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.

5 thoughts on “Bold and Cold-Blooded

  1. Dan, I can’t recall a move like this in Wake’s history. Further, I really don’t know if it was a good or bad move and am not expressing a thought on “rightness” of it. Generally Wake coaches are give wide latitude and a long lead time to get things done. I can’t speak for assistant coaches, but the only head coach I recall getting less than 4 years in either football or men’s basketball in modern times has been Dino Gaudio (who had gone 61-31 in three seasons). Publicly, that firing was about lack of post season success (although the Deac’s had just won an NCAA tournament game) and some not well defined other concerns. I am not comparing Gaudio’s firing and Sawvel’s. I am just noting letting coaches go early in their time at Wake (and certainly mid-season) for on-field issues is not the way business had been done. As you note this is 2018 and the old ways may not be the best ways. If Wake gets it’s act together and Clawson matches Grobe’s three straight winning seasons, the communal judgment likely will be it was the right move.In 2018, that is the usual litmus test.


    1. The proof, as you say, will be in the pudding — as they say. And you’re also right to say there is no history at Wake of taking rash measures. It is a new age, different times. Like I wrote, maybe Wake needs a Dave Clawson in today’s times. I do appreciate you thoughts on the subject.


  2. What I expect in a CEO or coach, is the guts to make what they truly believe, is a decision for the good of the organization over the long term. Firing a person four games in, is a tough decision with few positives for anyone involved. However, I think Clawson deserves the benefit of the doubt. We’re not privy to his conversations with Sawvel. We don’t know what the dynamics were in coaches meetings. I believe Clawson has earned enough cred for us to sit back and wait to see what happens. His coaching tree is already spreading. I believe he knows what he needs and wants in a coach who works for him.


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