iowa, will always have something to prove – to himself if nobody else.

Even before he assembled and kept together a competitive team during a pandemic, even before he beat Pitt and Boston College, even before his Deacons took a powerful Florida State team to overtime, Steve Forbes had proven to me that he’s the right man for the job.

I’ve loved the way he threw the greenest of rookies Carter Whitt into the fire almost as soon as he arrived on campus from high school. Nobody but the Deacons expect anything from the Deacons this season, so I figured the experience would do the kid a world of good.

And judging from Whitt’s most recent performances – including his nine-assist, three-turnover game at Florida State — I was right.

I loved the way he dealt with the selfishness he saw in the debacle at Notre Dame, which he rightly ascribed to the results of the “disease of me.’’ You have to wonder how a coach deals with a player such as Ismael Massoud, who two games after lighting up Pittsburgh for 31 points, played 12 minutes without scoring against Miami. You have to wonder how a coach deals with a Jahcobi Neath, whose hopes of being a major player this season have been largely usurped by transfer Daivien Williamson and Whitt,

And I especially loved his final comment after the victory over Boston College, when a reporter urged Forbes to “enjoy that beer.’’

“Oh it won’t be one,’’ Forbe deadpanned. “I can promise you that.’’

Finally after a decade no one will ever want to remember, Wake has a coach after my own heart – not to mention my own taste buds and my own belly.

Whiling Away the Day with Wolford

Just when I thought my esteem for John Wolford could go no higher, the guy gives me something worth watching while whiling away another interminable pandemic-stricken Sunday afternoon.

More than that – much more than that, in fact – he gives me a reason to care.

Most folks, I’ve noticed, tend to get smaller with age. The older they get, the more cranky, judgmental and hard-bitten they become.

Which is why I’ve made my vow to at least endeavor to become bigger with each passing year, more enlightened, more understanding, more accepting of the fact that roughly half the people with whom I co-habit this planet are not going to see life the same way I do.

I’m not saying the effort is easy, nor is little worth accomplishing. And I recognize that, at 68 years old, I’m still a work in progress.

So if there are those who, say, want to play or coach football, basketball or baseball during a pandemic, and there are those who want to watch them do so, then to me that’s their business. All along I’ve considered said attempts akin to trying to drive a square peg into a round hole. No matter how hard you beat on that peg, it’s never going to fit in that hole.

That said, it at least give us something to do during a time we’re looking for something, anything, to get us through the long drawn-out days and empty hours.

So my problem is not that games are being played. My problem is how little any of it means. How much significance can I attach to any result from any endeavor, when so many of the participants are unable or unwilling (or both) to participate.

Alabama will play Ohio State a week from today in the college football championship. Alabama has played 12 games. Ohio State has played seven.

The conclusion is hard to escape that the powers that be in their selected sports are making this stuff up as they go along. And what they decide today might have so little bearing on what they do tomorrow.

Remember when the Big Ten canceled its fall football season, the same Big Ten that made damn sure Ohio State would get a crack at the title?

I rest my case.

So it did this old heart good to hear that Wolford was in line to start for Los Angeles yesterday in the Rams drive for a playoff spot. He’s one of my favorites to ever play football for Wake Forest, and would have remained so if he had never taken another snap after college.

As the beat reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal, I saw first-hand and personal the brutal pounding Wolford took as quarterback for the Deacons. When Dave Clawson became head coach in 2014, he was bequeathed a relatively solid ACC defense and an offensive cupboard left frightfully bare. Wolford, who Clawson was able to pry away from East Carolina, started as a freshman not because he was ready to play college football, but because there was no one else. And he started for an offense that Clawson had to not rebuild – but build – from scratch.

Wolford impressed me early on, for what he could do but much more so for who he was. Never in my career did I see any player pick himself up off the ground more often from the kind of punishment that would have convinced most people to give up the sport for their salvation, much less sanity.

But his most impressive performances, at least early on, came after the game, in the post-game sessions. Never once did I hear John Wolford complain of his plight. Never once did I hear him blame a teammate. Never once did he fail to take full responsibility – and then some – for his performances as the Deacons suffered through successive 1-7 ACC seasons.

So those of you who were watching along with me remember how heart-warming it was to see the quarterback John Wolford became by his junior and senior seasons, the bowl victories over Temple and Texas A&M, the five touchdown passes and 461 passing yards while out-dueling Lamar Jackson of Louisville, the 468 total yards against the Aggies in the Belk Bowl, his selection as second-team All-ACC.

And like me, you were probably watching yesterday afternoon when John Wolford got his NFL shot. We grimaced when Wolford’s first pass was picked off, and he looked so shaky at the controls of a pro team.

But I know John Wolford, and the steel in his spine so I didn’t despair. And before halftime my faith was well rewarded.

Even with the barest semblance of a running game – said to be a pro quarterback’s best friend — Wolford made the plays the Rams needed to win and advance to the playoffs. I loved every minute of it, and got the greatest kick to see him walk off the field a winner.

But John Wolford has never been anything other than a winner. So how can I be surprised?

Thanks John for giving me something to watch.

Thanks most of all for giving me a reason to care.

My Kind of Guy

He’s bald and sports a beard and a belly.

He’s married to a school teacher.

He loves music, enough so that he played in a jazz band  in high school.

He loves history, and enjoys sitting in his recliner and watching it on cable TV. His intellectual curiosity reminds me of another man who coached Wake Forest more than a dozen years ago.

He likes people and isn’t above showing it.

He loves life and all its trappings, and again, isn’t afraid to show it.

He’s not adverse to telling a joke, and knows a good one when he hears it. He’s also not adverse to telling the same joke – if it’s good enough — again, and again, and again.

So I lay down one night, only to wake up to find that Wake Forest has hired my kind of guy to coach its basketball program. Based on the buttoned-up, upper-crust image and identity the school always projected during my 25 or so years as the Deacons’ beat writer for the Winston-Salem Journal, Steve Forbes is among the last people I would have expected to find on John Currie’s list of candidates, much less the one standing behind the podium this morning being introduced as Wake’s next basketball coach.

As stunned as I am at Currie’s decision, I’m even more impressed. Clearly the new director of athletics has ushered in a new era at Wake, one in which appearances and pedigree are nowhere nearly as important as relationships and results.

Sorry Mr. Faulkner, but the past at Wake is finally, at long last, past.

“You can’t be standoffish,’’ Forbes said it this morning’s virtual media conference. “I don’t say no.’’

Exclusion and detachment has been replaced by inclusion and warmth. By the end of his sad, sorely unsuccessful six-season stay at Wake, Danny Manning had been tagged Danny Mannequin. His successor can’t stand still even while standing behind a podium answering questions. He wants to get going. He wants to meet new people. He wants to do what he was hired at Wake to do.

Based on what I’ve read these past few days, and what I saw in this morning’s media conference, John Currie has found and hired the cure to what has ailed Wake basketball over this past lost decade. He has found and hired a coach with a roaring fire in his ample belly. He has hired a coach who hates to lose so bad that he’ll lay awake at night figuring out how not to.

Only in time will we know if his glittering won-loss record at past stops will translate into the kind of success Wake basketball fans once came to expect. But what we already know is that a huge gust of fresh air has whipped through not only the Wake basketball program, but the university as a whole.

And riding that gust is the kind of energy, enthusiasm and hope that has been missing all these years.

Like most of you reading this, I’m excited again for Wake basketball. I’m so excited it makes me wonder – if only for a scant second – if I retired a few seasons too early. What I feel certain about is that two friends who cover Wake daily, Les Johns and Conor O’Neill have a much better beat than they had last week – now that they’re working with a coach who might actually help them do their job.

No, I’m enjoying retirement far too much to contemplate a return, even for the kind of fun I expect to see next year.

But what I will do is extend to Steve Forbes an standing invitation to any Open Mic at Muddy Creek Cafe once the pandemic eases off enough that we can resume. I don’t know what instrument you played in the jazz band Coach, but that hardly matters. And if you’re no Waylon Jennings when it comes to singing, well that’s another similarity we share.

It’s about the making of music among fast friends, something I feel sure you know something about.

Welcome to Winston-Salem, Steve Forbes. About time you got here.

Currie Comes Through

So now that sanity has finally, at long last prevailed at Wake and Danny Manning has been relieved of the duties he spent six interminable years proving he couldn’t fulfill, a question I’ve been mulling for months has been answered.

Just how bad did John Currie want to clean up the mess left by his predecessor, Ron Wellman?

Bad enough, as we found out yesterday, to fire Manning during a pandemic.

And for that, he deserves major props. Good for John Currie, good for the long-suffering fans and even better for the hard-working players who may now, if Currie plays his next hand right, have a chance to actually finish above 10th in the ACC. A new day has dawned, and Currie has shown Wake a way out of the darkness that has enveloped the once-proud program over this lost decade.

But as we all know, a firing – even one as necessary and long-overdue as this one – is only as good as the hiring that follows. To do the job he was hired do do, to pull Wake basketball from the abyss, Currie has to find and hire the right guy.

Or has he already found him? That was on one of the first thoughts that passed through my head upon hearing the news yesterday morning, that it would explain why Currie cut Manning loose on April 24 – and not April 1 or May 15. Yes, Currie did say in yesterday’s media availability that the search is only now beginning. But that’s what a director of athletics has to say to avoid embarrassing both himself and the guy he was cashiering.

(In fact most of what Currie said yesterday was what a man in his situation pretty much has to say – which is as little as possible. I get it. Over my 45 years of sportswriting I asked countless questions I knew there was no way the person could answer. But the questions still have to be asked, just in case clarity and candor might prevail.)

But Currie has had months and months to plot his course of action, and by now has to have a pretty good idea of who he wants and his chances of getting them. Again, my instincts tell me the deal has already gone down, and in a week or so we’ll all find out if I’m right.

The home run hire is obviously John Beilein. He’s a proven coach the fan base could rally around, and he has the kind of name recognition that could attract interest from players exploring greener pastures in the months to come. And if the NCAA does indeed allow players to transfer without penalty, we’ll see more than a few programs go from the outhouse to the penthouse in record time.

John Beilein can coach. I didn’t have to be in Cleveland on March 19, 2005 to know that, but I was there to see his West Virginia squad take out Skip Prosser and Wake in Chris Paul’s final game in gold and black. John Beilein can coach. He’s a proven commodity.

Yeah, I know, he’s an old (67) proven commodity, but Currie’s focus, to my mind, should be on getting Wake out of the ditch it’s currently in, and then concern himself with what happens afterward.

Now is certainly not the time to take another flyer. Wellman took two in a row by hiring Jeff Bzdelik in 2010 and Manning in 2014, and we all know how that worked out.

It’s not that I’m philosophically opposed to a program taking a flyer on a coach. North Carolina took a chance on a relatively unknown assistant who turned out to be Dean Smith. Duke plucked a coach coming off a 9-17 season at Army (of all places) who turned out to be Mike Krzyzewski. And Dave Odom, lest we forget, had a losing record as a head coach before he was hired at Wake by Gene Hooks in 1989, ushering in the longest period of sustained success the program has ever known.

But now is not the time for a gamble. The die-hards who still care about Wake basketball have been through too much already. For Currie to play a hunch — as Wellman did with Bzdelik and Manning – that doesn’t work out would be disastrous and undo all the good he did yesterday.

As for candidates other than Beilein, I’m seeing the same names as you. Wake has done a brutally effective job in the past half-dozen or so years of controlling the message, which is why so few people really know what’s going on in the program. As a small, private school, Wake is well-positioned to avoid transparency, and those days of the program being a reporter’s dream beat are long since gone.

I got to know Pat Kelsey during his stay, and like him. I love his energy and passion. The question there is the same one I have with Wes Miller. How does success at places like Winthrop and UNC Greensboro translate into what he will face going against the likes of Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski, Tony Bennett and Leonard Hamilton?:

I also got to know Russell Turner when he was with Odom in the early 1990s, which, by the way, is when Currie was at Wake as well. Russell is one of my favorite former assistants. He’s smart and driven, and knows what he’s doing. Like another former assistant, Chris Mack, Russell can be a red-ass. That showed up during his unfortunate incident with the player from Oregon during the 2019 NCAA Tournament, for which he apologized repeatedly and profusely. But that said, no one who knows Russell Turner at all would ever recognize him as a bigot.

He just hates to lose, and that rank aversion, on that day, at that moment, got the best of him.

Danny Manning infamously said the day he was introduced as Wake’s coach that his program would be one that hangs its hat on defense. Well Turner’s California-Irvine program has done just that, and the hard-nosed, grind-it-out style of basketball he has fashioned has resulted in five first-place finishes in the Big West and two trips to the NCAA Tournament.

So if you haven’t figured it out by now, in the absence of Beilein, Turner is the man I would want to see standing courtside when next season’s Deacons take the court.

At least it won’t be Danny Manning, which begs one final question.

How bad does a coach have to be to be fired during a pandemic?

Will Insanity Prevail — Again?

Wake will play Pitt Tuesday in the ACC Tournament.

Who cares?

Seriously, who cares?

And for those who do care, I have a second question.


It’s become painfully obvious in every way that the stewards of the once-proud Wake basketball program – and I’m talking about you Nathan Hatch, Ron Wellman, Mit Shah, Ben Sutton etc., etc. – don’t give a hoot about whether the Deacons win or lose. Or, to be fair, if they do give a hoot, they haven’t, to date, cared enough to do anything about the sad and sorry shape the program is in.

The haven’t cared enough to keep the second decade of the 21st century from descending into the kind of despairing depths never before suffered since Wake played its first ACC game in 1953. In no earlier decade have those who invest their time, money, energy and support into Wake basketball had such a scant, meager return on that investment.

Wake, being a private school, doesn’t have to tell anybody anything. And, under the present regime of Danny Manning, Wake has mastered the art of not telling anybody anything. The problem with not telling even your most ardent fans anything is that the day will arrive when there aren’t any ardent fans who want to know anything about Wake basketball.

Signs are all around us – and I’m thinking here of that night a couple of weeks ago when barely enough fans to fill half of Joel Coliseum showed up to celebrate and honor Dave Odom and his 1995 ACC champions – that that day has already arrived.

But if what we’re all hearing again is correct, that the decision is now being made as to whether to bring Manning back for a seventh year, we should soon know if we are to add another name to that list of folks who don’t care enough about the state of Deacon basketball to do anything about it. Will the name of John Currie be added to the list?

Currie took the director of athletics reins from Wellman in May.  Several folks I know well enough to trust and respect made the point that Currie should be given a year to survey the damage and clean up the hideous mess Wellman made by gutting and filleting Wake basketball and leaving it out in the heat for 10 years to stink to high heaven.

But now that Currie has had that year, he’s seen what any objective and reasonable person had to know no later than three years ago. He has to also know by now that Danny Manning, a coach who in his six seasons in the ACC has finished 11th, 13th, 10th, 14th, 13th and 12th in the standings, is woefully ill-qualified to run an ACC basketball program.

So how many ways does Manning have to prove that, even at the height of 6-10, he’s in way over his head as an ACC coach? One way is by winning all of 30 of the 110 ACC games he’s coached. Another way is compiling a 78-110 overall record, a mark stained by setbacks to Delaware State, Georgia Southern, Liberty, Houston Baptist and Gardner-Webb – not to mention the six-straight losses to perennial power Clemson. Losing to Clemson in basketball six straight times is hard to do, so hard that no Wake coach before Manning managed the feat.

If Manning were running a solid program that graduates its players, at least that would be something to acknowledge and admire. But the program is not solid enough to keep players from exiting in droves, and the one player recruited by Manning to graduate after four years was Mitchell Wilbekin.

Brandon Childress should be the second. That will make two in six seasons.

If Manning were a bonafide ACC coach, Wake wouldn’t be draining so much revenue in an arena that, even on a good night, is half-empty. Good for Conor O’Neill for chronicling the damage done a week or so in the Winston-Salem Journal.

Wellman made three disastrous decisions that doomed the Wake basketball program to its current pitiable state. The first was hiring Jeff Bzdelik to replace Dino Gaudio (he of the 61-31 record at Wake) in a move that was never adequately explained. The second was to hire Danny Manning to replace Bzdelik, even though Manning was thoroughly unproven as a head basketball coach.

But it was Wellman’s third decision that is turning out to be the most catastrophic of all, a decision that has resulted in Manning still drawing a quite hefty paycheck as the Deacons basketball coach despite all his efforts to prove he doesn’t deserve it. Wellman, in all of his infinite wisdom, was somehow convinced to give Manning a long-term, iron-clad contract extension apparently loaded with an extortionate buyout clause that Wake will somehow have to deal with in order to ever get rid of him.

Wellman did so after the 2016-17 season, a campaign in which the Deacons finished 10th in the ACC and slipped into the First Four of the NCAA Tournament, only to be run out of Dayton in the second-half of a 95-88 loss to a mediocre Kansas State team. The Wildcats, lest we forget, shot 70 percent in the second half while pouring 55 points through that sieve known as the Deacons’ defense. The Wildcats, lest we forget, were drubbed 75-61 by Cincinnati in its next game for their 14th loss of the season.

The question has been asked before, and it will be asked as long as I have a laptop.
Who in the world was looking to hire Danny Manning away from Wake in March of 2017? Why did Wellman give him the kind of money that, to date, Wake has been unable to pay? And of all the deceit Wellman spread over his final years as Wake’s director of athletics, none compared to his preposterous claim that the move to bring Manning back for 2019-20 was a “basketball decision.’’

To complete a post filled with questions, I’ll ask one more. If Danny Manning is retained for a seventh season, how can John Currie, now that he has been AD for a year and surveyed the damage, stand before what’s left of the long-suffering Wake fan base and say he cares about Wake basketball? How can he ask for the time, energy, effort, and, most of all, money it takes to support a college basketball program?

If he tries – and from all I can tell, he just might – then his efforts will be as worthless as a ticket to a Wake basketball game.

Nobody will buy it.

Dave Gets His Due

Listen Wake fans and you shall hear, of when finishing fourth in the ACC was a really bad year.

At long last, a banner honoring and celebrating Dave Odom’s coaching career at Wake will be hung from the rafters at Joel Coliseum before tomorrow night’s game against Georgia Tech. At long last.

About time.

Odom, in his 12 seasons at Wake, won 240 games, was named ACC Coach of the Year three times, coached the Deacons into the NCAA Tournament seven-straight times (and eight times overall), beat Duke nine-straight times, (including five-straight at Cameron Indoor Stadium), and won the school’s only two ACC titles – back-to-back no less – since the halcyon days of Bones McKinney, Len Chappell and Billy Packer way back in 1961 and 1962 when players of color needed not apply to conference schools.

And in his off years (at least after needing one 3-11 season to get the program back up and running) he finished no worse than 7-9 in ACC play and was invited to the NIT every time – extending the school’s streak of post-season play to 11-straight seasons. In 2000, a season they finished fifth, his Deacons won the NIT title.

By the end of that season, while it was winning eight of its last nine, Wake was a team that no opponent in college basketball looked forward to playing.

Retired at age 77, Odom, never one to sit around and twiddle his thumbs, is still looking good. And to the win-starved faithful at Wake – what there are left of them – what Dave Odom did for the Black and Gold is looking better and better.

Such is longing for the good old days at a school that, since 2010, has failed to finish above 10th in the expanded ACC. Such is the longing at a school that can’t give away enough tickets to fill up half of Joel Coliseum. Such is the longing at a school that will have to rally to avoid a third-straight 20-loss campaign – which would make it the fourth 20-loss campaign in five seasons.

Such is the longing.

So finally, at long last, Wake Forest will hang a banner of Dave Odom’s likeness above Joel Coliseum this Wednesday while the school also celebrates and honors the ACC champion 1995 squad – my personal favorite during my 25 years of covering the Wake beat for the Winston-Salem Journal. Who will ever forget those three days in early March when the Deacons, riding the legendary, record-breaking performance of senior Randolph Childress, beat arch-rival North Carolina to take home the school’s first conference crown in 33 seasons?

Those of us who were around for the Golden Era of Wake basketball can still remember those days when the Deacons could take on any team in the country, and on the right night, with the right breaks, could win. We can recall when the only excuse coming out of the basketball program was for being invited to the NIT instead of the NCAA. We can recall when NBA teams couldn’t wait for the likes of Rodney Rogers and Tim Duncan to finish their college careers at Wake and go pro.

We can remember the ear-splitting decibel level at packed and pulsating Joel Coliseum while the Deacons were dismantling third-ranked Kansas 84-53 on Dec. 7, 2000.

And yes, we remember Oklahoma State in the Meadowlands in 1995, Kentucky in Minneapolis in 1996, Stanford in Tucson in 1997 and, gulp, Butler in Kansas City in 2001. But hey, even Mike Krzyzewski – to my mind, the greatest college coach ever – had his Lehigh and his Mercer.

The Butler debacle was the last game Dave Odom ever coached at Wake. It should not have been. Dave Odom represented Wake Forest the way it needed and wanted to be represented, and he won. If Ron Wellman had been smarter than he proved to be, he would have never let Dave Odom get away.

Dave Odom, by all rights, should have retired at Wake. Dave Odom, by all rights, should have had his banner in the rafters at Joel Coliseum long before now.

But better late than never.

As the song sung by the late-great Otis Redding reminded us so well, you don’t miss your water til your well runs dry.

And the well, in case you haven’t noticed, is bone dry. And it’s destined to stay that way until John Currie, Wellman’s successor, goes out and finds a coach up to the task of winning in the ACC.

It’s destined to stay that way until Currie finds a coach like Dave Odom.

My Goal to Grow

When you’re throwing dirt, you’re losing ground,’’ Rocky Bridges, former manager of the Prince William Cannons of the Carolina League.

Through the first half-century or so of my life, I was the measuring stick for being six-feet tall.

If I looked up to you, literally, not figuratively – necessarily — you were taller than six-feet.

If I looked down on you, again, not for any reason other than physical dimensions, you were shorter than six-feet.

Imagine then my consternation a few years back when on a visit to the doctor I was measured at 5-11.

No way. Can’t be. I’m six-feet tall. Have been since I was 16.

Then came my most recent visit, when I was braced for the result when measured. The nurse’s read was 70 inches.

And 70 inches, as even my public school education taught me, is 5-10.

Talk about being brought up short.

My physicians assistant I’ve grown to like and trust bucked me up, so to speak, when I bellyached about the measurement. Other patients have found fault as well. The measurement is off. The scales need to be recalibrated.

Maybe. I’ve heard folks lose height with age, but I wonder could it really be that dramatic?

Maybe. Yet, what a comedown, in more ways than one.

What I’ve also heard – and too often witnessed – is that folks also grow smaller in other, far more significant ways the older they get. They get more judgmental. They’re quicker to impose their morals and belief systems on others. They demand conformity, whatever conformity happens to be at the time.

They become Old Fogies.

And if I can’t do anything about growing shorter in physical stature – other than maybe hooking myself up that spine-stretching contraption Barney Fife resorted to in The Andy Griffith Show – then I’ve made a vow to grow bigger in all the ways that really matter.

Instead of being quick to find fault, I’ll be slower. Instead of holding everyone to my standards, I’ll at least attempt to recognize there’s always an alternative viewpoint to any and every opinion.

And in those instances where we can’t find common ground – i.e., on the merits, or shall we say, demerits of our current President – I’ll endeavor to never call those with whom I disagree nasty, sarcastic, juvenile names.

Rocky Bridges, the manager-savant I was lucky enough to meet during my decades of covering Carolina League baseball for the Winston-Salem Journal, got it right. When you’re throwing dirt, you’re losing ground.

Our history, in many ways, makes us who we are. I came of age in Franklin, N.C., tucked away in the folds of the Smoky Mountains, and Franklin is as rock-ribbed Republican as just about any place you’ll find.

I know those who support and go to war – again figuratively, if not literally – for our current President. I grew up around them. Most, like me, are of Scots-Irish descent, and their heads, like mine, are as hard as mountain granite.

And what they won’t abide is to be looked down upon. Their forebears were looked down upon, dating all the way back to William Wallace of Braveheart fame. Or at least that’s how James Webb explains it in his illuminating book Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America.

We Scots-Irish develop a keen sense of smell from birth, one that can smell condescension from time zones away. I’ll go to my grave believing that condescension, or at least the implied whiff of it, was what kept Hillary Clinton from becoming our nation’s first female President.

I recognize that Macon County, my home county, will probably never in my lifetime vote for a Democrat for President. But our country is changing inexorably, and given shifting migratory and demographic patterns, the day may come when a Democrat can get from Macon County more than the 28 percent Clinton received in 2016.

But, the way I see it, ridiculing and mocking and even vilifying those who voted for Donald Trump, is no way to hasten that day. To disagree is important. I, personally, feel it’s imperative. But there are ways to disagree without resorting to derision or contempt.

Think of it this way. Donald Trump needs 69 percent of the vote of Macon County to be elected president. If it’s 59 percent in that mountain county, there’s no way he takes the White House.

So not only is name-calling sophomoric and condescending, it’s destructive.

I’ve come to realize that with almost every decision of my life, I can go one of two ways. I can be big about it, or I can be small.

And a person can’t be smaller than when they’re running another person down.

The older I get, the bigger I want to be – regardless of what those infernal scales at the doctor’s office might say.

A Prediction from Nostracountrydanus

Say you had a spare $100 burning a hole in your pocket, and were bent on placing a wager on the near future of Wake athletics.

Say you were presented with three scenarios, and by picking the right one you win the bet.

Scenario one – Both Dave Clawson and Danny Manning will be coaching at Wake next season.

Scenario two – One of the two will be at Wake, the other will be gone. You don’t even have to distinguish which is which.

Scenario three – Neither Dave Clawson nor Danny Manning will be coaching at Wake next season.

Recently eight folks with deep and long-lasting ties to Wake athletics had lunch in Winston-Salem, as they do every week the opportunity presents itself. Knowing the perfect focus group when I recognize one, I asked one of the attendees to present the three scenarios, and take a show of hands.

The vote was 1-7-0.

One said both Clawson and Manning will be back.

Seven predicted one would be gone, one would be back.

None predicted both will be gone.

Obviously no one knows what will happen tomorrow, much less in six months from now. No one can see through the murky future into events not yet transpired.

And not to come off as some ultra-prescient seer, a regular Nostracountrydanus so to speak, but here on this date, Nov. 18, 2019, I’m ready to buck what appears to be the conventional wisdom. It’s my bet – and obviously you can save this post and flog me with it if I’m wrong – that neither Clawson nor Manning will be at Wake next season.

Go ahead. I’m retired. My livelihood doesn’t depend on what or how much I know.

And I’ll admit right off the top that I’m no expert on the current state of Wake athletics. I retired two years ago, and haven’t attended a football or basketball game – let alone a practice – since.

Instead, my opinion is based on what I know of Wake athletics from the 40 years I covered it with the Winston-Salem Journal, and of the coaches I covered in my final four years on the beat.

Already I can hear the argument of how much has changed at Wake in the past few years – what with the television money rolling in — and how the facilities have been dramatically upgraded and how now head coaches at the school can live quite nicely on multi-million dollar contracts. There has been a dramatic change in Wake athletics in the 21st century, and it’s been almost all for the good. All that I will readily concede.

You could also make the point that this exercise is really about Clawson’s future at Wake. All Danny Manning has proven in his five-plus seasons as Wake’s head basketball coach (105-124) is that he is no ACC head basketball coach, and he’s proven it in every way, shape or form imaginable.

As if we needed more evidence we got it last night, when Wake lost at Charlotte by giving up one uncontested layup after another and not even bothering to foul during the final 7 ½ seconds of a two-point game.

And all that took place directly under the nose of the new athletics director, John Currie, sitting oh so conspicuously next to the bench taking copious notes. The message appeared loud and clear to me.

OK everybody, I know we’ve got a problem in basketball. Don’t worry, guys, I’m on it. Just give me time to clean up the mess I was left with and you’ll get your new coach.’’

So that leaves the question of why I suspect Clawson is in his final season at Wake.

It’s not because I have any problem with Wake being good in football. In fact, having covered a program that could make a legitimate claim as having the worst 20th century of any major college school, I think what Clawson has accomplished is an amazing, and highly entertaining development.

The one factor I feel that wasn’t taken into account among the focus group referenced earlier is ambition. Every coach I ever covered was an ambitious sort. I read few if any to be as ambitious as Dave Clawson.

For the record I got along pretty well with Clawson during my four years on the beat, and I trust he would tell you the same. I certainly admire and respect what he has done. He’s one hell of a college football coach. Getting last season’s team to a bowl, and winning it, might have been the most impressive accomplishment I’ve witnessed in all these seasons of observing Wake athletics.

But he also has a high opinion of himself, one he has earned and has ever right to have. And he can’t stand losing.

I thought about him on Saturday night as he was riding back from the 52-3 blowout at Clemson, where he played without two players the Deacons just knew they couldn’t play without this season – Justin Strnad and Sage Surratt. For 40 years I heard how miniscule the margin of error is at Wake, especially in November after the inevitable injuries have taken toll.

Still, knowing as much as I know of Clawson, I know how badly he hates losing to anybody 52-3. He also remembers better than you or I that it was 63-3 last season. And he knows that if he’s back next season, he’d better be ready for more of the same.

I also thought about Clawson in the final moments of the home game against Florida State – a game the Deacons actually won – when there were fewer Wake students in the stands than we get on a regular night at Open Mic. He’s smart enough to choose his words carefully, but if you don’t think fan support – or lack thereof – is used against Wake in the cut-throat recruiting battles then you don’t know anything about college athletics.

Clawson, to my mind, is destined to coach for a national championship. My bet is that it’s in his mind as well. And if so, can he expect to do it at Wake?

None of which is to say I’m convinced Clawson is desperate to leave. He shouldn’t be., He has it pretty good, a sweet payday with his family close at hand, and without the kind of pressure the coaches at larger, more established programs face.

He could stay at Wake until they get around to erecting his statue outside the stadium. At Wake, he has it made.

Opportunity, of course, is the unknown factor, and whether the director of athletics at an established power program could face the wrath of hiring a coach who has lost his last two games to Clemson by a combined scored of 115-6.

But what else I know about Dave Clawson is that nobody is better at selling himself. He sold himself when he targeted Wake as the school to lift him out of the Mid-American Conference, and my bet is that if he gets the interview at a next target school, he’ll successfully sell himself again.

He’s 52. I don’t have to look it up because we share the same birthday and I’m 15 years older.

By the time he’s 67, he won’t be sitting at a laptop predicting what someone else is going to do with his life. He’ll be making college football history.

And he won’t be doing it at Wake.

Again, this is written on Nov. 18, 2019. Save the post and flog me if I’m wrong.

I’m retired.

I can take it.