Deacs Dig Down But Come Up Empty

College basketball coaches, I found, use the most descriptive phrases, and the more old-school the coach, it seemed, the more descriptive the phrase.

One I heard from Dave Odom many times was how the Deacons would have to get into the other team on defense to have a chance.

Well Wake Forest got into North Carolina hard enough to  stay in the game against the No. 13 Tar Heels for 40 minutes today at the DeanDome. Playing the caliber of defense I’ve rarely seen from a Deacons’ team since the days of Tim Duncan, Wake came oh so close to making this a weekend to remember forever up north of town on University Avenue.

Problem was, the Deacons stayed in the game until winning time, but didn’t know what to do once there. Consequently the Tar Heels, after managing points on just 13 of their first 32 second-half possessions, scored the game’s final eight points to pull out a 73-69 victory in the ACC opener for both teams.

Wake, leading by two with a minute remaining, didn’t need that 3-point attempt from Bryant Crawford.  They needed someone other than Doral Moore – who makes 55 percent of his free throws – at the line with 34 seconds remaining in a tie game, which became all-to-evident when Moore missed the front-end of a one-and-one.

But after Theo Pinson’s basket with 11 seconds left gave North Carolina the lead, what the Deacons really needed was to get the ball into the hands of Crawford. Danny Manning of the Deacons called time, ostensibly to direct his team to do just that.

As the final play of the game unfolded, I flashed back to the ACC championship of 1987. I’m old, so my mind tends to wander like that.

In 1987, in Landover, Md., Jimmy Valvano put the finishing touches on his Wolfpack’s upset of North Carolina by entreating the immortal Kelsey Weems (hyperbole alert) to, at all costs, keep the ball out of the hands of Kenny Smith on the game’s climatic play. Weems did just that, forcing Joe Wolf to dribble awkwardly upcourt to uncork a shot that missed badly.

Ranzino Smith rebounded and missed a last-gasp 3-pointer, and there was Jimmy V cutting down some more nets.

Today, in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels face-guarded Crawford and forced Woods to inbound the ball to Olivier Sarr. Woods got it right back, but never looked comfortable dribbling across half-court.

Maybe Woods could have gotten the ball back to Crawford in the half-court. I’m not sure. And maybe he panicked just a bit, and shot too soon. A case could be made.

But whatever the cause, Woods’ shot clanked off the rim into the hands of Kenny Williams.

Dan Dakich, as insufferable as he is, was right to say that Manning should have called time with Williams at the line with 1.9 seconds remaining. Why not?

Wake had two timeouts remaining, so why save either? And given that Williams was shooting a one-and-one, a miracle finish was not outside the realm of possibilities.

The thought apparently came too late to Manning, who tried but failed to get the time after the ball had been handed to Williams.

It’s hard to criticize a coach who loses by four on the road to a 13th-ranked team in the country, but the final moments did appear to unfold a little fast for the Wake bench.

But with Moore making his 7-foot presence felt inside, the Deacons did lock down on defense. And as I’ve said before — and will certainly say again — the story of Wake’s season will be told down at the defensive end.

Unfortunately, even the best defense can only keep a team in the game until the end. The trick is to know what to do once there.

Bowls Bring Out Best

Betting has never been my thing. While writing sports for a living, I figured that doing so might get me into ethical places best avoided.

So I avoided them.

But if the betting bug ever does bite me, I know one rule of thumb to go by. If Wake plays in a bowl, bet the Deacons.

I didn’t need to see Wake outlast Texas A&M 55-52 in today’s Belk Bowl shootout to know that the Deacons are smart money in a 13th game played around Christmas at a neutral site. And I have a pretty good notion why.

Motivation can be an iffy commodity for some bowl teams, those used to going to this bowl or that bowl season after season.

Motivation to play in a bowl has never been a problem at Wake, and it shows in the school’s recent bowl record.

The first bowl game I ever saw Wake play, in Orlando’s Tangerine Bowl of 1979, the Deacons got crushed 34-10 by LSU. But in their nine bowl games since, the Deacons have won seven.

And as for the two they lost, to Louisville in the 2007 Orange Bowl and to Mississippi State in the 2011 Music City Bowl, it was anybody’s game going down the stretch.

All bowl victories are to be cherished at Wake, but today’s performance has to rank as one of the great wins in the history of the school. In beating an SEC opponent – albeit one that had sagged low enough to get its coach cashiered – the Deacons finished 8-5.

History, unlike betting, has always been my thing. So it’s a big deal when this team, Dave Clawson’s fourth, becomes only the sixth in school history to win as many as eight games.

It’s also a big deal when the Deacons win back-to-back bowls for only the second time, the first being victories by Jim Grobe’s teams in 2007 and 2008. Clawson has certainly proved to be everything Ron Wellman could have hoped he would be when Wellman went with him over Pete Lembo after Grobe’s fifth straight losing season of 2013.

Lembo, in case you haven’t been keeping up, last season left his gig as Ball State’s head coach – where he was 8-16 over his past two seasons – in favor of an assistant coaching job at Maryland. Reports say he took a pay cut to do so.

Work remains for Clawson to get Wake where he wants it to be.

The offense made mind-boggling strides from last season. It’s hard to believe that many of the same players we watched play offense for the Deacons in 2014 and 2015 were on the field today while Wake was rolling to 646 yards, six touchdowns and two Mike Weaver field goals.

For the longest time it appeared that 646 yards and 55 points would not be enough. Truth be told, it might not have been if that referee hadn’t decided to swallow his whistle in watching cornerback Essang Bassey of Wake pull freshman receiver Jhamon Ausbon to the ground deep in Deacon territory with 45 seconds left.

Every fan for every team in every sport always thinks their team gets a raw deal from the officials. It’s human nature, and I’ve certainly seen Wake come up on the short end of the stick more than a time or two over the years.

The break went Wake’s way today, and because of that I got to see the tears glistening in Clawson’s eyes as he was asked about the contributions of his seniors. I also got to see one of those seniors, one of my all-time favorites, John Wolford, standing on the podium afterward and accept the award as the game’s most valuable player.

When I decided to retire in August, I told Wolford to make me sorry I did. For all the fun I’ve had these past four months, today Johnny Football almost succeeded in granting my request.

Almost.

A Day on the Beat

Conor O’Neill and Les Johns were both up this morning long before me. And unlike me, they were up and at’m.

Over my last days as an every day working stiff, I was lucky enough to get to know Conor and Les well. And few people on this planet know better what their day will be like covering Wake Forest against Texas A&M in the Belk Bowl, Conor for the Winston-Salem Journal and Les for Demon Deacons Digest.

Both, I feel pretty certain, were out the door by 9, wondering if they were leaving early enough. Traffic around Charlotte can be a bear, a riled, ill-tempered grizzly bear at that.

If all went well, they would be have pulled into the media parking at Bank of America Stadium by 11, leaving them the requisite (at least for me) two hours to get into the stadium, find the media workroom, check out the wireless, and woof down whatever fare the folks that run the Belk Bowl might have laid out.

The conclusion I reached early in my career was we all have to spend the two hours before a game somewhere, and for me, the best place was on site, among friends getting myself settled into the routine of the day. On the rare occasion I got to a game late, I felt like I was catching up all day.

So both were well into their assignment long before the 1 p.m. kickoff. College football games usually run between three and three and a half hours, so barring overtime or anything really crazy, they could expect it to be over by 4:30.

The big break of the day is that the game is being played in Charlotte, and not somewhere like El Paso, where N.C. State was dispatched to play Arizona State in the Sun Bowl. (Exotic trips such as those to west Texas can be fun, but especially taxing, especially during a time there’s also basketball to cover). And the 1 p.m. kickoff meant that Conor’s deadline won’t be demanding.

When the game does end is when their real work begins. The most critical hour of the day is post-game, the time to talk to the players and coaches and get the quotes that will hopefully make their stories what Conor and Les want them to be.

As my 40 years in the business passed, and media splintered into countless internet sites offering instant information, game stories became less and less about what happened. Everyone already knows that. What we could give the reader, though, was the reaction from the participants, why they dropped that pass in the end zone, why they audibled out of one play into another that led to a touchdown, why they punted on fourth and one at the opponent’s 43.

So if Conor and Les are lucky, they’ll be back at their computers in the workroom by 5:30, their heads spinning with all they’d seen, heard and absorbed. Time to put it all together in the written word – and in Les’ case, knock out a video or three.

My post-game pace was dictated by deadline. When I didn’t have one pressing, I usually needed between 60 and 90 minutes to compose, edit and transmit my offering into the Journal’s system. But don’t think I was done then.

Over my last 10 or so years, I ended pretty much every assignment by knocking out a post for my blog, My Take on Wake. The tone of this writing was less formal, more conversational, like what you’re reading right now. The blog gave me a chance to broach and amplify elements of the game that couldn’t be crammed into my 750-word lede.

So it will be dark, and cold, when Conor and Les finally get back to their cars by around 8 tonight for the drive home. I can remember how dead tired I would be by then, but I could always count on the adrenaline of the day to carry me in.

Again, if all goes well, Conor and Les will be back home and done for the day by 9:30 or 10 tonight. And they’d better not stay up too late power-gliding off the day because both will have to be up and at’m early tomorrow – that is, if they want to make it to Chapel Hill two hours before the Deacons’ noon basketball game at North Carolina.

One of the go-to jokes of my career is that working sportswriter is a contradiction of terms, but knowing what my two compadres are dealing with today belies that notion.

As for this old boy, I got up this morning when I felt like it, knocked out this post and ate a few pizza rolls, all in time to settle down in front of the TV to watch the game with an adult beverage in hand.

I did what Conor and Les are doing today year after year after year. I don’t miss most of it, but I do miss the pre-game camaraderie.

And what I miss most of all is laying my head down on a pillow after an endless, exhausting day, and knowing I had done all right.

Infrastructure Blues

There’s a consensus in our country that an investment in our infrastructure is long overdue.

It didn’t take another derailment of an Amtrak train in Washington state to convince me or anyone I know.

But instead of investing the amount of money it would take – money that according to that bastion of liberal orthodoxy, Forbes, would provide an immediate and dramatic boost to our economy – the Republicans in Congress have decided to cut taxes on the richest of the rich among us.

That’s the same tax cut that independent analysts say will add more than a trillion dollars to our existing debt.

That’s the same tax cut that will reward the donor class – the Kochs, Adelsons and Mercers – for their donations as a required return on investment.

And, to be sure, that’s the same tax cut that will almost certainly benefit directly, as well as indirectly through continued donations, those voting for it.

People who know economics far better than I have noted that this is a curious time for a tax cut. Our economy, for the most part, is cruising along pretty well.

But the modern Republican party has become, on economic issues, a one-trick pony. Cutting taxes, particularly on the wealthy, is their answer — regardless of the question.

Meanwhile all this brave talk our president made about investing in the infrastructure has been pushed to the back burner, where, my guess is it will sit until it long after the election of 2020.

We don’t need the tax cut, at least not the one currently being pushed down the throats of the American public.

We do need an investment in infrastructure.

If only our politicians truly cared about all the American people instead of just the ones rich enough to put them in office and keep them there.

Aged Beef

The stories I covered with the Winston-Salem Journal didn’t end upon my retirement in August. They continued to unfold, often to my surprise but more times than not in ways that I kind of figured they would.

There may have been no story on Wake football that I wrote about more often, or in greater depth, than Coach Dave Clawson’s concerted efforts to build an offensive line capable of blocking the defenses the Deacons played.

Clawson’s concerted efforts followed those made by Jim Grobe and his staff during Grobe’s last seasons as head coach. The failure to field a winning team over Grobe’s final five seasons could be attributed, in large part, to trying to win the ACC with, at best, a Sun Belt offensive line.

It was with great interest, then, that I read Conor O’Neill’s piece in this Sunday’s Journal about the transformation of the Deacons’ offensive line into one of the most formidable units in recent school history.

For the story behind Conor’s story, you might want to check out what I wrote way back at the beginning, when Clawson threw some young kids to the wolves knowing how badly they would get mauled before acquiring the kind of strength, experience and toughness required to survive, let alone thrive in the trench warfare of the ACC.

My public school education is not sufficient to count the times Clawson reminded everyone – probably most of all himself – how the process could not be rushed, how it took time in the weight room, time in the film room, time on the field to forge five or six players into one capable unit.

Along the way, everyone had to take their lumps.

Clawson took his lumps, from the fans, from relentless scribes like me, and even from former Wake coaches such as Al Groh who opined as a television analyst that the Deacons’ line needed to ditch the two-point stance and drop a fist on the ground for better drive.

Nick Tabacca, the offensive line coach, took his lumps every time the Deacons were stuffed on a third-and-one, not to mention the one hundred or so times quarterback John Wolford picked himself off the ground after being sacked.

But nobody took more lumps than Justin Herron, Phil Haynes, Ryan Anderson, Patrick Osterhage, Jake Benzinger and Nate Gilliam, the linemen who were physically dominated game after game, season after season, before becoming strong and together enough to fight back.

The story that will be best remembered after the Deacons end their season against Texas A&M in the Dec. 29 Belk Bowl will be how Wolford survived the pounding to lead Wake to the most points ever scored in school history. But knowing Wolford as I got to know him in his first three seasons, he would be the first to say he could not have done it without the remarkable growth and maturation of his big buddies up front, Wake’s Beef Boys.

No, stories don’t end at retirement. In this instance, I covered the seeding, watering and weeding of the Deacons’ offensive line, and Conor got to write the harvest.

An Open Letter to Richard and Thom

Dear Senators Burr and Tillis:

Throughout your respective political careers, I’ve heard you repeatedly describe yourself as conservatives.

I, respectfully, beg to differ.

What, may I ask, is “conservative’’ about supporting a tax bill that independent non-partisan analyses from both the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation have concluded will, more than likely, pile more than a trillion dollars on our existing deficit?

Why do deficits only matter when a Democrat is in the White House? Or do you agree with former vice-president Dick Cheney, that “deficits don’t matter?’’

What is “conservative’’ about the process deployed to pass the bill in the Senate, a 500-page bill with handwritten amendments in the margins voted on at 2 a.m. that you and your fellow Senators had only hours to read and analyze. If you are proud of your vote, why did it have to be cast in the dead of night?

What, may I ask, was the rush to vote on a bill that will have such far-reaching consequences for those you represent?

What is “conservative’’ about regurgitating the time-worn chestnut that tax cuts will trigger enough growth to pay for the tax cuts to corporations and the richest of the rich among us? Forbes, hardly a bastion of liberal orthodoxy, disagrees with your conclusion. Bruce Bartlett, who helped shepherd a tax cut through Congress during the Reagan administration, said your contention that tax cuts spur growth is a myth.

Why should we believe you and not a real, practicing conservative such as Bartlett?

The bill you both support is not conservative, it’s radical. It’s a radical redistribution of wealth from the middle class to the wealthiest among us at a time that the rich have never been richer while the wages of the middle class have remained stubbornly stagnant. I challenge you to identify one tax cut that has benefited the working and middle classes instead of the donor class you rely upon to keep your precious seats in the Senate.

It’s funny how you never hear the term statesman used anymore. The definition is a “skilled, experienced and respected politician,’’ but in my mind it also denotes a political figure more concerned with the common good of their state and nation than with their party or personal career.

How nice it would be if the state of North Carolina was represented in the Senate by statesmen instead of individuals so bent on protecting their own party and political careers.

Respectfully yours,

Dan Collins

Blame It On a Bad Movie About Hank

Funny how in life sometimes the highest good comes from the lowest of places.

For me the inspiration that launched a lifelong fascination with writing songs came from one of the worst bio-pics to ever make its way to the movie theater in my hometown of Franklin. My only excuse for not knowing how bad it was is that I when I first saw it, I was only 12.

The year was 1964 when MGM released Your Cheatin’ Heart, with George Hamilton playing Hank Williams. I saw it with my mother, Frances Cooper Collins, who, despite not being a musician herself, carried the musical gene that infected me to the core of my being.

To Frances, there has never been a country music singer/songwriter she loved half as much as she loved Hank Williams. Today, going on 65 years since Hank passed away, the same could be said for me.

Thankfully, discernment, in this case, didn’t come until many years had passed. For it was only after watching the movie as an adult did I realize had ridiculously bad it actually was.

Colin Escott, who wrote the definitive Hank Williams: The Biography had one word for Your Cheatin’ Heart, and that word was execrable.

Just to be sure I went back and watched it again today. I’m here to testify under any oath anyone might want me to take that Escott was right.

The first tipoff for why it was such a piece of horse dung could be seen in the opening credits, which listed as a “technical adviser’’ none other than Audrey Williams, A.K.A. Mrs. Hank Williams.

Problem one, she wasn’t Mrs. Hank Williams when Hank passed away on or around the date of Jan. 1, 1953. She and Hank had divorced for the second time after one of the most notoriously rocky marriages Nashville has ever known – which for such a Sodom and Gomorroh as Nashville is really saying something. Furthermore, Hank, by the time he died, had already taken up with and married a sweet young thing named Billie Jean Jones.

Let the record show that Hank actually married Billie Jean twice, once before a justice of the peace in Minden, Louisiana and again, for the price of admission, on stage before an audience in New Orleans.

So problem two, the big problem, was that the movie was seen through the heavily distorted prism of Audrey, known not-so-affectionately around Nashville as “Big A.’’ Hence there was nothing in the movie dealing with the extramarital affairs, nothing about the nasty drug choral hydrate fed to Hank by a quack doctor named Toby Marshall – which along with the alcohol is what probably killed him – and certainly nothing about anyone named or remotely resembling Billie Jean Jones.

In hindsight, the movie was a fraud propagated on tender, highly impressionable young mind of one 12-year-old Country Dan Collins. And to this day, I’m so glad it was.

For there was one scene in the movie that provided the inspiration I have carried with me ever since, the inspiration to start writing songs of my own.

The scene came early, right after Hank met Audrey and joined up with the Drifting Cowboys. The band is crammed shoulder to shoulder in a 1950s model convertible cruising down the road when Hank, sitting in the back, starts riffing a verse about sitting around waiting.

“I’ve never heard that before,’’ said Shorty from the front.

“It would be kind of spooky if you did,’’ Hank replied, pushing his cowboy hat back on his head. “It just came to me.’’

Talk about your epiphanies.

Until that magical moment, pretty much all I knew about music was how much I loved it and how complete and wonderful it made me feel. I had never really thought about where it came from. I had to know, subconsciously, that there were people who actually wrote the songs, but until Your Cheatin’ Heart came to town, I would have associated the fine art of songwriting with alchemy.

Profoundly inspired, I picked up the guitar my older brother Tom put down and began learning how to play. And I learned for one reason, and one reason only.

I was going to write songs. I had to write songs. I was destined to write songs.

And fifty-some years later I’m still writing songs. I tell people I’ve been writing songs longer than I’ve been writing sports, and I’ve been writing sports forever.

The story of Hank Williams, I’m convinced, is the great bio-pic yet to be made. Hollywood took another crack at it in 2016 starring Tom Hiddleston in I Saw the Light, which, to my mind, was a little more honest in its portrayal.

But how good can a movie be with a guy from England playing Hank Williams?

Maybe just good enough to inspire some other 12-year-old as profoundly as the execrable Your Cheatin’ Heart inspired me.