Four of the longest years of my sportswriting career were spent in a foxhole with Jeff Bzdelik.
Bzdelik was the embattled head basketball coach at Wake and I was the embedded reporter writing for the local paper.
It was hard to not have at least a modicum of sympathy for Bzdelik. The in-coming fire from all sectors of the Wake fan base was relentless. Billboards were going up demanding his ouster. There were even efforts to fly a plane over a football game hauling a BUZZ OUT banner, which, as my pal Brett “Freebird” Friedlander chronicled, never got off the ground.
Four years later, the landscape of Wake basketball is still scarred from the conflagration that raged from the time Bzdelik was hired in April of 2010 until he was finally shown the door in May of 2014. Tumultuous only begins to describe what we all – Bzdelik, the team, you the fans and I the local beat guy – went through.
None of which is to suggest the uproar was senseless or wrong. Ron Wellman, the director of athletics, fired a coach, Dino Gaudio, who was 61-31 in favor of one who began his tenure by losing to a Stetson team so bad that the coach was cut loose in mid-season. In his four seasons, Bzdelik went 1-15, 4-12, 6-12 and 6-12 against the ACC coaches he was hired to beat.
But Wellman’s original sin in this matter was not explaining to the Wake fans why Bzdelik was head coach in the first place. The rationale he gave for firing Gaudio was lack of late-season and post-season success, which crumbled as soon as he replaced him with a man who had never won an NCAA Tournament game.
Left to wonder why Wellman really made the move, fans came up with all kinds of theories. In my own mind I’ve concluded that Wellman looked at Gaudio and didn’t see the face he wanted for Wake’s basketball program.
Having lost three irreplaceable sophomores (Jeff Teague, James Johnson and Al-Farouq Aminu) over two seasons to an early exit for the NBA, the Deacons were on a downward slide. That was obvious to anyone looking closely enough.
But where Wellman came up with the idea that Bzdelik was the right man at the right time is a question I’ll be asking myself the rest of my days.
Personally I liked Bzdelik. He was quirky as can be, but if that was a disqualifying factor then the number of people I call close friends could probably be counted on one hand. He was also one of the most bewildered – and bewildering – characters I’ve ever come across. One-on-one he could be pretty good, as least as good as most of the coaches I covered. But put him in front of a media gathering, and he would ramble off into directions no one in the room could follow.
I can only imagine what he was like facing his team in the locker room minutes before sending them onto the floor for a big game, but his record at least suggests that the Deacons found him as incomprehensible as the rest of us did.
We could see the man knows the game of basketball. On the rare occasion Wake could stay in the game until the closing minutes, Bzdelik won his share and perhaps even a few more. But what the Bzdelik experience at Wake confirmed was that there’s far more to running a major college basketball program than expertise at the X’s and O’s.
Being in a foxhole with a guy assures familiarity. And Bzdelik became familiar enough to tell me his troubles, to unload from time to time. He’d tell me `I’m not worried. If they get rid of me today, I could have a job in the NBA tomorrow.’ If he told me that once, he told me at least a half-dozen times.
And, as it turns out, he was right. I’m getting a kick out of watching the Houston Rockets in the NBA playoffs and seeing Bzdelik, forearms on knees, on the bench alongside head coach Mike D’Antoni. Bzdelik is D’Antoni’s defensive guru, and the defensive improvements the Rockets have made since last year is one of the major storylines of Houston’s season.
Different league, different time, different chapter of the Jeff Bzdelik story. I’m happy for my former foxhole mate, glad that he landed on his feet.
So Wellman saw, in Bzdelik, a man with an exceptional basketball mind. But if he had looked closely enough, he would have seen what the rest of us saw – a specialist who was far too limited to ever be the head basketball coach at Wake.