My Frenemy Gary

Two of my favorite authors, Ken Kesey and Larry McMurtry, met at a grad-school seminar at Stanford back in the daze of the early 60s and, for all their differences, remained life-long friends.

They remained such fast friends, for all their differences, that about 10 years after Kesey passed in 2001, McMurtry married his widow Faye.

Both are literary giants. Kesey’s best-known work is “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’’ but as monumental as the novel remains, I always thought “Sometimes a Great Notion’’ was fuller, and, if possible, deeper. McMurty scored big-time with “Terms of Endearment’’ but the book of his I keep going back to at least every five years or so is “Lonesome Dove.’’

If there’s a more charismatic hero in American fiction than Augustus McCrae – played so superbly by the incomparable Robert Duvall in the late 80s mini-series – then please somebody point me in the right direction.

But in recounting the friendship between these two gents of letters, have I mentioned their differences?

Kesey, born and raised in Oregon but schooled in the drug-crazed California of the early 60s, was a counter-culture icon. McMurtry, a proud product of red-dirt Archer City, Texas was about as counter-counter-culture as an American can be.

The two argued (debated is probably more to the point) constantly, with Kesey staking out the left side of the issue and McMurtry the right.

Kesey described the dynamic in his essay “The Day After Superman Died’’ which was included in the compilation “Demon Box’’ published in 1986.

They had met at a graduate writing seminar at Stanford and had immediately disagreed about the most important issues of the day – beatniks, politics, ethics, and, especially, psychedelics – in fact about everything except for their mutual fondness for writing and each other. It was a friendship that flourished during many midnight debates over bourbon and booklore, with neither the right nor the left side of the issues ever gaining much ground.’’

Though Kesey admits he did lose a point or two on the scoreboard when McMurtry played the Charles Manson card in the late 60s. So it was the recent news of Manson’s death that reminded me of Kesey and McMurtry and set me to thinking about a similar relationship I have with Gary Strickland.

Gary and I disagree about all things political. Anyone who knows me knows which side of the debates I take.

Gary is a proud-Republican-right-wing graduate of Wake Forest and I would be a card-carrying left-wing hippie holdover from 1970s Chapel Hill if anyone were to ever come up with such a card.

Facebook friends know I’m liable, at any time, to start railing about the dangerous and inexorable slide into plutocracy that our president and his enablers are taking us. And they also know that on pretty much every thread I begin, there’s Gary Strickland picking every point and mounting a spirited – though obviously misguided – defense of our country’s rightward lurch.

Gary, by nature, is a contrarian who communicates best through confrontation. The first year I knew him I thought him to be the biggest pain in the posterior I had ever met. And nothing he has done or said since has changed my mind.

But then came the day I realized that as good as he was at dishing it out, he could also take it. He invited it. He loves the back-and-forth, the diving under somebody’s skin, the scrum. And he’s really, really bad about making those with whom he disagrees prove their point.

And, in a weak moment, I might even admit that so am I.

But, see, I also got to know and enjoy the company of Gary’s father, Hugh, mother, Tup, and his three sons David, Michael and Scott, all great American success stories in their own way. I saw the boys grow, just as Gary always kept tabs on our son Nate and daughter Rebecca. One season Gary actually coached Nate in baseball, and I his assistant.

Hugh Strickland attended 339 straight basketball games – and we’re talking about both home and away – that Wake Forest played from early in the 1980s until his eyesight failed him in 1991. One coach, Carl Tacy, thought enough of Hugh to make room for him on the Deacons’ bench at far-away holiday tournaments. Another, Dave Odom, promised Hugh that anytime he wanted to take a trip then the team bus would pull into his driveway and pick him up.

So nobody I know knows Wake Forest basketball better than Gary Strickland, who was attending ACC Tournaments back when they were played in N.C. State’s Reynolds Coliseum and who has been the official scorekeeper for home Wake games for decades.

All of which makes him an invaluable resource for a writer with a passion for ACC basketball history. He also happens to be stickler for grammar, and, true to his nature, is lightning fast to inform one of any mistakes they might make.

(To which my reply is always the same. I tell him `thanks.’)

During my two spectacularly unsuccessful forays into the publishing industry, Tales From the Wake Forest Demon Deacons Locker Room, and The ACC Basketball Book of Fame, I never wrote a word on Wake Forest basketball that Gary didn’t read behind me before publication. He has saved me from embarrassment more times than my public school education would allow me to count.

Occasionally, these days, I’ll run into a like-minded acquaintance who knows of my frequent Facebook rants. It’s so funny to see them scrunch up their face and ask `Who is this Gary Strickland dude who’s always stirring it up on your threads?’

My answer is finely honed.

“Well, consider me for a moment to be Ken Kesey. Then Gary is my Larry McMurtry, with whom I disagree about all things political but admire and respect as a friend.’’

How dull life would be if everybody agreed on everything. And how much lesser my life would be if I had never met Gary Strickland.

Can Deacs Hone Zone?

Playing zone defense may or may not be the solution to the problem that has dogged Danny Manning since he became Wake Forest’s head coach four seasons ago.

But last night it was his ticket to ride to an 80-73 victory over Illinois in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge at Joel Coliseum.

Yeah I know the backcourt finally started resembling what we were expecting all along, with Bryant Crawford contributing 20 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists while Mitchell Wilbekin and Brandon Childress chipped in 12 points apiece on 4-of-8 accuracy from 3-point range. And I know the big guy, Doral Moore, made good use of his career-most 32 minutes to hit 6 of 7 shots from the floor to finish with 12 points and 6 rebounds.

But if you were watching the same game I watched from the living room of the hacienda headquarters, you saw the Illini emerge from the locker room to score on eight of the first 12 times they brought the ball upcourt against Wake’s man-to-man defense. You also saw the game change dramatically once Manning directed the Deacons into a zone, with either Wilbekin or Childress applying pressure up top before dropping back into the 2-3.

Stopping teams from scoring was a problem at Wake Forest long before Manning took over before the 2014-15 season. The exceptions, at least since the days Tim Duncan patrolled the lane, were in 2002-03, Josh Howard’s senior season, and the back-to-back seasons of 2008-09 and 2009-10, after coach Dino Gaudio had time to get his Pack-Line defense up and running the way he wanted.

The 2002-03 team held opponents to a field-goal accuracy of 39.7 percent, the ninth-best mark in school history. The 2009-10 team did even better, holding teams to 39 percent, the seventh-best mark, while the 2008-09 team ranks 10th with a field-goal percentage defense of 39.8 percent.

The result? The 2002-03 Deacons finished first in the ACC regular season on the way to a 25-6 record. The 2008-09 and 2009-10 teams combined for 20 conference victories and played in the NCAA Tournament both seasons.

Last winter, when a torn shoulder tendon forced me to start watching the Deacons on television instead of from courtside, I began charting the number of times the opponent scored against the number of Wake stops. Game after game I noticed how easily opponents scored against the Deacons, especially down the stretch with the outcomes still in question.

The same pattern held true through the Deacons’ first six games of this season, pocked by home losses to Georgia Southern and Liberty and setbacks in Lynchburg to Drake and Houston. Even in last Friday’s 81-75 home victory over UNC Greensboro, Wake allowed the Spartans to score on nine of their last 12 possessions.

Danny Manning, by inclination and background, is a man-to-man coach. He learned his basketball from Larry Brown, who in turn, learned much of what he knows from Dean Smith. Brown and Smith knew that strong teams played strong man-to-man defense.

But last night, after the Illini raced out to an early lead, it was the zone that stopped them dead in their tracks. I kept track, like I said, and of the 52 times Wake Forest got downcourt in time to set up its zone, the Deacons got 31 stops.

That’s hardly the Russians at Stalingrad, as Skip Prosser was wont to say, but it’s a far cry better than any results Manning has gotten lately from his man-to-man.

Afterward, Manning didn’t sound completely sold what he had seen from the zone. He made mention of how the Illini made 12 of 29 of their 3-point attempts, for 41 percent, and how they turned 17 offensive rebounds into 13 second-chance points. The Deacons did, indeed, have trouble boxing out in the zone, but the records show that four of Illinois’ 3-pointers came early before Wake resorted to its zone.

What Manning did like was how the zone allowed Moore to play the most minutes of his career.

“He’s such a presence for us in there, not necessarily blocking shots but having guys have to shoot over him,’’ Manning said. “But when we do that we have to do a much better job with other players if we want to get rebounds and box out.’’

The question becomes how will other teams attack Wake’s zone, now that they have more than 30 minutes of videotape to study the Illinois game. The Deacons play Richmond at Joel Coliseum on Saturday, and the Spiders’ coach, Chris Mooney, is a guy who knows his Xs and Os.

He’ll have a plan if and when Wake resorts to a zone. The question will then become how much Danny and the Deacons adjust what they’re doing.

But last night, at least, Manning went zone and it worked. It worked, actually, a far cry better than the man-to-man has worked this season.

Whether it will work again Saturday, we’ll see. But in the sage words of the great rockabilly band BR-549, sometimes you’ve got to do something even if it’s wrong.

Wellman Stands by His Manning

So little has gone right for Wake Forest in basketball since Skip Prosser died.

And what has gone right, hasn’t gone right for long.

Over the 10 seasons since Prosser collapsed and died after his afternoon jog around a campus track, the Deacons have surfaced in the NCAA Tournament three times, twice in 2009 and 2010 with Dino Gaudio as head coach and last March in Danny Manning’s third season at the helm.

All three appearances have been little more than cameos – though I will reiterate that the victory over Texas in the first round of 2010 in New Orleans is one of the most forgotten victories in the history of the program.

The sordid recent past is a big reason the start to this season has been such a kick in the teeth to one of the longest-suffering fan bases in the ACC.

Granted, there was ample reason to expect a rough season in 2017-18 after the off-season losses of cousin John Collins to the NBA and Dinos Mitoglou to a pro team back home in Greece.

But the pratfall with which the Deacons began the season – with home losses to Georgia Southern and Liberty followed by setbacks in Lynchburg to Drake and Houston – suggests that the light then fan base thought it saw at the end of the tunnel last March was just another UFO sighting over Joel Coliseum.

Now, with his coach 2-4 in his fourth season, Athletics Director Ron Wellman has made the curious decision to announce an extension to Manning’s contract.

Length and terms of the extension were not released, as they never are at Wake. As a private school, Wake is not legally obligated to inform those who care about the program just what is being done to alleviate their pain.

Besides, by keeping his cards close to his vest, Wellman can play them when and how he wants. If he decides to award a coach an extension in October and then cut the same coach loose six months later – as he did with Gaudio – then it’s up to reporters such as I was at the time to ask him what that was all about.

And if Wellman chooses not to answer, then, as the director of athletics of a private school, that’s his legal prerogative.

But when his stated basis for firing Gaudio (lack of post-season and late-season success) falls apart with the hiring of Jeff Bzdelik, a coach with even less late February and March success than Gaudio, then everyone has to know there’s far more to the story than is being told.

In short, Gaudio was fired because he wasn’t the man Wellman and his inner circle of advisers wanted as head basketball coach of Wake Forest.

And the only reasonable explanation for why Bzdelik was brought aboard and kept for four season under the most intense outcry from the fan base I experienced in 40 seasons as a sportswriter is that Bzdelik – he of the 51-76 record – remained Wellman’s man until Wellman could stand up against the tempest no longer.

Now Wellman has stepped up to say that Manning is still his man. The holiday weekend announcement released by the media relations department made mention of last season’s appearance in the NCAA Tournament, the development of Collins and Mitoglou and the promise of a 2018 recruiting class ranked on the cusp of the Top 10 in the country.

The release didn’t mention Manning’s records of 45-57 overall or 16-38 in ACC play, nor did it mention losing to such luminaries as Georgia Southern and Liberty in front of a few thousand die-hards at Joel Coliseum.

In reading this, I can see how people might get the impression I’m not a big fan of Ron Wellman. Actually, nothing could be farther from the truth.

In the 25 years we worked together, I grew to admire, respect and enjoy the company of the man even when I was questioning and doubting his administration of the Wake athletics program. And I’ve gone on record many times to say that Ron Wellman is a smart man. Wake doesn’t win an ACC football championship and a national soccer title and develop its facilities to its current state without a smart man running the show.

All of which is why the hiring of Jeff Bzdelik and keeping him as coach for four seasons was the dumbest move by a smart man I can ever name.

Now, in the face of a disastrous start of Manning’s fourth season – and I keep making that point, that the losses to Georgia Southern, Liberty and Drake didn’t come in a coach’s first, second or even third season – Wellman steps back out in the line of fire to announce a contract extension.

My advice to anyone who still cares about the fortunes of Wake basketball is that unless you’re a lawyer who helped dictate the terms of the extension, then pay no attention to the latest announcement.

It means nothing. And if you don’t believe me, ask Dino Gaudio.

You can find him courtside as a basketball analyst eight seasons after he coached his last game.

Deacons Prove Cutcliffe Right

David Cutcliffe saw the same thing I saw from Wake Forest in the first half, which is why the Duke coach predicted it would be his team celebrating at the end of today’s regular-season finale at BB&T Field.

I’ve always chuckled when I hear how there’s no margin of error at Wake. There was plenty of margin of error in Dave Clawson’s first two seasons as head coach, which is why the Deacons went 3-9 both years.

The correct way of saying it is that there’s no margin of error if the Deacons hope to win. And we saw that again today when Duke showed more grit, determination and effort en route to the 31-23 win the Blue Devils needed to secure a sixth victory and bowl eligibility.

John Wolford, one of the most heart-warming stories in football I can remember, has had a magical senior season. But when he fumbled on his first carry, one had to wonder if this was going to be his day.

Yeah, I know Scottie Washington recovered the fumble, so no harm, no foul. But as impressed as I’ve been over what Wolford has done this season, I’ve been even more impressed with what he hasn’t.

He’s a quarterback who over his first 10 games just didn’t screw up. Today he did, missing open receivers and throwing two interceptions. You could tell he was off-kilter, long before he limped off the field on a bad ankle and had to miss a possession.

But by then the Blue Devils were clearly dominating the line of scrimmage, both when they had the ball and when they didn’t. When Duke needed the big play, be it on third down or fourth, the Blue Devils got it. When a key stop was required, the Deacons were stopped.

Wake’s best chance – and perhaps only chance – was to make serious hay in the first half before the Blue Devils got around to doing what they had driven over from Durham to do. That the Deacons led 17-10 at halftime had far more to do with the educated right toe of Dom Maggio and the punt cover team than any spark from the offense or defense.

Hence, Cutcliffe’s confidence at halftime.

He knew the Wake team he had just watched for 30 minutes bore scant resemblance to the same team that stunned both Louisville and N.C. State. Maybe Wake was overconfident. Maybe, despite the presence of Duke Ejiofor and Jessie Bates back in the defensive lineup, the long string of injuries finally caught up with the Deacons.

Not being in the locker room before the game, I don’t know exactly what it was that was missing. The Deacons were, after all, playing a long-time rival, one that had beaten Wake four of the last five times. Wake also had a shot at winning an eighth regular-season game for only the third time since the beginning of the ACC in 1953.

Clawson was brutally candid in saying all the right things in defeat, and I couldn’t disagree with anything he said. Duke did out-prepare, out-coach, out-play and out-execute Wake, and thus deserved to win.

In searching for reasons, Clawson came close once.

“Today we got outplayed,’’ Clawson said. “I was concerned about it. The last two weeks there was such an emotional high for us. To come from behind at Syracuse and you beat N.C. State the way we did, and you hope there’s enough gas in the tank, and you hope there’s enough to play for.

“I think there was. I think our guys were ready. We just didn’t play well.’’

Plutocracy on the March

Plutocracy – Government by and for the wealthy.

Chris Collins is my new favorite politician.

Not that I would ever vote for him, despite his last name, and not that I ever could. He is a representative from New York and we live in North Carolina.

But Collins gets major kudos for being the most honest plutocrat to come forward and champion the tax cut bill the Republicans are trying to ram down the throats of the American people.

When explaining his ardor for the bill, Collins was candid as candid can be.

“My donors are basically saying, `Get it done or don’t ever call me again.’ ‘’

Notice Collins’ expressed concern is not for the good of the American people, those he was elected to represent.

And notice he’s not talking about the middle class, the purported target of the proposed cuts.

No Collins is talking political survival. The donors, the big money responsible for putting him in office and keeping him there, must be served.

All this at a time of record inequality in our country, a time when the gap between the richest of the rich and everyone else gets wider with every passing year. All this at a time that middle class wages have stagnated over the last 50 years, ever since Republicans began to convince the American people that if they can take care of those most capable of taking care of themselves, then along the way some of the crumbs are bound to fall off the table for the rest of us.

The studies I’m reading say that’s exactly what the bill being advanced through Congress today will do. It’s just more of the same old same old trickle-down economics, once described so poignantly by the first President Bush as voodoo economics (of course that was before he realized he had to toe the line to get elected.)

What’s interesting is that so many of the powers that be aren’t even trying to hide it.

Did you hear what Gary Cohn, a former executive officer of Goldman Sachs who is now the president’s leading economic adviser, had to say about the cuts?

“The most excited group out there are the big CEOs, about our tax plan.’’

Or how about the words of wisdom from Steven Law, the head of the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC affiliated with Mitch McConnell.

“(Donors) would be mortified if we didn’t live up to what we’ve committed to on tax reform.’’

Heaven forbid we mortify the big money.

If Congress was truly concerned about the middle class, there are many ways it could help. There’s the Child Tax Credit, for example, and there’s the Earned Income Tax Credit, cuts that go directly to the middle class instead of being filtered through the richest of the rich.

I’d be all for those kinds of tax cuts because I’m convinced they would actually stimulate the economy. Give our family more money and we’ll spend it at the grocery store, the car lot, the neighborhood restaurant. And those places, in turn, would have more money to expand and hire more people I know.

But give it to the wealthiest of the wealthy a tax cut and odds are it will end up like so much of their other money, to be used to boost the salaries of the CEOs or get stashed away from the IRS in an off-shore account.

So before you support the current efforts to cut taxes, ask yourself two questions.

Do you really think those pushing for the cuts are looking after your interests, or are they just serving those responsible for putting them in office and keeping them there?

And how do you feel about living in a plutocracy?

Wake Seniors to Go Out Winners

Nobody joins any college football program to lose, which is why most Senior Days at Wake over the years have been at best a bittersweet tribute to toil, dedication and effort and at worst another sad reminder of unrealized hopes and dreams.

Over the first 64 seasons of ACC football, 16 senior classes at Wake went out as winners – on teams with winning records. The other 48, try as they might, found their best was not good enough.

Their only consolation was that perhaps they helped lay the foundation for better days ahead.

Beating those ancient rivals from N.C. State, as the Deacons did 30-24 last night at BB&T Field, is always cause for mass jubilation. To beat the Wolfpack in a season that so much was expected from Dave Doeren’s fifth edition was especially gratifying.

But as happy as I am for Dave Clawson and his staff, I’m happiest for Wake’s seniors. They’ve guaranteed themselves a second-straight winning season, and they’ve done so with so much more to play for.

They’ve already passed the test. Now they’re after all the extra credit they can pile up before riding off into the NFL, their first job, the sunset, or whatever the destination might be.

As the Wake beat reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal three seasons ago, I got to know John Wolford and Cam Serigne and Wendell Dunn better than I knew most freshmen. I had to get to know them because they were playing key roles.

And along the way I got to know others in their class, guys like Duke Ejiofor and Grant Dawson and Jaboree Williams and Devin Pike and I could see what they had to do to get the program where it is today.

It’s a small group, the seniors and redshirt seniors who are winding up their college careers, but its impact on the Deacons program has been immeasurable.

Wolford, in so many ways, epitomizes what has happened with Wake football since Clawson took over before the 2014 season. The only people to ever believe in John Wolford were the coaches he played for, the players he played with, his family and closest friends, and Wolford himself.

Every season Wolford was forced to win his position, and every season he proved to be a player Clawson simply couldn’t keep off the field.

To see Wolford finally get to play behind a strong, veteran offensive line and alongside skill players who could do what needed to be done has been so much fun this season. To see him get all that national attention as the catalyst of the most dynamic offense in Wake football history has been such a joy.

And to know that he and his fellow seniors are not done is the most exciting part of the whole story.

Since the ACC began in 1953, only five Wake teams have won as many as eight games.

By beating Duke next week at home in the regular-season finale, the Deacons would be 8-4.

In all these seasons of the ACC, only two Wake teams have won as many as nine games. By beating Duke and then winning the bowl game they’ve earned the right to play in, the Deacons would be 9-4.

Nobody joins any college football program to lose, and John Wolford and those with him on this journey through a college career were too good, too determined and too well-coached to go out as losers.

Asked to assess Wolford’s performance last night, Clawson was succinct.

“He’s a winning quarterback,’’ Clawson explained.

So What’s the Deal with Woods?

So now we know Wake’s problem over the first three games of the basketball season.

Turns out there was nothing wrong with the Deacons that benching Keyshawn Woods couldn’t cure.

If you don’t think I’m being facetious here, we’ve obviously never met. The real reason Wake finally broke through after three ignominious losses was it took the Deacons that long to find somebody they could beat.

That somebody proved to be Quinnipiac, as bad a team as Wake can expect to play all seasons. I checked out two RPI polls during the 72-55 Deacons’ victory, one of which had the Bobcats at No. 307, the other at No. 324.

In case you’re wondering, there are 351 teams playing college basketball.

What was interesting about Wake’s win was the lift the Deacons got from bench players like Donovan Mitchell, Olivier Sarr and Melo Eggleston – none of whom had shown much of anything in the first three games. The contributions came in handy with Doral Moore – he of the 17 points and 17 rebounds in Friday’s loss to Drake – limited to 11 minutes by foul problems.

Mitchell, who played only 11 minutes in the first three games combined, was especially impressive with 8 points and 5 rebounds in 24 minutes. His two 3-pointers in the first half helped the Deacons bolt out to a 23-point lead that was too large for even the Deacons to blow.

But if you’re like me – and I’m sure that’s a scary thought – then your biggest question coming out of this game was what’s the deal with Woods, the transfer from Charlotte who has been integral to the Deacons fortunes ever since he became eligible before last season? Listening to the IMG Sports broadcast from Lynchburg, I learned that he was not in uniform because of what was described as a coach’s decision.

So what did Woods do, when did he do it and how long will he be out? Will he be back for Sunday’s game against Houston?

The most open program in the ACC for so many years is open no longer. These days it’s about as closed as closed can be.

There’s a part of me that understands why Danny Manning closed practices to the media upon arrival. He’s only doing what most of his conference rivals did years and years ago.

Having said that, I confess my coverage of the Wake program under Manning wasn’t what it was when Dave Odom, Skip Prosser, Dino Gaudio and Jeff Bzdelik were running the show. It got to where I rarely wrote my take on Wake basketball because I wasn’t close enough to the program to really have one.

Manning’s inclination is to keep everything close to the vest, and again, he’s hardly the Lone Ranger of college basketball coaches in that regard. But when the media doesn’t know the program, then neither do the fans not privileged and/or well-heeled enough to buy the access.

Wake, for the first 20 years I covered the beat, was special. My paper, the Winston-Salem Journal, benefited greatly, but I like to think so did the Deacon fans who cared enough about the program to pick up the paper our check us out on-line.

Being the smallest school in the ACC surrounded by larger, more prominent state institutions, Wake needs a special relation with its fan base – what there is of it. The numbers alone dictate that the only way the Deacons come close to filling up one of the biggest arenas in the conference is by appealing to free-agent fans, the ones who didn’t go to school there but might pull for Wake because its local or because there are interesting players or coaches on the team.

So in the fourth game of his fourth season, with his team still looking for its first win, Manning benches a key player and gives no explanation other than that’s what he decided to do.

That’s his right. It’s his team.

But if he keeps boxing out the media – and through the media, the fans – then how long will it be before nobody cares enough to even ask him the question?