Bold and Cold-Blooded

Dave Clawson’s firing of defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel four games into Wake’s football season was a bold move.

It was also a cold-blooded move.

But was it the right move?

Clawson has forgotten more about his football team than I will ever know, and he obviously feels it was the right move or he wouldn’t have made it. And as Les Johns pointed out in Demon Deacon Digest, it’s not as though anyone should have been caught by surprise, not after Clawson clearly put Sawvel on public notice following the loss to Boston College.

Still the firing was a shock to the system of anyone who has kept up with Wake football down through the ages. My memory is not the best, so I called around to people who would know better than I do, and no one could recall a Wake football coach being cashiered during a season.

But does that in itself make it a bad move? Anyone who knows anything about the history of Wake football could make a strong and compelling argument otherwise.

Based on an informal canvassing of readers’ comments and various social media sites, it was a popular move. The Deacons have been sieve-like defensively really since the mid-point of last season, and the overwhelming opinion seems to be that something had to be done.

So four games into the season Clawson fires his defensive coordinator and shuffles his staff to compensate for Sawvel’s departure. As I’ve written before, Dave Clawson has proven to be a “Can-Do Guy.’’ He got the job as Wake’s head coach by being a “Can-Do Guy,’’ and when a “Can-Do Guy’’ says he wants something done, he gets what he wants or heads will roll.

We’ve learned already that Clawson considers his job to be winning football games at Wake and that he’s not only willing, but bound and determined, to do whatever he can do to get that done.

And if that means that a college football coach who was hired before the 2017 season is looking for a job four games into the 2018 season, well, folks have to know that college football can be a pressure-packed, ruthless, and yes, cold-blooded business.

Jay Sawvel got caught up in a smelly, unfortunate situation during Minnesota’s 2016 season, and needed a job. And when Mike Elko left for Notre Dame, Clawson gave Sawvel a shot at Wake.

The question I’ll be asking myself for the rest of this season, though, is how good of a shot did Clawson give him?

How much of Wake’s defensive doldrums have to do with schemes and calls, and how much of it was a product of talent – or lack thereof?

I ask that question after watching the Notre Dame game as closely as I possibly could. And throughout the game, I kept pondering the following:

How many players playing defense for Wake in 2018 could be either starting or in the regular rotation of a first-division ACC defense? As closely as I looked, I didn’t see anybody resembling Jessie Bates or Duke Ejiofor or Marquel Lee or Brandon Chubb or Josh Banks playing defense for the Deacons against Notre Dame.

I do like the two fifth-year senior tackles, Willie Yarbary and Zeek Rodney. And as hesitant as opposing quarterbacks appear to be to throw the ball in Essang Bassey’s direction, maybe he could crack a lineup at Duke or N.C. State.

But clearly the ends aren’t providing the kind of rush a defense wants, and clearly the linebackers aren’t stuffing the run. The argument could be made that maybe players like Chris Calhoun and Boogie Basham and Justin Strnad and DJ Taylor would be playing better with better coaching, but I imagine it will take the rest of this season – if not into next season – to determine the validity of that point.

I do feel safe in saying that the likes of Luke Masterson and Ja’Sir Taylor and Nate Mays would have to show a hell of a lot more than they have this season to get on the field elsewhere. How did Wake get in a position where it needed plays from players like this?

Nor did Clawson make it easy on Sawvel by implementing a warp-speed offense designed to run as many plays as possible. The strategy may be sound if the offense can make enough first downs to control the time of possession, but otherwise more plays by one team all but ensures more plays by the other.

In stark contrast to how he throttled back the offense to best utilize the defense over his first two seasons, Clawson has shifted to high gear since. Through four games, the Deacons lead the ACC having run 372 plays. Only one other team has run more than 300, that being Syracuse with 334.

But here’s the rub. Wake, through four games, was left to defend 305 plays. Only one team has defended more, that being Boston College with 307.

So if you’re Jay Sawvel, or anybody who has ever known him well enough to care for him, then you’re probably feeling a bit put-upon about now.

Clawson’s predecessor, Jim Grobe, caught a lot of flak from the Wake fan base for being too loyal to his staff. That seems to be one reason for the move’s popularity, in that it paints Clawson as the anti-Grobe.

And indeed, other than their occupation, there is very little similarity between Jim Grobe and Dave Clawson. But having covered college football from the early 1970s, I can safely say that there is very little similarity between Jim Grobe and any head football coach I got to know over that time.

When Jim Grobe said he wanted to foster a family atmosphere, he meant it. And no one is more well aware that Grobe’s 13-year run at Wake ended with five straight losing seasons.

But by fostering a family atmosphere, Grobe won an ACC championship and played in the Orange Bowl. And by fostering a family atmosphere, he also coached the Deacons to three straight winning seasons, something that has never been done at Wake.

Maybe there’s no room for a family atmosphere in today’s world of college football. Maybe Dave Clawson is just the coach Wake needs for today’s times.

Or maybe he’s just another college football coach who feels the need to deflect blame from a “Can-Do Guy’’ who is not getting it done.

And maybe, just maybe, the two possibilities are not mutually exclusive.

Cozmik Croquet

Occasionally a well-meaning friend who knows my passion for politics will ask if I ever considered running for elective office.

These are obviously well-meaning friends who have never seen my starring role in the production of Henry’s Hawaiian Open.

Some candidates might be hiding a skeleton or two in their closet. Even the most cursory of opposition research would unearth that boneyard in my basement.

The time was back in the daze, circa 1980.

The place was The Southern Part of Heaven, a.k.a Chapel Hill.

The sport was one we – and by we I mean folks like Moose and Crag T. and Rico and Gary O. and T.C. – invented and promulgated among all the freaks and ne’er-do-wells and layabouts and hippies and eccentrics and thrill-seekers and free spirits we were hanging out with at the time.

You know, our fast friends.

We called the sport Cozmik Croquet, and like so many great inventions, it was borne out of necessity. We were bored, and we desperately needed some fun. There was also my broken-down Ford Econoline van (with the legend Cherokee-Bryson City Florists emblazoned on the sides) that was stuck in the driveway of a house we were in the process of getting evicted from, and something just had to be done.

We considered burying the wheels in concrete and leaving it as a souvenir, but wised up in time to realize that would probably emboss us on the permanent record of any realtor or landlord in North Carolina or any of its neighboring states. The obvious solution was to push it over a cliff, but there were no cliffs nearby.

So then we came up with the grand idea of throwing a Cozmik Croquet Tournament and giving the van away as first prize. Thus came to be our founding organization, The Intergalactic Federation of Croquet and Cozmik Awareness (IFCCA).

We weren’t good for much, but we were really, really good at promulgating. We staged our first tournament, the Jones Street Invitational in April of 1975 and drew around 50 or 60 curiosity seekers. But Chapel Hill was a tight scene in those days, and before long word of our shenanigans had spread through Cat’s Cradle, and He’s Not Here and The Mad Hatter and the Cave and up and down Franklin Street, to the extent that each tournament attracted more and more attendees.

It also drew more and more attention from the wrong places, which is why holding these events at our homes was not a good idea. The morning after the second tournament, The Littlejohn Invitational, we had a note pinned to our back door demanding we vacate the premises by the first of the month.

And no one who was there will ever forget the scene at The Second Annual Jones Street Invitational, held out in Hudsonville on Mount Gilead Church Road in Chatham County. That’s when the incensed landlord and his even more apoplectic wife drove their truck up to our first wicket right during the middle of the bedlam and gave us all of one hour to collect our wickets and stakes and mallets and balls and beer cans and whiskey bottles and get the hell off their property. To drive the point home, our landlord had his buddy, the county sheriff, to park in full view to make damn sure we did what we were told.

It should go without saying that we were, once again, house-hunting by the first of the month.

What saved the sport was the bright idea of slipping unannounced onto campus and driving our wickets and stakes into one of Carolina’s many athletic fields. By then, very few of us were enrolled, but somehow we got away with appropriating the grounds for several years – long enough for the sport to grow and flourish and become the local rage our good friend Bob Landau of Maceo Productions documented with such aplomb in the movie linked above.

Within three or four years, in fact, the ensuing rage compelled us to limit the field to the first 96 Croqueteers who showed up for registration. Otherwise we couldn’t finish the tournament before having to, once again, illuminate the greensward with the light of cars positioned strategically around the perimeter.

We would stage anywhere from four to five tournaments a season, and the battles for supremacy among the myriad teams (The Jones Street Boys, The Poker-Face Crybabies, The Pair-A-Dice Palookas, Henry’s Heroes, The Rock Candy Mountaineers, The Stoned Rangers, Dee’s Boys, The Charlotte Croquet Club, Uranus B Team, Mallets Aforethought, The Media-Ogres, The Sweet Nothings, Fupped Ducks, Reckless Abandon, et. al.) remain legendary in the deep recesses of those burned-out, overtaxed medial temporal lobes still functioning in some capacity today.

Every bit as heated was the competition for Best Dressed – Male and Female. The sport, if nothing else, was a boon to all the Consignment and Thrift Stores in the Greater Spudtowne Statistical Metropolitan Area.

The tournament immortalized in Henry’s Hawaiian, as you can see, was indeed concluded under headlights, and I’m proud to say, was won by my brother Tom. T.C. always was a great mudder.

Way too many of the characters having the time of their lives are no longer with us today. But in watching the movie again last night, I was struck by how many of the people you see actually overcame their sordid past to lead productive, laudable and, in some cases, quite prominent lives.

I won’t out them. Their secret is safe with me and the hundreds of other Croqueteers they crossed mallets with on the fields of Cozmik Combat those many years ago.

Year by year, relocation by relocation, mortgage by mortgage, new job by new job, new kid by new kid – you know, LIFE – eventually took its toll. But Cozmik Croquet, like Kudzu, can never be completely eradicated.

Even today we’ll have a tournament or two and there will be anywhere from a dozen or two old Hippies show up to remind everyone and ourselves just how crazy we’ve always been and how much fun life can be when you don’t take it, or yourselves, too seriously.

And if that means I’ll never hold an elective office, I consider that a small price to pay.

Where Have You Gone Mike Elko?

Wake managed to be at least occasionally competitive in Dave Clawson’s first two seasons as head coach because of its defense.

If the Deacons become the team Clawson envisioned for his fifth season, it will be in spite of their defense.

What appeared to be the case in an unsettling non-conference victory over Towson was all but confirmed in Thursday’s sobering 41-34 home loss to Boston College.

Sure there are issues with the offense. Sam Hartman, playing like the freshman he is, threw two interceptions – the fourth and fifth of his three-game career – while completing only 20 of 45 passes. And an offensive line missing mainstay Justin Herron (torn knee ligament) allowed Hartman to get sacked four times and be harassed throughout.

Yet still the Deacons amassed 512 yards en route to four touchdowns and two field goals, which should be enough to win most ACC games. What made the loss so sobering is the realization that Wake won’t be winning many ACC games this season playing the caliber of defense that was played against BC.

Nobody, not even Dave Clawson, should have been surprised to see AJ Dillon, the ACC’s preseason player of the year, carve 185 rushing yards out of the Wake defense. The Deacons may not face a better back this season.

But what had to gall Clawson was watching Anthony Brown, almost certainly not the best quarterback Wake will face, shred the Deacons defense for 304 yards and five touchdowns. Clawson, to his credit, is not one to hide his feelings on such matters, and his post-game message came across loud and clear.

Jay Sawvel, the second-year defensive coordinator, was publicly put on notice. And though I’ve never met Lyle Hemphill, who coaches safeties, or Ryan Crawford, the cornerbacks coach, I would hazard to guess that neither is feeling an abundance of job security along about now.

Much was made – much of it, indeed, by Clawson himself – about how bare the offensive cupboard was when Clawson took over from Jim Grobe. And Clawson and Warren Ruggiero have gotten all the credit they deserve for building a potent ACC offensive from scratch.

But what shouldn’t be forgotten is how solid the defense was in Clawson’s first two 3-9 seasons, solid enough to rank ninth and seventh in the conference in yards allowed. Grobe’s defensive coaches recruited well enough to leave Clawson with the likes of Brandon Chubb, Tylor Harris, Kevin Johnson, Brad Watson, Marquel Lee, Duke Ejiofor and Josh Banks, and Mike Elko coached them well enough to earn both huge accolades and a fat contract at Notre Dame.

And Wake can’t be faulted for losing a coach that not even Notre Dame could keep. Texas A&M, recently crowned by Forbes as the most lucrative cash cow in the NCAA stockyard, lured Elko away for what was reported to be $1.8 million a season – the highest salary of any college defensive coordinator.

We all had to wonder what the impact would be when Elko departed, and now we all have to wonder if the answer has become all too apparent.

As Clawson stressed, the defensive problems did not appear overnight. The Deacons played some pretty strong defense early last season, but became fodder for opposing offensive coordinators down the stretch of an 8-5 campaign.

Since FSU managed only 270 yards in an odd 26-19 victory on Sept. 30, 2017, the last 11 opponents have plundered Wake for an average of 31.1 points and 521 yards a game. BC, a team has appears to have vaulted the Deacons in the ACC Atlantic Division pecking order, became the sixth team over that stretch to pile up at least 500 yards against Wake.

Towson, a team picked to finish 10th in the 12-team Colonial Athletic Association, exposed Wake with 410 yards and 20 points.

Grobe caught flak from certain elements of the Wake fan base for his perceived loyalty to his assistants. Clawson all but insulated himself from the same criticism after jettisoning Adam Scheier, the special teams coach he couldn’t say enough nice things about early on, after the third season.

Our family loves the movie “Burn After Reading,’’ and we’ve laughed ever since it came out about how Linda (Frances McDormand) absolutely demanded that the goofball Chad (Brad Pitt) be a “Can-Do Guy.’’

Dave Clawson has proven in his coaching career to be a “Can-Do Guy.’’ It’s got him to where he is today, as head coach at Wake.

But can this “Can-Do Guy’’ do enough to shore up a defense that, last seen, laid in tatters on the artificial turf of BB&T Field? I imagine the fate of his fifth season at Wake defends on it, and I imagine no one knows that better than Dave Clawson.


For the past two or three years we’ve all seen all these folks walking around sporting red baseball caps brandishing the letters MAGA.

Being from time to time a little slow on the uptick, I had to ask. Without too much ribbing, a friend informed me that letters signify Make America Great Again.

As someone who has spent all 66 of his years in this wonderful country, the greatest country in the history of mankind, I’m all about the first three words of that slogan. I’m down with that noble sentiment. Down to the ground.

Let’s all do what we can to make our country as great as it can be. It’s our patriotic duty.

My problem, though, was with the fourth word, the Again. It confused me when I first encountered the slogan and confuses me still today.

Again? As in when?

Take back what you said about taking our country back,

Like you want us to forget all that history

You’re trying so hard to redact.

The same folks wearing the red MAGA baseball caps have been know to chant “Let’s take our country back.’’ They’ve been chanting it every since our current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue arrived on the national political scene.

At the risk of redundancy, I have to ask. Where do they want to take our country back to?

Give me a time. Give me a date. Give me a place.

We’ve come so far together,

Of that we should be proud

And here you’re trying to turn back time

Being all angry, hateful and loud.

Those in the red-hat movement remain vague about exactly when and where they’re talking about, perhaps intentionally so. At the risk of assigning motives where there are none, it’s not hard to imagine they’re referencing a sort of idealized 1950’s/60s Ozzie and Harriet America in black and white to which so many people look back in such fond fashion these days.

And if you’re a white heterosexual male, (such as yours truly) and in particular, a rich heterosexual white male (which I’m truly not) then that was indeed, without a doubt, a exceedingly fortuitous time to be living in our great country.

Because you were indisputably, and without peers, at the top of the heap, the absolute master of all you surveyed. Good times.

Take back what you said about taking our country back,

Could that be back from anyone who happens to be

Brown, red, yellow or black?

The question I’ve never heard those in the red-hat movement answer is what about those Americans who aren’t white heterosexual males? Should they be taken back to wherever it is — for the supposed good of our society and country — we’re all supposed to return?

As one who spent his career in journalism, I was trained to seek and even demand specificity. And it’s frustrating that nothing about this chant “Let’s take our country back’’ is in the least bit specific.

When are they talking about? Give me a time. Give me a date. Give me a place.

Look around we’re all Americans

You may not like it but that’s the deal.

But only by getting past the fear and hate

Can you really see what is real.

The Ozzie and Harriet days of the 1950s/60s weren’t, by most accounts, such a great time in America for anyone who happened to seek love and shelter from the storm with one of their own sex. The closet was overflowing, and to be caught outside was to all but ensure public censure, if not derision or even bodily harm.

And they weren’t great days for many women, especially considering how few there were walking the corridors of power. I’m old enough to remember how the boast of many men was that they kept their “woman’’ barefoot and in the kitchen.

Or do we want to return to 1919, the blink of an eye in the overall arc of history, to when women weren’t even entrusted with the vote? Is this when the red hat brigade is talking about?

Take back what you said about taking our country back

It’s time we all had a say,

Lord knows you’ve had your crack.

I’ll keep watching and listening for any specificity, for anyone to give me a time and a date and a place they want our country to return to. But while I’m waiting, I’ll provide specifics of my own.

The time: Sunday, 10:22 a.m.

The date: Sept. 15, 1963.

The place: 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Ala.

For it was then and there that four school children, Cynthia Wesley (age 14), Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Carole Robertson (age 14) and Denise McNair (age 11) were buried in the basement beneath the rubble resulting from a bomb planted by white supremacists emboldened by their governor proclaiming “Segregation now, segregation forever.’’ Four young innocents bombed out of the basement of their home church, while services were ensuing above.

And any notion this was an isolated incident has to confront the truth. Such atrocities were so common that the city was given the nickname Bombingham. And although it later came to light that J. Edgar Hoover, the grand poobah of the FBI, identified the four perpetrators as early as 1965, no charges were brought against anyone until 1977, when, at long last, Robert Chambliss was convicted of first-degree murder of McNair.

It took another 24 years before two more of the assassins, Thomas Edward Blanton, Jr., and Bobby Cherry were convicted of four counts and sentenced to life imprisonment.

A fourth alleged assassin, Herman Cash, died in 1994 without the American judicial system ever laying a glove on him.

Is this where we want to take America back, back to a day when school children were blown out of the basement of their church for one reason and one reason only – because they were black?

If we’re really the land of freedom,

If we take a stand for liberty

We’ll take that stand together

Or we’ll never be all we should be.

Notice, if you will, that I’ve yet to even bring up the greatest injustices of our past, how the forebears of some of us brought the forebears of others across the Atlantic ocean in chains and put them to work in our fields and homes as slaves, to be bought and sold as chattel. We even had a ruling in 1857 from the highest court in our land that anyone who arrived in this country as slaves – or whose ancestors arrived in this country as slaves – could never be America citizens and thus had no standing in our judicial system.

Take America Back? To that?

Nor have I broached the rather sensitive subject of the genocide of the native American population, how so many were uprooted from their ancestral homeland and carted off to subsist on some government appointed reservation. My mother Frances Cooper Collins, of Cherokee blood and who grew up on the Cherokee reservation in the mountains of North Carolina, taught all her children to curse the ground that Andrew Jackson ever walked on.

And she had good reason.

So why don’t we to the Angels,

Of our better natures appeal?

And instead of building walls,

We should be making laws that heal.

There’s a reflex by some of the most narrow-minded among us to brand every criticism of our great nation as anti-Americanism. You’ve heard it, how anyone who has the temerity to bring up past inequities just hates America.

What will surely not come as a surprise to anyone reading this is that I see things from the opposite perspective. To highlight where we’ve been (slavery, genocide, bigotry) and to see how far we’ve come is a testament to just how great our country really is.

Citizens are no longer bought and sold as chattel. Our law enforcement no longer turns a blind eye when citizens are massacred because of their skin color or sexual persuasion.

All that is the best reason I know to celebrate, to be proud, to give us hope and encouragement as we move forward together into a brave new world.

But we’ve got to do it together, or we’ve failed this great test of of history known as democracy.

Take America back?

Give me a time, give me a date, give me a place.

The Voice on Hartman We’ve Yet to Hear

Sam Hartman has been enrolled at Wake for eight months, during which time he has begun his pursuit of a degree, competed in spring practices and preseason camp, won the starting quarterback position and led the Deacons to a season-opening 23-17 overtime victory at Tulane

He’s an intriguing story, and like most of you, I’m sure, I want to know all I can about him.

So I perused every preseason profile of Hartman I could find. Conor O’Neill of the Winston-Salem Journal and Les Johns of Demon Deacon Digest did themselves proud, but the most detailed and compelling piece was written by Frankie Mansfield of the Moultrie News – which makes sense given that Mansfield obviously goes back with Hartman to his days at nearby Oceanside Collegiate Academy.

The more I read about Sam Hartman and his story, the more I want to know.

In all these thousands of words, I’ve gotten a take from around a dozen people. Those I’ve seen quoted on who Sam Hartman is and what he’s about are his father (Mark), his mother (Lisa), his brother (Joe), his high school coach (Chad Grier) his Pop Warner coach (Mark Maye), two high school teammates (Jonathan Jeffries and Gerald Shephard), two college teammates (Cade Carney and Ryan Anderson), his offensive coordinator (Warren Ruggiero) and his head coach (Dave Clawson).

The one voice I’ve yet to hear on who Sam Hartman is and what he’s about – at least not pertaining to his time since he arrived at Wake – is that of Sam Hartman.

I would have wondered if Sam Hartman is perhaps mute, but having spent my career around college football and college football coaches, I knew better.

Sam Hartman is not mute. But he has been muted.

Everyone gets to weigh in on Sam Hartman, it seems, except Sam Hartman.

The decision that Hartman, as a freshman, is not available to the media is that of Clawson. In my three plus years of covering Dave Clawson and getting to know him, I never considered him a bad guy. He’s certainly a really good coach, and Wake is fortunate to have him.

I have no doubt that Clawson, in his heart, is doing what he feels is best for Hartman and the team as a whole.

That said, by this time in Hartman’s career, he has plunged into a heavy academic load, competed day after day in practice, faced down a Tulane team intent on administering grave bodily harm and, I’m sure, from time to time stared down grizzled teammates who have tested the bounds of his authority in the huddle.

Dave Clawson has entrusted Sam Hartman to do all this, and yet he has not entrusted Sam Hartman to talk with Conor O’Neill of the Winston-Salem Journal and Les Johns of Demon Deacon Digest.

It’s the instincts of every college football coach I’ve known save one to control all he can possibly control. And I can see how that would be a sound philosophy, given all a college football coach is charged with controlling.

But there’s also the countless examples of coaches getting so carried away by their authority that they lose perspective of what is right and what is wrong, and what is fair and what is unfair. The question I ask here, again, is it right and fair for everyone to have their say about Sam Hartman except Sam Hartman?

I’ve gathered that the media moratorium on talking with Wake’s starting quarterback will prevail through the month of September, during which time the Deacons will play Towson, Boston College, Notre Dame and Rice. If he throws a touchdown pass, or maybe an interception, the media covering Wake will be left to ask others why Hartman did what he did and the effect it had on the game.

Meanwhile, the media relations department has one of the best stories in the ACC to promote, without any input from the story himself.

Will the pressure build to make Hartman available, and if so, where will it come from? Will the ESPN crew assigned to cover the Wake-Boston College game quietly accept Clawson’s edict, or will it cajole the Deacons into an interview with, again, the starting quarterback?

And when Sam Hartman is finally made available, will Conor O’Neill and Les Johns – the guys who have faithfully covered the program since spring – get the first crack, or will they have to wait in line behind those with more clout?

Not a day has passed since last August that I miss being a sportswriter. I was done, just as I’m sure those I dealt with were done with me.