Merlefest and Me

Years back, in a pathetic display of petulance, I swore off Merlefest.

Oh I had always had a great time at the four-day wall-to-wall roots festival just up Highway 421 in North Wilkesboro. Who doesn’t? Music has magical properties, which makes Merlefest one of the most magical extended weekends of the year.

But when my heart said go, my pride said no. I had entered the songwriting contest so many times with great hopes, only to have those hopes dashed into fractured 16th and 32nd notes. With each passing rejection I turned ever more bitter.

I even made the sojourn one April with the expressed purpose of listening to all the songs that beat mine. I perched alone above the Hillside Stage as one winner after another promenaded up on stage to sing their songs, which, as I was forced to admit, were pretty good after all.

The one category that seemed, to me, to have the weakest entries was Gospel. So I decided then to enter a Gospel song. And for someone who had drifted away from the Methodist Church once I left home for college, that required a bit of research.

And when that song, The Long And Rugged Road, also failed to scratch the next spring, I took it personal. That’s when I decided Merlefest would just have to get along without me.

Judging from all I heard from all the great friends who went year after year, Merlefest got along pretty good.

So finally this year I swallowed my old foolish pride. My long-time pal Doug Roberts of the Ski and Tennis Station here in Winston had some VIP tickets, and two people I couldn’t do this life thing without – Tybee, my bride of 36 years and Lenox Rawlings, my closest compadre over my 45 years in the sportswriting business – were all fired up for the occasion.

What really got me out the door and up 421 though was a chance to see one of my heroes, Buddy Miller, who was playing Saturday night with Jim Lauderdale and the North Mississippi All-Stars. Lenox and I had caught a show by Buddy and his wife Julie about 10 or so years ago in the Library of Congress Auditorium in D.C, and I came away convinced the man is music personified.

Also, I listen religiously (that word again) to the Buddy and Jim Show on Sirius Radio, which I have to say is radio at its very best.

Knowing that Buddy and Jim were going to close the show at 9:30, we didn’t make the scene until early afternoon. Didn’t want to burn out, and all that.

I can’t say I enjoyed being in such a crowd, which was even bigger than I remembered it. And not all the music I heard was the kind I would rush out and buy.

But all in all we had the time of our lives. It’s a really beautiful event, organized and pulled off as well as possible for a show involving that many people. And I wasn’t surprised when I bumped into some folks I make music with here around Winston.

The high points soared into a sunny spring mountain sky.

I was well-aware of Rhiannon Giddens, and had even caught a show (with Lenox) at the Muddy Creek Music Hall featuring Don Flemons, her former band mate with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. If you ever get the opportunity to see Don Flemons, you’ll do yourself a disservice by passing it by.

But I wasn’t prepared for how monstrous Rhiannon’s talents are. It’s so gratifying to see a gifted artist doing so well what he or she was demonstrably put on this planet to do. And she’s one of us, hailing from nearby Greensboro, which I found to be especially cool.

April nights get chilly in North Wilkesboro, but we carried coats. And as the full moon rose over Merlefest, Buddy and Jim launched into a tight, spirited set. You get the feeling from watching folks like Buddy and Jim, not to mention Luther and Cody Dickenson of the North Mississippi All-Stars, that it’s really not about the money or the fame.

It’s about making music the way it was meant to be made.

My day was really made though when late in the set, everyone left the stage except Buddy and Luther. That’s when Buddy played my favorite song of his, Wide Wide River to Cross. If I had traveled to Merlefest for nothing more than that moment, it would have been well worth the effort.

Pride is probably essential to a happy human existence. Without it, we wouldn’t have the requisite gumption to even get out of bed, much less do what we’re here to do.

But as I was reminded this weekend, it sure can get in the way of a great time. My only complaint is that as hard as I looked, I never saw a banner exclaiming “Welcome Back Country Dan.’’

With Feather’s Help, I Tweak the Formula

One advantage of being long in the tooth is the opportunity I’ve had over my many years to get to know so many people who, among them, have a bountiful amount of collective expertise.

But what is the good of expertise if you don’t avail yourself to it?

My mistake, regrettably, was calling Al Featherston only after I had devised my formula to rate the greatest coaches in ACC basketball history, the one I presented here almost a month ago now. If I had called him before, I would probably have remained with my original formula and maybe, by now, even have written about the results.

I’m proud to say I know ACC basketball history. I’ve covered the ACC since my junior year of college in 1972-73, and have written books about both Wake and ACC basketball history. But having said that, I don’t know anyone who knows more ACC basketball history than Al Featherston.

Being a few years ahead of me, Feather was class of 1971 at Duke, and he worked in the sports information department as an undergrad. I brag about how I go back to David Thompson. Well Feather goes back to Charlie Scott and Vic Bubas.

The local paper was smart enough to hire Feather out of college and he worked for the Durham Sun, and, post-merger, the Herald-Sun until the implosion of our industry claimed another long-time stalwart in 2005. He has since shared his bottomless knowledge with readers lucky enough to catch his work in publications like Basketball Times and Duke Basketball Report.

We’ve been through a lot together in times both good and bad since we first became friends in the early 1970s. And I can’t say I agree with him on every issue of baseball, college basketball and military history – our three main overlapping areas of interests – but I know the man well enough to never dismiss anything he says out of hand.

So I wasn’t really surprised that after he had the opportunity to read and absorb my formula for rating ACC coaches that I first wrote about on March 20, he called back with a few thoughts. Coming from someone else, I might term them “objections.’’ Feather preferred the term “suggestions,’’ which sounded good to me.

To catch the uninitiated up to speed – and refresh the interest of those who have been waiting a month for me to get off my behind and follow up – I present the original formula.

1 point– For each ACC win over .500 (including ACC tournament play).

2 points – Per win in NIT play

3 points – Per win in NCAA Tournament play.

4 points – ACC Coach of the Year.

5 points – For tying for first-place finish in ACC regular season.

7 points – For finishing first outright in ACC regular season.

7 points – NIT Championship.

7 points – For National Coach of the Year.

10 points – For ACC Championship.

15 points – For appearance in Final Four (without winning title).

20 points – For National Championship.

I don’t know a reader named Joey Davis as well as I know Feather, so I’m not sure whether to term his comment an objection or a suggestion. But Joey seemed to feel pretty strongly that I was too generous in how I awarded success from the NIT – especially the modern NIT which has lost so much of its luster since the glory days of the early 1970s.

And what Joey said made sense.

Then the phone rings and it’s Feather on the line. He picked the same point as Joey, stressing out that in the modern era two points is too much to award for an NIT victory and seven points too much for an NIT championship.

But Feather, bless his heart, had some other problems with my formula as well.

One was relatively minor. As a guy who has voted for ACC Coach of the Year over the decades, Feather has learned to not give too much credence for the award. And to watch the North Carolina Press Association pass over Mike Krzyzewski every season since 2000 – during which time he has won nine ACC championships and three national titles – I tend to agree with his assessment.

But what Feather felt most strongly about the difference between an ACC title before 1975 and after. Before 1975, a team had to win the league to even play in the NCAA Tournament. So an entire season would be riding on those three days in March.

After the tournament expanded, winning the ACC title was not the same accomplishment, and shouldn’t be rewarded as such. The distinction grew ever greater with each passing season, to the degree that today most fans – and coaches – would rather see their team reach the Final Four than cut down the nets at the ACC Tournament.

I resisted breaking my formula into eras, but Feather’s points were ultimately too compelling. So I adjusted my formula.

Now any NIT win after 1974 earns only one point, and an NIT crown only five points. But the big change is, I now reward any ACC title before 1975 with 12 points instead of 10. And in keeping with the ever-increasing emphasis on NCAA Tournament success, I now reward a victory in the NCAA Tournament with four points instead of three.

The formula is now as follows:

1 point — ACC wins over .500 (including ACC Tournament.

1 point — NIT win (post 1974)

2 points — NIT win (through 1974).

3 points — ACC Coach of the Year.

4 points — NCAA win.

5 points — Tie for first in ACC regular season.

5 points — NIT Championship (post 1974).

7 points — First in ACC regular season.

7 points — NIT Championship (through 1974).

7 points — National Coach of the Year.

10 points — ACC Championship (post 1974).

12 points — ACC Championship (through 1974).

15 points — Final Four (without winning NCAA Championship).

20 points — National Championship.

As I suspected, the adjustments didn’t really affect much. The same 15 coaches whwere in my Hall of Fame are still in there. But now when another up-and-coming coach comes along – say a guy like Chris Mack at Louisville – and starts making a real name for himself in ACC circles, I can better tell how long it will take him to join the select circle of greatest coaches to ever walk the ACC sidelines.

Over days to come, I’ll trot out my selections in order. But for the time being I’ll hopefully keep the interest up by revealing my 15 inductees in alphabetical order.

Tony Bennett, Vic Bubas, Everett Case, Bobby Cremins, Lefty Driesell, Terry Holland, Mike Krzyzewski, Frank McGuire, Bones McKinney, Dave Odom, Norm Sloan, Dean Smith, Jim Valvano, Gary Williams and Roy Williams.

And a tip of the hat to Al Featherston for help in this project.

Whither Goest Thou, Wake Hoops?

Hiring or firing coaches was never my job during my many seasons as the Wake beat reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal, so I’m certainly not looking to take on that responsibility now that I’ve retired.

And as well as I got to know Ron Wellman during my 26 years covering the Deacons to the exclusion of pretty much else during football or basketball season, he never asked me for advice on that subject.

Nor should he have.

So if Wellman wants to retain Danny Manning for a fifth season as head basketball coach – as, from every indication I’ve seen or heard, he plans to do – then no skin off my teeth. That’s Wellman’s call as director of athletics, and he’ll succeed or fail with it.

What I did do – what I felt compelled to do – was to assess the performance of the coaches Wellman entrusted his programs to. If a beat guy can’t or won’t analyze what’s going on with his beat, then there’s no need for a beat guy.

As I write this on April 19, 2018, no one knows who will trot on the court wearing Wake’s uniforms when the season begins next November.

Manning confirmed to my compadre Les Johns of Demon Deacon Digest what we all had to know, that’s he’s actively recruiting at least one graduate transfer to come aboard for next season.

And of the players we do expect to take the court next season, the five incoming freshmen, Jaylen Hoard, Isaiah Mucius, Sharone Wright, Jr., Jamie Lewis and Christian Lorng have never played a game of college basketball.

It’s a highly ranked class, and Hoard, a five-star recruit from France, really opened some eyes with 15 points and 11 rebounds in the recent 2018 Nike Hoops Summit. Even so, how good these freshmen turn out to be — and/or how fast they get their games up to major-college speed — remains to be seen.

So we might not know who will be playing for Wake, or even how well they can play. But we do know who won’t be taking the floor for the Black and Gold in 2018-19, a list that was expanded this past week when center Doral Moore announced he would forego his senior season with the intention of playing professional basketball next season for somebody somewhere.

And it’s a list that gets even longer if guard Bryant Crawford, the other junior who decided to test the professional waters, decides to hire an agent and thus move along with his career. Neither Crawford nor Moore are expected to be drafted in the NBA in June, which would suggest they’re either getting bad advice or just done with playing for Manning and Wake.

Others we know who won’t be playing for Wake next season are Donovan Mitchell, Richard Washington and Samuel Japhet-Mathias. Mitchell and Washington are transferring and Japhet-Mathias was dismissed from the team in early February for “not meeting the program’s expectations.’’

The exodus of Moore, Mitchell, Washington and Japhet-Mathias means that of the 14 freshman Danny Manning has recruited to Wake since taking over before the 2014-15 season, only five remain. And those five include Crawford, who could be gone before I finish writing this post.

The others are Brandon Childress, Chaundee Brown, Olivier Sarr and Melo Eggleston. Childress averaged 9.1 points and 3.6 assists last season, Brown averaged 7.6 points and 3 rebounds, Sarr averaged 3.2 points and 3 rebounds and Eggleston played a total of 19 minutes in ACC games.

Meanwhile, there’s the question of just what Manning has been able to accomplish on the court during his four seasons as head coach.

I’ll concede he assumed the reins of a program in turmoil after four disastrous seasons under Jeff Bzdelik, and I fully recognize that Wake is far from the only college basketball team to experience rampant attrition in this fly-by-night era of the game.

But the bottom line is still the bottom line, and in his four seasons at Wake, Manning has won 54 games and lost 72 and finished 12th, 14th, 10th and 14th in the ACC regular season. By comparison, his predecessor, Bzdelik, won 51 and lost 76 and finished 12th, ninth, ninth and 11th.

The most pertinent stat, to me, though, his how well did these coaches do against the coaches they were hired to beat. Manning, in four seasons, is 21-56 against ACC competition.

So even when he had John Collins and Dinos Mitoglou and Doral Moore and transfers like Mitchell, Washington and Cornelius Hudson and Rondale Watson, Manning never finished above 10th in the ACC.

Wake fans have gone through so much since Bzdelik was hired before the 2010-11 seasons, and as the beat guy for the local paper, I feel I’ve gone through it with them. There are knuckleheads in every crowd, but I’ve found most of the Wake fanbase to be as patient, understanding and reasonable as any fan could be expected to be.

My sense is that most would be fine with Manning as head coach – even with the 21-56 record against peers – if they had a reason to believe the program was headed in the right direction.

My first question, then, would be this: Given the attrition and uncertainty going into Manning’s fifth season, does anyone really know in which direction the program is headed?

I also feel pretty strongly that if the fans knew for a certain that Manning’s fate would be determined by what happens next season, then a large majority would be down with that. My own personal opinion is that after four seasons, we can pretty much tell if the coach is the right man for the job. But if we can’t tell after five seasons, then when?

Again, I got to know Ron Wellman well in my years on the beat, and what I do know is that he does care about those who care about Wake athletics. The depths to which the once proud program has fallen under his watch has to tear him up inside.

Which leads me to the second question: What, if anything, is he willing to do about it?

Hope may spring eternal in poetry, but in college basketball there comes a time to fish or cut bait.

Mourning More Than the Great Vic Bubas

Back in the Golden Age of Newspapers, legendary sportswriter Dick Herbert of the Raleigh News and Observer, got to know Vic Bubas well.

That’s because Bubas, the head basketball coach at Duke at the time, not only allowed him to, but made damn sure he did.

It was a different day, before ESPN, before the internet, before Twitter. It was a day when a coach and the working stiff on the beat could form a relationship that proved beneficial to both.

I consider myself lucky today that the two men did know each other so well. Otherwise I wouldn’t fully understand why the passing of Bubas yesterday at age 91 was such a big deal to anyone who has ever cared about ACC Basketball.

Sure I knew Bubas was one of the half-dozen best coaches to ever pace the ACC sidelines. The aforementioned formula I’m working on ranks him fourth all-time, surpassed by only Mike Krzyzewski, Dean Smith and Roy Williams. In his way-too-brief run of 10 seasons as Duke’s head coach, Bubas’ teams won four ACC titles, played in the championship game eight times, finished first in the regular season four times and advanced to the Final four three times.

He was all but unbeatable at Duke Indoor Stadium, where his teams won 87 of 100 games.

Even so, the statistic I found most impressive was Bubas’ 128-38 record against ACC opponents – which told me he beat the coaches he was hired to beat.

I’m sad to say that Bubas retired – at the uncommonly young age of 42 – after the 1968-69 season, which was two seasons before I showed up on the scene as a freshman at North Carolina. I was lucky enough to meet him when I drove to Charlotte to interview him during his time as the first commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference.

I found him to be ever bit as impressive as I had always heard.

But what I know most about Bubas comes from the extensive profile Herbert wrote on him that can be found in ACC Basketball: An Illustrated History – my first go-to source whenever I start researching ACC hoops. Written and compiled by Ron Morris, a fast friend for many, many years, ACC Basketball: An Illustrated History is an overflowing treasure trove for anyone wanting to know what went on over the first 35 seasons.

Published in 1988, you won’t find it in your local bookstore. But you can pick up a copy on Amazon. I know that to be so, because I just checked.

From Herbert’s profile, I learned the following:

Bubas’ father was born in a village outside Zagreb, Yugoslavia, where the family name was pronounced Boo-bosh. The elder Bubas immigrated to the U.S. in 1915 at age 20 with empty pockets, no understanding of English and a sign around his neck telling where he was going.

In time, Bubas’ dad would gravitate to Gary, Ind., where he used his drive, skill and good sense to build a hardware store into one of the most successful businesses in Northern Indiana.
Bubas was an Army veteran when he traveled to Raleigh to play basketball for Everett Case at N.C. State. He chose the Wolfpack over Southern Cal because Case promised him that if he did all he was asked to do, then Case would help him realize his dream of becoming a coach.

Bubas was a good enough player to make All-Southern Conference twice while playing for teams powerful enough to win 111 out of 135 games, capture four conference titles and advance to the 1951 Final Four. His greatest claim to fame as a player, however, might have been scoring the first basket ever in brand-spanking new Reynolds Coliseum against Washington & Lee on Dec. 2, 1949.

But Bubas was born to coach, as Case could plainly see. So Case hired him as an assistant, the position he held from 1955 through 1959, or until Duke hired him as head coach before the 1959-60 season. Bubas replaced Hal Bradley, who left to become head coach at Texas.

Eddie Cameron, the director of athletics, reportedly screened 135 candidates over a six-week period, none of which were Bubas.

“It wasn’t necessary,’’ Cameron explained. “I knew what he could do. I knew he would be a success at anything, and he was.’’

When hired, no contracts were signed. Bubas never signed a contract at Duke, working season to season on a verbal agreement. Can you imagine that happening today?

People who knew him such as Bucky Waters, another player for Case who became Bubas’ assistant (and successor) at Duke, say they never knew a coach so organized.

“Coach Case was well-organized,’’ Waters told Herbert. “But Vic took it to a higher level. He had a total plan. Seldom did he raise his voice. He had a steely set, and you knew what he wanted. He didn’t have to scream and holler. If there was an outburst, it carried more power. Whatever field he would have gone into he would have been a success.’’

But any coach is only as good as his players, and Bubas was off-and-running as soon as he recruited the great Art Heyman out of Long Island. Heyman was one of four players who played for Bubas who ended up in my book, ACC Basketball Book of Fame. The others were Jeff Mullins, Jack Marin and Bob Verga.

Reading the profile by Herbert, I was struck by how much he reminded me of Skip Prosser – in at least one regard. Both men understood so well the value of promoting your program. Bubas was a big fan of another hero of mine, Bill Veeck, and would recommend Veeck’s classic Veeck as in Wreck to people he knew.

To sell himself and his program, Bubas spruced up the women’s restrooms in Duke Indoor Stadium, invited woman to filter out on the court after games to meet the players, upgraded the parking lot outside, and designated end zone seats to be a family section where season tickets could be bought for $10.

There’s an old saying that amateurs borrow and professionals steal. Well Bubas admitted he stole the idea of forming a Duke pep band after encountering the one that accompanied UCLA to the 1964 Final Four.

Rival coaches had to learn from Bubas to survive. What most coaches had to learn was the old days of recruiting were over.

“Vic taught us how to recruit,’’ Dean Smith acknowledged. “We had been starting on prospects in the fall of their senior year, like almost everybody. But Vic was working on them their junior year. For a while all of us were trying to catch up with him.’’

As fate would have it, it was the loss of a transcendent recruit to Smith that helped convince Bubas that his passion for coaching was waning. Bubas went hard after Larry Miller of Catasaugua, Pa., and thought he had him until Miller broke his heart by signing with Smith and North Carolina.

Rubbing salt in the wounds, Miller, as a junior, made 13 of 14 shots and poured in 32 points as North Carolina beat Duke 82-73 in the ACC championship. A new day was dawning, and Duke’s dominance was over.

Waters said the loss of Miller to North Carolina was a blow Bubas never overcame.

“That may have been the death knell as far as his zest for recruiting,’’ Waters told Herbert. “He just got tired. He said `The thought of getting on another airplane to go chase another teenage kid just was overpowering.’ It was a battle to do that.’’

Although his final team faded to 15-13 and 8-6 in ACC play, no one can say Bubas didn’t go out in style. His Blue Devils rose up to smite second-ranked North Carolina 87-81 in early March of 1969, and afterward Bubas was carried off the court by students and thrown into the shower by his players.

I know all this to be true because I learned it from someone who was there, a great sportswriter named Dick Herbert. And I learned it because Bubas allowed Dick Herbert to know who he was and what he was about.

When one of the great coaches of today, say a guy like Tony Bennett of Virginia, passes, will future fans of ACC basketball know about him what I know about Vic Bubas?

Bubas spent his days cultivating the media, to the benefit of both. Media relations people spend their days these days shielding the coaches they work for from the media. Maybe it’s necessary, given the times in which we live.

But it’s one big reason for mourning more than the passing of a great coach named Vic Bubas.

June 7: Don Gibson Day

So what is it with our fascination, as humans, of remembering the lives of famous people on the day they died?

Maybe I’m a bit over-sensitive on this issue given my birthday, August 16, is best remembered for the day two famous people died. Granted that the famous people, Elvis Presley and Babe Ruth, were really, really famous.

But wouldn’t The King’s birthday of Jan. 8 be a better time to remember all he did during of his 42 years among us? Or how about July 5, the date in 1954 that Sun Records impresario Sam Phillips finally heard out of a shy but decidedly weird truck driver the first strains of a new and exciting musical form  known as Rock and Roll?

And instead of remembering John Lennon on Dec. 8, the date in 1980 he was gunned down by a twisted punk across the street from Central Park, shouldn’t he be celebrated on his birthday of Oct. 9 – the day aunt Mimi dodged Nazi bombs falling on Liverpool to rush to the hospital to welcome her nephew into the world?

Or how about Feb. 9, the date that the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show ensured that Lennon and his fellow band mates would be remembered as long as humans make joyful noise on this planet?

To that end, I’ve made an executive decision to celebrate a particular hero of mine not on Nov. 17, the day he died in 2003, or even April 3, the day he was born in 1928. Instead I’m going to proclaim Don Gibson Day to be June 7, the date in 1957 that he all but answered a question I’ve grappled with my whole life.

Could there have been great country music without acute alcohol abuse?

We all know that the great Hank Williams rarely drew a sober breath over the final five years of his tormented life. And we’ve laughed along with the stories of how George “No-Show” Jones laid drunk for so long that his wife hid the keys to all the cars – prompting the Possum to ride his lawn mower eight miles to the nearest package store.

But if there has ever been a testimonial to the contributions of John Barleycorn to the art form of country music it would have to be what Don Gibson did on what I have now proclaimed as Don Gibson Day.

Don came up hard. Born in Shelby, N.C., he was two years old when his father, a railroad worker, passed. Don barely made it through the second grade before deciding that formal education was not for him.

He was gifted musically, and made some noise locally before he moved to Knoxville and began recording for Columbia. And he appeared to be on his way to stardom when both Faron Young and Patsy Cline hit big with his tune Sweet Dreams in 1955.

Acuff-Rose Publishing was impressed enough to sign Gibson to a songwriter’s contract and MGM added him to its roster of recording artist.

But whatever money Don got from that breakthrough was apparently long gone by the first Don Gibson Day of 1957, when he found himself living alone in a trailer just north of Knoxville.

Earlier, the knock on the door had been that of a Repo Man, who relieved Don of his vacuum cleaner and his television.

So Don, as the story goes, got good and drunk enough to spend the afternoon writing two songs that made inevitable his induction, 44 years later, into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

One was Oh Lonesome Me recorded by everyone from Bing Crosby to Neil Young. The other was I Can’t Stop Loving You, the smash hit off one of the most important albums of my lifetime, Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds of Country and Western Music.

If Don Gibson had never written another song in his lifetime, he would be remembered forever what what he accomplished that sad, whiskey-sodden afternoon in a trailer park in East Tennessee going on 61 years ago.

Some fast friends and I gathered yesterday for a guitar pull down Liberty Arts Coffee House, the one ramrodded monthly by two pals Richard Boyd and Billie Feather of The Bo-Stevens fame. I made bold enough to proclaim June 7 to be Don Gibson Day, and to celebrate the occasion on the date that falls most closely to the first Sunday of the month.

So this year, Don Gibson Day is set for June 3, when all those in attendance will be asked to at least consider favoring us with a song written by the great Don Gibson. Thankfully Old Don stayed right busy after that fateful day in the trailer in East Tennessee, busy enough to pepper the charts with such standards as Blue, Blue Day, Who Cares, Sea of Heartbreak, Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles, Just One Time, Legend in My Time, Lonesome Number One, Woman (Sensuous Woman).

Or instead of remembering Don Gibson, maybe we should celebrate the Repo Man who, after confiscating Gibson’s vacuum cleaner and television, had the foresight to leave Don with his guitar and his bottle.

Dino’s Back

Dino Gaudio, I’m happy to see, is back doing what he did the first 30 years of his professional career.

Gaudio is back in the coaching game, having been hired this week by Louisville as an assistant to Chris Mack, a fellow protege of the late, great Skip Prosser.

Gaudio has spent the last eight seasons in a form of exile. But the truth as to why Gaudio was cashiered a Wake in 2010, and compelled to seek employment as a television analyst, has never been told.

The truth hurts, or so the cliché goes. And for Ron Wellman, the director of athletics at Wake, to come clean on why he fired Gaudio just six months after granting him an contract extension, may have indeed harmed both Gaudio and Wake.

But I’ve had plenty of time and reason to wonder how that pain would have compared to what those still invested in the fortunes of Wake basketball have endured while suffering through one of the deepest and most prolonged downturns in the program’s once-proud history.

My greatest regret is that my role, as beat reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal, was to report the real reason Wellman cashiered Gaudio back in the spring of 2010. And I tried. Heaven knows I tried.

I asked Wellman repeatedly, in as many ways as I could come up with. And though I was told not to even bother asking Gaudio, I put in repeated calls to him as well.

Gaudio was always good to me during his nine seasons as an assistant or head coach at Wake. We always got along. So we have talked since he was let go.

But he steadfastly declined to address the reasons why he was fired.

The obvious conclusion was that the two parties reached some form of a non-disclosure agreement, which, again, they saw as protecting the interests of each side.

But what about the interests of those Wake fans who woke up one day to learn that Jeff Bzdelik was the new coach – and had no earthly idea why? And what about the interests of those same fans forced to deal with the historical repercussions of a 105-148 record over the past eight seasons?

If Wellman had given no reason at all for the decision, there would have been an outcry. He needed some explanation for firing a man who had won 61 of 92 games as Wake’s head coach. Unfortunately, the one he publicly proclaimed simply didn’t hold water.

Oh what tangled webs we weave, and all that.

Wellman’s stated rationale was Gaudio’s lack of late-season and post-season success. And it didn’t really sound that bad at the time to those who had watched the Deacons lose three straight ACC Tournament games and flounder in NCAA play. I will always contend that the victory over Texas in the 2010 NCAA Tournament was one of the most forgotten wins in the program’s history, but it couldn’t totally mitigate the 15-point loss to 12th seed Cleveland State in 2009 or the horrendous 90-60 pounding by Kentucky just two days after Ish Smith’s miracle shot extended the 2010 campaign.

I learned so much working alongside long-time compadre Lenox Rawlings, who taught me it’s never about who you fire, but it’s always about who you hire. Duke could get away with firing Mike Krzyzewski tomorrow if it could somehow, someway, hire a coach who could do a better job.

So Wellman’s most grievous mistake was hiring Bzdelik to replace Gaudio. Not only did it undercut Wellman’s rationale for firing Gaudio, in that his replacement had never won an NCAA Tournament game, but it would by 2014 rank right up with with Bob Wade and Sidney Lowe and Kevin Stallings as among the worst hires in the history of ACC basketball.

What really bothered me was that in the absence of a plausible explanation for Wellman to fire Gaudio sprouted all these alternate reasons. Some, I’ve come to learn, made sense. Others, sadly, were small and tawdry and unfounded enough to reflect the worst of us as human beings.

I’ve always despised whisper campaigns, so in the absence of an on-the-record explanation from Wellman or Gaudio, I reported none of what I heard.

People who were working at Wake at the time told me that Gaudio wasn’t always the easiest person to get along with, that he could be caustic and demanding. But if that were a reason for firing a coach then who, I wonder, would be left to do the job?

I’ve also been told on good authority that there was somewhat of a philosophical difference of opinion that had developed between the two men.

Gaudio ascribed to the belief espoused time and again by Prosser, that the college team with the most NBA players usually wins. So he was more aggressive about going after the lottery-level talent that often comes with a certain kind of baggage.

Wellman, on the other hand, had apparently become convinced by the success of Butler, Gonzaga and other programs that a college team could excel without compromising what he saw as the values and standards of the university it represented.

If that had been the basis Wellman gave back in 2010 for firing Gaudio, he would have certainly caught some flak from certain corners. But it would have least been a reason that made sense to some, that he could stand by and defend.

By trotting out a justification that collapsed the moment Bzdelik was hired as head coach, Wellman did a grave injustice to every fan who has ever cared for Wake basketball. But the greatest injustice was done to Bzdelik, who never had a chance in the waters so contaminated by the manner in which his hiring came about.

Now would Bzdelik have succeeded under less-toxic circumstances? I think we all, by now, know the answer to that. But the consequent uproar wouldn’t have been as immediate or as rancorous, and the repercussions might not have been as long-lasting.

The Wake job was far more attractive to prospective candidates in 2010, than it was four disastrous years later. If Wake’s 51-76 record under Bzdelik hadn’t inspired the most acrimonious fan revolt of my long career as a sportswriter, then Wellman might have been able to land a more proven commodity than a former All-American with a scant two years experience as a college head coach.

Dino Gaudio, I’m happy to see, is back doing what he did the first 30 years of his professional career. That much has, at least, been put right.

Now, eight long, trying seasons later, it remains up to Wellman, or someone, to finally clean up the mess left at Wake.