Can Clawson’s Success Be Sustained?

One of the first lessons I learned as a pup starting out in the sportswriting business all those many years ago was to avoid cliches.

What I wasn’t told is that cliches are unavoidable.

In defense of cliches, if they didn’t contain at least a kernel or three of truth they wouldn’t have been repeated often enough to become cliches. And even if they didn’t, coaches quotes are the mothers’ milk of any beat reporter, and I never in my time met a coach would could avoid making a point in the same wording it had been made countless times before.

Dave Clawson is hardly the first coach to maintain that he wasn’t out to build just a team; his goal was, instead, to build a program. And he certainly won’t be the last.

Pay attention and you’re liable to hear the same words spoken dozens and dozens of times this preseason alone.

Four years into his stay at Wake, Clawson has proven he can build a competitive team. He proved it twice, in 2016 and 2017, with both teams closing winning seasons with resounding bowl victories.

The case can even be made that Clawson has proven he can build a program. He certainly did so at Richmond, and again at Bowling Green.

The looming question, of course, is has he done enough to build a program even at Wake Forest? My sense is that, yes, Clawson has indeed succeeded where so many who came before failed.

But those looking for confirmation may be holding out to see what happens in year five, which begins tomorrow morning with the first practice of preseason.

The personnel losses from last season’s 8-5 edition would be enough to send most of the gains from past rebuilding efforts swirling down the drain. Gone, of course, is quarterback John Wolford, the heart and soul of Clawson’s first four Wake teams. No one is irreplaceable, but John Wolford comes as close as any Wake player I can name since maybe Riley Skinner.

Others who left the college playing field for the last time after the 55-52 Belk Bowl victory over Texas A&M include tight end Cam Serigne, defensive ends Duke Ejiofor and Wendell Dunn, linebackers Jaboree Williams and Grant Dawson, kicker Mike Weaver and even safety Jessie Bates III, the first Wake player ever to leave college for professional football after his sophomore season.

I added them all up, and if my public-school education hasn’t failed me, that’s a total of 275 career starts right there.

Exacerbating the loss of Wolford was the off-season news that his heir apparent, Kendall Hinton, will be suspended for the first three games of the season for the ubiquitous “violation of team rules.’’ So whoever starts the Aug. 30 opener against Tulane – be it redshirt sophomore Jamie Newman or freshman Sam Hartman – will be starting for the first time since high school.

Before Jim Grobe, success was always frustratingly fleeting at Wake. The conventional wisdom was that a coach might be able to keep a core of players long enough to make a little noise for a season or two, but eventually the loss of those players would relegate the Deacons back to their customary spot at the bottom looking up.

The reasons I think the success Clawson has built can be sustained are three-fold.

First, he and his staff have recruited aggressively, and they’ve recruited well. What more proof do we need than the influx of such game-changers as Greg Dortch and Scotty Washington and Chuck Wade and Essang Bassey and Matt Colburn and Cade Carney, not to mention such potential game-changers are Newman and Hartman and Sage Surratt and Boogie Basham and Coby Davis and Christian Beal and Jeff Burley and Chase Monroe and Sulaiman Kamara and Mike Allen?

If the game-changers continue to change games and the potential game-changers prove they can as well, the Deacons won’t be lacking for ACC talent.

Second, Clawson and his staff have proven to me that they know what to do with talent good enough to compete with the teams on their schedule.

But my prediction that Wake is gearing up for its third straight-winning season – which has been done only once since the ACC began – is based mainly on the old slogan for the cigarette that helped make our fair burg famous.

It’s what’s up front that counts.

And up front on offense Wake has the fruits of Clawson’s unrelenting efforts to build from scratch an offensive line that is the envy of other teams in the ACC. It was a long, arduous process that I was there to watch, as Clawson and his coaches bit a whole bandolero of bullets in half while playing offensive linemen too young, too inexperienced and too overmatched physically to block those they had been assigned to block.

But over time – in this case three seasons – those young linemen, Justin Herron, Phil Hayes, Ryan Anderson, Patrick Osterhage and Jake Benzinger, grew and continued to grow into grizzled, physically imposing players with a very grand total of 123 starts among them.

The surest way to control a game of college football is with a dominant offensive line that allows a coach to dictate and not always be in a position of having to react. Rarely do you see a losing team with a strong offensive line, and I don’t expect to see one this season at Wake.

Hoping Cam Returns to Scene of Prime

The players I got to know best during my days as Wake beat reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal were the ones who made an impact early in their careers, and thus were the guys I needed to talk with after games and practices and during our weekly Tuesday gathering to eat chicken and talk football.

Few players in my time made a more immediate impact than Cam Serigne, whom, I’m pleased to say, I got to know quite well during what is sure to be a Hall-of-Fame four-year career.

Wake completed only 12 passes in Dave Clawson’s first game as head coach, a decidedly inauspicious 17-10 loss at Louisiana-Monroe. It was also the debut of Serigne, whose three catches tied Matt James and EJ Scott for team best.

By season’s end he had emerged as one of the few bright spots of a long and dismal 3-9 campaign. His 54 catches not only led the Deacons, but also set a school record for tight ends, as well as any redshirt freshman.

Cam, luckily, was easy to get to know, a real stand-up guy who I’ll remember best for his bright eyes and ever-present smile. Along the way I also had the pleasure of meeting his father David on the Deacons’ road trip to beat Indiana in the fourth game of the 2017 season, and I could tell where Cam’s good nature came from.

College football is a grueling sport, and Serigne, like most players, had his share of ups and downs. After catching 46 passes as a sophomore, a nagging hamstring that just wouldn’t heal bothered him throughout his junior season. That, and an ever increasing emphasis on the running game resulted in him catching only 30 as a junior.

But Serigne, who had by then transformed his body from a 220-pound redshirt freshman to a 250-pound redshirt junior, was always best when needed most. And one of my favorite plays of the season was when he caught the 41-yard touchdown from John Wolford to start the scoring in the Deacons’ 34-26 Military Bowl victory over Temple.

His senior season, in many ways, was his best. The Deacons stacked another story on Clawson’s remarkable rebuild by finishing 8-5. And although he ranked fourth on the team with 44 catches, nine of them came in the Belk Bowl in a 55-52 shootout victory over Texas A&M. He also tied Greg Dortch for most touchdown catches for the season, with nine, and his 37-yard reception from Wolford in the second quarter not only staked Wake to a 38-21 lead, but also set an ACC record with 21 career touchdown catches by a tight end.

What a memorable way to end an unforgettable career.

So by reading this you have to know how happy I was to see the news that Serigne has signed a free agent contract with the Carolina Panthers, and how hard I’ll be pulling for him to make the team. It won’t be easy, given that the Panthers have five other tight ends – Greg Olsen, Ian Thomas, Chris Manhertz, Evan Baylis and Jason Vander Laan – also competing for a start on the opening day roster.

But Cam showed us all who he was during his time at Wake, a determined, dedicated, talented young man willing to do whatever it takes to make his team better without one word of complaint or regret.

Last seen on the field, he was at Bank of America Stadium catching nine passes in a victory.

What a great story it will be if he’s back in that field when the Panthers’ open their 2018 season at home on Sept. 9 against the Dallas Cowboys.

A Request: Please Share the Road

The drive back from our two-week sabbatical at the beach helped restore my faith in humanity.

The four-hour hump back from Myrtle Beach can be a pain, especially around Chadbourn – as forlorn a town as I’ve ever driven through. But on this particular day, Sunday, I spent most of my time around folks who share the same highway philosophy.

In that, I mean, they share the road.

Before we continue, I’ll make anyone reading this a promise. If ever I’m in the left (passing) lane and see you approaching in my rear-view, I’ll look for the next opportunity to pull right and let you by.

After all, it only makes sense. I’d rather have you in front of me than hanging on my rear bumper. And if you want to proceed at a speed faster than mine, your wish is my command.

I’m not into vigilantism. Besides, if there’s a highway patrolman up ahead, he’ll see you before he sees me.

Part of it is my lifelong aversion to being in other people’s way. It makes me uptight to think I might be blocking someone else from seeing what they want to see or going where they want to go. With each passing year, I’ve grown to despise big crowds more and more.

So a recurring problem, especially while driving, is to encounter people who obviously don’t have the least bit of problem being in other people’s way. If I didn’t know better, I’d surmise that some even relish it.

If it were only discourteous, boorish or ill-considered, that would be bad enough. But truth is, those who commandeer the left-lane and render it their own personal lane are actually causing far greater risk to all those they encounter on their trip from Point A to Point B.

There’s a good reason some states and municipalities erect highway signs that say “Left Lane for Passing Only.’’ 

Some are even imposing fines.

The Winston-Salem Journal, in an obvious attempt to lighten its insurance load, once required us all to sit through a session on defensive driving. The first question asked was “What causes wrecks?’’

The answer, to me, was obvious. “Two or more cars winding up at the same place at the same time.’’

“Exactly,’’ the instructor said.

It’s a moment that invariably comes to mind every time I find myself in a logjam on a four-lane road. And when one driver is taking their own sweet time in the left lane, and determined to exercise their constitutional right to which every lane they choose, then it doesn’t even matter if I’m in the left lane or right.

What does matter is that before long there is bound to be four, five, six or even more cars jammed together in close proximity, all piled up on each other with blood pressure spiking. And some of those cars are going to be hell-bent on getting by the logjam, and they’re going to start taking, in the words of Rodney Crowell, those crazy chances.

This is where I confess I’m not the most patient person in the world. And I readily admit I’m guilty of moves on the road, and gestures to my fellow travelers, of which I’m not proud.

But then there are days like Sunday when I’m cruising along with people who show consideration. Except for a couple of notable exceptions, the drivers I encountered recognized how much better – how much more civilized – a drive can be when the left lane remains open to those who wish to proceed at a higher rate of speed.

My best moments on the highway are when I can find that sweet spot – I call it a bubble – when I’m moving along at preferred speed with all other traffic well ahead of me and the rest just dots in the rear view. It can be relaxing even, and again, so civilized.

And it’s then, and only then, that I can groove on all that beautiful scenery our country has to offer.

So if we encounter each other out on the highways and byways, I’m hope it’s a pleasant experience. Just share the road, and I’ll promise it will be.

Remembering Len Chappell

Certain records are relics of their era.

Two that immediately come to mind are from 1941, when Ted Williams was the last player in Major League Baseball to bat better than .400 and the 1961-62 NBA season when that force of nature named Wilt Chamberlain was the last to average better than 50 points for an entire season.

I’ve lived 65 years and hope for many more, but I never expect to see either of those records seriously challenged.

Closer to home, one record that at least appears unassailable is averaging 30 points over an ACC basketball season. That was last accomplished in 1961-62, and was last seriously threatened by the Great David Thompson of N.C. State, who averaged 29.9 over his senior season of 1974-75.

In the years since, no one has come closer than the 27.7 points Dennis Scott averaged for Georgia Tech in 1989-90.

The last man to average 30 in a season was a two-time ACC Player of the Year, a first-team All-ACC performer in all three seasons of varsity eligibility who was the go-to star for the only Wake Forest team to ever play in the Final Four the same season (1961-62) he became the school’s first consensus All-American.

Len Chappell, the greatest Wake player born in the mainland United States, died Thursday. I got the sad news last night when I returned from a long, relaxing day at the beach.

In that he played well before I arrived at the Winston-Salem Journal in 1978, I didn’t know Len well. But I did have the pleasure of talking with him a few times during my days as the Deacons’ beat reporter.

Anybody who knows anything about Wake basketball history knows what a monster Chappell was on the court. A rugged but deft 6-8 center from Portage, Penn., Chappell averaged 24.9 points and 13.9 rebounds over the three seasons he was eligible while shooting 50.7 percent from the floor. During the three seasons he and his running mate and sidekick Billy Packer were on the court, the Deacons won 62 games and lost 27.

Most of what I wrote about Chappell can be found in my two forays into the publishing industry, the first being Tales From the Wake Forest Hardwood and the second The ACC Basketball Book of Fame. It should go without saying Chappell figured prominently in both.

And most of what I know about Chappell came from two people who knew him well, the crusty but unfailingly helpful Packer and this delightful character named Charlie Bryant, who somehow survived – with bottomless sense of humor intact — serving as assistant coach for both Everett Case at N.C. State and Bones McKinney at Wake.

Packer repeatedly told a story that he maintains McKinney told him, about how he and Chappell ended up at Wake in the first place. McKinney, upon succeeding Murray Greason as head coach limped home with a 6-17 record in his first season of 1957-58, so he needed talent and he needed it fast.

As the story goes, he got on the scent of two all-time greats during a visit to see a good friend named Harold Bradley, who also happened to be head coach of rival Duke. During the visit Bradly was said to have left the room without taking the precaution of erasing the blackboard.

“Posted on that blackboard were the names of guys who Duke was recruiting,’’ Packer recounted. “They had Chappell’s and Packer’s names up and that’s how he contacted us.

“That was his story. He always said that’s how he got our names.’’

Though I never had the opportunity to see Chappell play, it sounds like I missed a great one.

“In those days, 6-8 was pretty tall for a center,’’ Packer explained. “But he weighed 255 pounds and it was all solid, and he was an incredible shooter. And he had really good speed and he was a great rebounder – although he was not a great jumper. He had terrific hands.

“He was not a playmaker, and he was not a finesse player, but he could shoot and he could rebound and he could score, and he could shoot from inside and outside. And he more than held his own defensively. He was by far and away the best big man in the league.’’

Given that one of the ACC’s most colorful characters, McKinney, ran the show, those were madcap years at Wake. Packer himself was known to be quite the instigator of all kinds of merriment and mayhem.

But a man needs a plan, and Packer had a fool-proof method of getting what he wanted.

“Packer was the ring-leader of that bunch,’’ Bryant recalled. “He led them around. If Packer wanted something, he would always have Len upfront to do the dirty work.

“And they generally got it.’’

But that was not to say that Chappell was anybody’s fool. He was quiet by nature, and perhaps even a tad shy, but Bryant says it was easy to detect plenty of bytes on the old hard drive.

“Len was a sharp guy,’’ Bryant said. “Everybody thought Len was a dummy. He wasn’t. He was very sharp.

“But Len was just a dynamite player. He had the best touch for a big husky guy I’ve ever seen.’’

I’d forgotten what an impressive nine-season NBA career Chappell forged after being drafted by Syracuse as the fourth player picked in the 1962 draft. He scored more than 5,00 points and made the 1964 All-Star team.

Wake has endured other downturns in his basketball history, though none have been as deep and as long-lasting as the one the program is currently experiencing. In every previous instance, the coach and his staff have been able to go out and recruit the kind of talent needed to pull the Deacons from the doldrums.

In 1959, it was Chappell and Packer. In the mid-70s, when Carl Tacy was endeavoring to get the program back up and running, he brought in Skip Brown and Rod Griffin. Dave Odom wasted no time restoring the program to its previous status when his first full recruiting class included Rodney Rogers and Randolph Childress.

Can incoming freshman Jaylen Hoard be the Len Chappel, Rod Griffin or Rodney Rogers of his day, and if so, will he hang around longer than one season to see that the job of restoration is done right?

Who knows? But to paraphrase one of my favorite songwriters, Paul Simon. . .

Where have you gone Len Chappell?

Wake basketball turns its lonely eyes to you.

Heaven Must Have a Beach

My hometown of Franklin, N.C. is a good 100 miles west of the continental divide, which means the rivers and streams there flow not toward the Atlantic, but instead toward the Mississippi River basin and eventually the Gulf of Mexico.

North Carolina is a long state. So is neighboring Tennessee. It’s always amazed me that one can start out on the coast and reach the Mississippi while traversing just two states.

A quick check with Google Earth informs me that there’s 363.3 miles – many of them mountainous and snaky – between Franklin and Myrtle Beach. All of which might explain how I was 14 years old before I ever laid eyes on the ocean.

My brother Tom, being two years older, got there before me. He returned with this sorrowful story how he bolted out of the car as soon as it reached the ocean, rushed into the breakers, and came up without his glasses. Being as blind as I am, he spent the entire week stumbling around in the fog and haze of acute near-sightedness.

Other than that, he had the time of his life.

My first beach trip was with the Methodist Youth Fellowship. I’ll have to check the statute of limitations before I reveal all that happened on that church-sponsored trip, but let’s just say I’m eternally grateful my mother never found out just what a numbskull I proved myself to be at 14 and away at the beach.

Or at least I never found out that she found out, which, truth be told, was just as good.

What I came to find much later, after I’d migrated to Chapel Hill for the next chapter of my life, was that many people living in North Carolina – especially those living east of Greensboro – consider it a birthright to get at least a week every summer at the beach. One of those was Tybee, who turned out to be my bride.

Tybee was raised in Raleigh, and some of her happiest childhood memories were made when her parents, Herman and Becca, loaded their four children in the car for their cherished week at the beach. They often camped, and she recalls her family walking the path from the campground to the beach at night.

Because she was the littlest, and because of a debilitating case of ostraconophobia, (fear of crabs), she just had to be carried.

So it was only after I was 27, and Tybee and I got together, that I was able to experience the beach through the eyes of someone who knew the ocean and loved it. Most everybody likes the ocean, but nobody I know loves it as much as Tybee.

In time I became comfortable among the sand and wind and heat, and I started looking forward with increasing excitement toward our sojourns to the coast.

There’s never been a better big brother than Tom, who has pulled his numbskull of a little brother out of more crises than said numbskull little brother cares to recount. But let’s just say he’s always looked out for me throughout my life.

Tom also married a beach bunny in Jenny, who actually spent part of her childhood in Myrtle Beach. So there was great joy throughout the Collins clan when Tom and Jenny bought a house at Myrtle Beach, and absolutely insisted that Tybee and I and our family make it down for at least a couple of weeks a summer.

Did I mention how there has never been a better big brother?

We’re midway through our first of two weeks down here. These days it’s just Tybee and me (Nate is in Dallas, Rebecca in Boston) but we’re making do quite fine.

I’m really not that crazy about Myrtle Beach Proper, if there really is such a place, but the fine home of Tom and Jenny is more than 50 blocks to the north where the streets are quiet and the beach – four blocks away– is practically private. What we found early is that there’s a golf cart culture in these communities, and we just park the car and drive Whitey the Golf Cart everywhere.

About the only time we drive into Myrtle Beach Proper is on Thursday, when there’s a weekly Open Mic at this really special Faith-based place called Fresh Brewed Coffee House. Because Fresh Brewed, unlike Muddy Creek Cafe, specializes in caffeine and does not sell beer, it takes an adjustment on my part to not be at my usual level of libation when I break out Buckshot for my set.

But the folks are friendly as can be, the Open Mic is well-run, and I’ve really enjoyed playing there.

Our schedule is our own, and for Tybee, that means logging as much TBT (Tybee Beach Time) as she can possibly pack in. It’s not unusual for the two of us to make it down to the shore by 10, set up our umbrella and chairs and for Tybee to still be completely content until I drive Whitey back down there at around 7 or 7:30 to bring her back to the hacienda for a shower and dinner.

Today she has to cut her TBT short because she wants to make the Open Mic with me. I know I’m asking a lot, but her willingness to do so must mean she really does care about me.

Happy Birthday, Frances Cooper Collins

Early one morning in June,

With the Mountain Laurel in bloom,

The Bluecoats came.

And they weren’t a’knocking.

Frances Cooper Collins was born on July 4, 1925 in Cherokee, N.C., the third of nine children of Zolley Arnold and Amandaville Myrtle Keener Cooper.

Zolley was a carpenter/handyman who worked for the Cherokee Boarding School and Myrtle, as she was commonly known, had her hands full keeping house and raising nine kids through the Great Depresssion.

Frances, our mother, taught us – and by us I mean my sister Sara Sue, brothers Tom and Joe and me – pretty much everything we know.

But one thing she made absolutely certain she taught us was to curse the ground that Andrew Jackson ever set foot on.

They drug us out of our doors,

Said `You don’t live here no more,’

Herded us up like cattle,

And put us in the stockade.

Frances was a righteous woman who raised us in the First United Methodist Church, but she converted to the Church of Latter Day Saints after all her children had flown the coop. I couldn’t resist chiding her about how she drug me out of bed all those Sunday mornings to worship at a church that she, herself, abandoned, but Frances Cooper Collins did not find her religion to be a laughing matter.

But for a righteous woman, Frances sure could hold a grudge. And her most celebrated and dead-set grudge dated all the way back to the 1830s. For if you know your American history, then you’ll know that no one on earth was more responsible than the aforementioned Andrew Jackson for removing her people out of their idyllic ancestral homeland in the mountains of North Carolina and moving them off to this far away place called Oklahoma.

The Cherokee knew nothing about Oklahoma, and so many of them didn’t want to go to Oklahoma. But thanks largely to Jackson, they had no say in the matter.

Our people argued our case and won,

In the marble halls of Washington,

John Marshall said it was our land,

Like it had been all through the years.

Though born almost 100 years after this sorrowful chapter of our nation’s history, Frances wasn’t one to let such a grievous matter drop. So throughout our childhood, the name Andrew Jackson couldn’t be mentioned without our mother reminding anyone within earshot what a lowlife and scoundrel our seventh president truly was.

We’d chuckle over how worked up Frances could get, but only when she wasn’t looking. Like her religion, the removal of her people was no laughing matter to Frances Cooper Collins

Old Hickory was having none of it,

Said `You’ve made your law, now let’s see you enforce it,’

So the Cherokee marched the Trail of Tears.

The Coopers are known for their strong blood because almost all of Frances’ brothers and sisters have lived, or did live, into their 80s or 90s. But Frances was the unlucky one; she died of leukemia in 1989.

I am grateful she lived long enough to know Nate, our son born in 1986. But it’s always caused an ache in my heart she didn’t know Rebecca, born in 1990. Rebecca reminds me of Frances in so many ways. The two would have made quite a team.

The mud had frozen hard,

In the stockade yard,

When, by the point of a bayonet,

Our march began.

Given how deep the villainy of Andrew Jackson had been seared into my consciousness, I felt a real responsibility to make sure that grudge didn’t simply wither away in time. Frances’ grudge was way too good a grudge for that.

So throughout Nate and Rebecca’s childhood, I made sure they knew just who Andrew Jackson was, what he had done to my mother’s people, and just what their Maw Collins felt about it.

By foot, by horse and by boat,

Only the lucky wore coats,

It was more than any woman, child or man

Should ever have to stand.

But no matter how hard and adamantly I railed, my sermons just weren’t seeming to take. I’d go on and on about what a wretched, good-for-nothing, incorrigible piece of human excrement Andew Jackson was for what he did to the native Americans, and I never could detect the least bit of rancor or enmity on their part.

I was looking for froth, serious froth, and I never even saw so much as a fleck on Nate or Rebecca’s lips.

Eventually I began to despair that I was letting my mother down for not extending a perfectly good grudge past my own generation. So what, in such a sad conundrum, is a man to do?

Well, I reasoned, he could always write a song. And after reading one of the saddest stories I’ve ever read, that of a child survivor the genocide named Samuel Cloud, that’s exactly what I did.

I wrote it for my mother.

Happy Birthday Frances Cooper Collins.

Beside my mother I’d lie,

Until the night my mother died,

The night I learned how to cry,

On the Trail of Tears. – Trail of Tears by Dan Collins