A disclosure is in order at the beginning of this take on Wake basketball concerning the hire of Ernie Nestor.
Ernie is a good friend. We got to know each other pretty well during his first stint as Wake assistant coach for Carl Tacy from 1979 through 1985, and became even better friends when he returned to assist Dave Odom during the glory years from 1993 through 2001.
We’ve kept up over his vagabond seasons as a basketball coach, and I’ve always thought the world of Ernie. Of course that puts me in the vast majority of those who have crossed paths with him, and the prevailing reason his return to Wake is being celebrated by so many around the campus and the basketball program.
Ernie is warm, sharp, caring and decent, as well as one of the most interesting and engaging people I had the pleasure of getting to know during my four-plus decades as a working sportswriter. He has sat on benches at James Madison, Wake, California, George Mason, South Carolina, Elon, Penn State, Missouri and Navy, so he knows just a bit about how the game should be played – and coached.
And to see that he is being brought in to help right the ship, in my mind, is a most encouraging development for a program that has been capsized far too many years. Or at least it has the potential to be.
The release through the media relations department states that Ernie has been hired as Special Assistant to the Head Coach. Otherwise his job description is pretty much left up to the imagination.
But in calling around and checking I have confirmed that he won’t be one of the three full-fledged assistants the NCAA allows every Division I program, he won’t be giving individual instruction and he won’t be hitting the recruiting trail.
What that leaves is that Ernie has been brought in to coach the coaches, or at least do as much coaching as said coaches allow.
And though the delicate politics of the situation would preclude anyone from saying this – not head coach Danny Manning, not Athletics Director Ron Wellman, and certainly not Ernie Nestor himself – it has become apparent to many over these past four years that when it comes to directing an ACC basketball program, Danny Manning needs all the help he can get.
When I first saw Wake’s new slogan for the basketball program was #newbeginnings, I began to wonder if early signs of Alzheimer’s were setting in.
At my advanced age of 66, I reckon we have have to become concerned with such.
I was still working the beat for the Winston-Salem Journal when Manning was hired as head coach, and I could have sworn that was back in April of 2014. If this is a new beginning, then what happened to the past four seasons under the same coach coaching today?
Oh now I remember. The Deacons won 54 games, lost 72 and finished 12th, 13th, 10th and 14th in the ACC regular-season standings. To call a fifth straight season under the same coach a new beginning strains credulity, but hey, if whoever came up with the slogan can get away with it, then more power to them.
When Wellman replaced Jeff Bzdelik with Manning, I thought at the time that the move might work. Manning, after all, is a legendary name in basketball from his “Danny and the Miracles’’ NCAA Player of the Year days at Kansas through his 15 seasons in the NBA. His name and acclaim, I figured, should help him at least get in the living rooms of the caliber of recruits needed to win the ACC.
He was smart enough to start his coaching career on the ground floor back at his alma mater, and he showed potential in his new chosen field when his second team at Tulsa went on enough of a tear to win the Conference-USA Tournament and play in the NCAA Tournament.
But there was still that question about experience, and whether his elevation to a head job in the ACC in only his third season as a head coach would require more on-the-job training than any fan base – or administration for that matter – would or should be willing to abide.
Hey, history informs us that on-the-job training can work out. Dean Smith’s first head job was at North Carolina. Tony Bennett was head coach for only three seasons at Washington State when Virginia came calling.
The problem at Wake was that Manning, from all we could tell given the closed nature of the program, wasn’t showing growth as a coach. The mistakes he was making in 2014 were still being made in 2018.
He’s a proud man, and with pride comes stubbornness. Meanwhile one player after another was bolting the program for pastures green or otherwise, requiring Wake to depend on inexperienced talent season after disappointing season.
Those searching for eternal youth haven’t been checking out the Wake basketball roster.
So now somebody – and I would have to guess this is Wellman’s hand on the controls – has convinced Manning of the need to bring in an old head to help with X’s and O’s, game management, player development and the overall ins and outs of running a major-college basketball program.
A program that has gotten so much wrong over these past 10 years finally got something right. The Deacons needed a consultant to help the coaches, and they went out and got the perfect guy.
He’s perfect because he’s Wake to the marrow, and he’s perfect because his ego is, and always has been, completely in check.
If this works out, and Wake is a better team with Ernie Nestor lending his shoulder to the wheel, then the last person you will hear that from will be Ernie Nestor.
The season starts with Friday’s exhibition against Belmont Abbey, and I can’t tell you the last time I’ve felt this good about the direction of the Wake basketball program.