Regard

There was a stretch there about 15 or so years ago when I was the envy of every beat guy in the ACC footprint.

From Syracuse down to Miami, I’d run into sportswriters who couldn’t believe how good I had it. In football season, I got to work with Jim Grobe, in basketball Skip Prosser.

Besides being smart men really good at what they did, there was another quality that set them apart from the rank-and-file coaches plying their trade in the ACC. Both Jim and Skip had a huge regard for the people they were around. They made sure they knew your name. They made you feel like you were somebody.

I can’t remember ever walking away from either Jim or Skip without a smile on my face, and another story to tell my friends.

And what would turn my sports writing brothers and sisters an even deeper shade of green was to remind them that before Skip came along in 2001, I had the unparalleled pleasure of covering Dave Odom for a dozen unforgettable seasons.

If there was ever a better basketball coach to deal with than Dave Odom, I didn’t come across them in my 45 years of chasing that bouncing ball.

And it wasn’t just that Dave, Skip and Jim would all allow me to attend practices in a time that most practices from Syracuse to Miami were shuttered and locked down. Not only was I invited, I was made most welcome. If I’d miss a day or two, they’d wonder where the hell I’d been.

And because of this arrangement I got to know Dave, Skip and Jim. Beyond that, I got to know their assistant coaches and their staff right on down to the managers.

Most important, I got to know their players.

To my mind, I never wrote better because I had so much to write. And I have to think that the real winners were the readers of the Winston-Salem Journal, as well as the football and basketball programs at Wake.

I always thought it was such a sensible approach at Wake, a small private school wedged in the shadow of larger and more prominent institutions that was always struggling for oxygen on the sports pages and sports casts from the Triad to the Triangle.

Which is why I once asked Ron Wellman, Wake’s director of athletics, if a coach’s ability to relate to the media and the fans was taken into account when he went searching for someone to lead his football and basketball programs.

“It’s not the first consideration,’’ Wellman replied. “The first consideration is that we find a coach who can win.

“But it is a consideration.’’

Watching Wake once again assume the fetal position at Florida State last night – while giving up baskets on 21 of the Seminoles’ final 29 possessions to get undressed 88-66 – reminded me for not the first time how right a man can be at one stage of his tenure and how wrong at another.

In his last two cracks at hiring a basketball coach, Wellman landed coaches who whiffed so wildly on both of his criteria. Neither Jeff Bzdelik nor Danny Manning could/can win, and neither showed any real regard for those around them.

The difference is I got to know Jeff, and actually got to like him. His inability to connect with the media and the fans, in my mind, had more to do with his innate awkwardness and conspicuous lack of social skills. But we had a number of really pleasant one-on-one conversations, particularly when talking about such subjects as music and family.

I wish I could say I got to know Danny in the three seasons I covered him, but, alas, I can’t. And in talking with others around the department, I’m convinced the problem was not mine.

The best word I can use to describe Danny Manning is private. I could go with aloof, or remote, or maybe even standoffish. But what I read most is indifference. He comes across as indifferent to the wants and needs of those around him.

The day he arrived he pulled the shutters down around his program and made it as clear as a sunny Valentine’s Day that there was a line that was not to be crossed.

Now don’t get me wrong. Dave and Jim and Skip had their lines that were not to be crossed as well. But theirs seemed to be established for the good of their programs while Danny’s line seems to be for the good of Danny Manning.

Most of you folks reading this are fans of Wake. You tell me. Do you feel any connection with Danny Manning, anything close to the connection you felt with Skip or Jim or Dave?

The results, as I see them, are at least three-fold.

The coverage of Wake is not as good as it was in my day. That’s not to say that today’s beat guys, Conor O’Neill of the Journal and Les Johns of Demon Deacon Digest, aren’t as good at what they do as I was. It’s just that they’ve not been given the same chance to cover Wake basketball that I was during my heyday.

The atmosphere at home games at Joel Coliseum is not anywhere near as festive, raucous and lively as it used to be. The crowds have actually been surprisingly generous for a program in such dire straits, but people who go regularly tell me there’s no real enthusiasm or energy in the place.

And if Danny had the ability to connect with people, do you really think the revolving door would be spinning from recruits leaving the program with eligibility remaining?

I burst out laughing every time I hear the default excuse of how Manning’s fifth team at Wake is so young – and that’s why the Deacons are currently 2-9 and sinking fast through the ACC standings. Well when eight of the first ten players you recruit either bail or get kicked off the team, well yeah, you’re going to be young.

In his five seasons as Wake, Danny has coached one senior that he recruited as a freshman, that being Mitchell Wilbekin. If he sticks around to play for his father, Randolph, Brandon Childress next season will be the second.

No one can blame Danny for John Collins leaving for NBA stardom after his sophomore year. I’ll give him that. And the argument can also be made that Dinos Mitoglou did all right for himself by returning to Greece to play pro ball after his junior season.

But that hardly explains the spinning turnstile of Cornelius Hudson, Doral Moore, Bryant Crawford, Donovan Mitchell, Samuel Japhet-Mathias and Rich Washington. Nor does it even take into account Melo Eggleston, a member of the 2018 class who left after one season, or Jamie Lewis, a 2019 recruit already gone.

Mike Brey is a coach so many ACC sportswriters got to know back in the day he was an assistant at Duke, and the universal opinion is that Mike is a good guy. He’s struggling this season, his 19th as head coach at Notre Dame. But in watching the Irish beat Georgia Tech 69-59 Sunday night, I was struck by how the two announcers calling the game, Anish Shroff and Cory Alexander, couldn’t say enough good things about Mike Brey – no matter how hard they tried.

They went on and on about how Mike had pulled struggling T.J. Gibbs aside for some personal time shooting baskets together in the gym in an effort to get Gibbs back on stride. They had all these wonderful things to say about a coach who entered the game with a 2-8 record.

You just know that when Anish and Cory showed up at South Bend, that Mike welcomed them with open arms and showed them the kind of regard he shows everybody. He made them feel like somebody. I can remember what a good feeling that is.

Notre Dame, like Wake, is going to be good in basketball only if it can recruit the right players and keep them around long enough for them to develop into top-tier ACC talent. And in the five years Danny Manning has coached one senior he recruited as a freshman, Mike Brey has coached four – Bonzie Colson, Matt Farrell, Martinas Geben and Rex Pflueger, all of whom got inexorably better during their careers at Notre Dame.

That’s not even counting Nikolo Djogo, a red-shirt junior who, like Pflueger, is in his fourth season in the program.

None of us should ever forget the Grand Caveat of Coaching. The coach who wins often enough can do no wrong and the coach who loses often enough can do no right. But when you’re at Wake, and even Notre Dame, you’re not going to win enough every season. No coach ever has.

That’s why it’s so important for the Wakes and Notre Dames of the sporting world to find a coach who can connect with the fans, the players and the media, the guy with a capacity to show regard for someone besides themselves.

The time will come when either Wellman or his replacement will be on the market looking for a new basketball coach.

If it is indeed Wellman, do you think he will remember a lesson once learned but forgotten? For the sake of the fans, for Conor O’Neill and Les Johns and for the players who sign at Wake hoping to play not just in the ACC but in the NCAA Tournament as well, I can only hope so.

Regard. It’s an important word in life. Those who show it benefit and thrive, those who don’t suffer the consequences of a world of one.

Living the Dream of Wall-to-Wall ACC Basketball

A problem with covering ACC basketball for a living is you don’t get to see all the ACC basketball you want to see.

The paradox has to do with the time required to cover an ACC basketball game. While others are watching all those great games on television, the beat guy is getting to his assigned game, preparing for the game, watching the game, and then conducting the interviews and gathering the material required to write about it.

So often I’d leave the hacienda at 9:30 for a noon home game, and when all was said and done, come dragging back in around dinner time. And if the game was on the road – say in Charlottesville or Atlanta or Tallahassee or Boston — then my entire weekend would be consumed with the logistics of getting there, covering the game and getting home.

To find out what transpired elsewhere in the footprint, I’d have to rely on reading the accounts written by others, or talking to friends fortunate enough to see the games.

All of which is why I’ve never watched as much ACC basketball as I have since retiring from the Winston-Salem Journal 18 months ago. That’s also why I’m loving pretty much every minute of it, especially on days such as we had this past Saturday.

I climb out of bed warning my bride Tybee that it’s going to be wall-to-wall basketball. How she puts up with me, I’ll never know.

Nor will I cease to be ever grateful.

But what a slice of heaven this past Saturday proved to be, watching ACC basketball from the tip of North Carolina’s noon game against Miami to the conclusion of Duke’s at Virginia at around 8. Retirement truly has its rewards.

Having spent my career in Chapel Hill and Winston-Salem, I’m drawn more to the Big Four schools. And on this occasion, I was actually happy that Wake had the day off. The Deacons of this day and time, sadly, are rarely worth watching.

But the three Big-Four games played Saturday were classics, with the Tar Heels outlasting in overtime an inspired Hurricanes team playing out of its mind, the Wolfpack gutting out a game at Pitt it absolutely could not afford to lose and the Blue Devils hitting enough 3-pointers to hold off the Hoos in what I always considered the ACC’s most fabulous show place, John Paul Jones Arena.

My only real chore of the day was figuring out what window to run out and procure dinner from a near-by restaurant. I chose the first half of the four o’clock Louisville at Florida State tilt and got back (with take-out lasagna in tow) in plenty of time to see the second half and overtime of the Seminoles’ hard-fought victory over Chris Mack’s high-flying Cardinals.

Conclusions drawn from this wall-to-wall ACC basketball were four-fold.

With Coby White playing like a 6-5 Phil Ford, the Tar Heels are one team no one wants to face come NCAA Tournament time.

State still appears to be running on fumes, though one has to give Jeff Capel and the Panthers plenty of credit for giving the Pack all it could handle.

The Duke freshmen, particularly R.J. Barrett, were highly inspired and motivated by the front-row presence of LeBron James and (to a lesser-degree) Rajon Rondo and wanted to give those guys a sneak peek of what to expect in the NBA come next season.

The best play-by-play/color man combo calling ACC basketball these days, by far, is that of Evan Lepler and Dave Odom.

Here’s where I admit I’m not the most objective critic to be found. Both Evan and Dave are good friends.

I’ve known Dave well since he became Wake’s head basketball coach in 1989 and he always treated me the way any beat guy would love to be treated. And I’ve known Evan since his under-graduate days at Wake going on 15 years ago, and have followed his career with great interest.

It’s been really cool this season to see Evan getting more and more high-profile games. He’s earned those opportunities, and, to my mind, he continues to make the most of them. He’s a bright guy quick to learn, and you can just sense him gaining confidence and polish with every game he calls.

I expect Evan Lepler to be on the ACC scene for years to come, and all of us ACC fans will continue to be all the more fortunate for it.

And Dave Odom has forgotten more basketball than most of us will ever know. He’s also the ultimate people-person, and his love and appreciation for the game he devoted a life to comes across so loud and so clear.

Dave, like Evan, is a bright guy quick to learn. And Dave’s great challenge as a commentator was not in knowing what to say, but learning when to not say anything.

Anyone who knows Dave knows he’s a talker. Any sportswriter who was ever around during Dave’s time will recount the time Dave took 10 minutes to answer a question that another coach would have dispensed with in 15 seconds.

And that’s why every sportswriter I ever met loved Dave Odom. He held us in high regard, and the feeling was mutual.

Dave is also a naturally funny guy prone to say things as only he can say him. To me, that’s a plus in this new pursuit of him.

There’s a natural rhythm in every good play-by-play/color man team, and Dave, as he gains experience, is learning not to step on the comments of his teammate. But I also noticed a natural rapport between Evan and Dave, which warms the heart of a good friend of both.

Like when Dave observed player taking a flop in an attempt to draw a charge and giving up a basket.

Odom: “A lingering question with contact is when do you fall back and give up a shot – not that time.’’

To which Evan responded: “And that’s a question that will linger forever.’’

But my favorite moment of the whole day was a line by Dave that had me laughing out loud. Now Dave is an old-school guy. So I was hardly surprised to find he’s not a fan of the infestation of the Euro-step in modern basketball – which would have been called walking during Dave’s days of coaching high school basketball in Goldsboro and Durham and would still be today if called correctly.

“That Euro-step all these guys are working on – that needs to be left in Europe.’’

What could be better than watching ACC basketball with two great friends like Evan Lepler and Dave Odom? If I find out, I’ll let you know.

But don’t expect an answer anytime soon.

Gordianus The Finder

Besides being one of the most influential figures in the history of baseball, Bill Veeck was also one of the most fascinating.

Want a great read? Find, if you can, a copy of Veeck As in Wreck and dive in. There’s very little being done to promote the game of baseball that didn’t spring from the twisted, but oh so fertile and clever mind of one William Louis Veeck, Jr.

BV, or Before Veeck, the game and those who ran it took itself and themselves way too seriously. It needed a good goosing, and nobody was more up to the task than Veeck.

“I try not to break the rules,’’ Veeck once explained, “but merely test their elasticity.’’

One great regret is that I never met him. I know he was full of himself, and that enemies who described him as a huckster and a gadfly weren’t entirely wrong. But anybody who loses a leg fighting as a Marine in the South Pacific, and then carves an ashtray out of his wooden prosthetic to snuff his cigarettes in is OK by me.

He dropped out of Kenyon College when his father – a sportswriter hired as general manager of the Chicago Cubs – came down with leukemia, the same scourge that did in my own mother. But he never lost his love for the written word.

When he’d come across an author who caught his attention, he would do his diligence and read the writer’s output in the chronological order that it was written. He wanted to see what evolution, or perhaps devolution, the author had experienced and soak in everything that had been offered.

I’m drawn to Veeck for at least three reasons – his love of baseball, his love of the written word, and his love of stirring up the established order in the pursuit of pure unadulterated fun.

My own taste in literature runs toward historical fiction. I love reading those books where if you’re not careful you might learn something worth learning.

Favorites are Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden, Edward Rutherfurd and Ken Follett. If ever tortured to the point I’d have to name my favorite historical fiction work of all time, I’d probably scream out Follett’s Pillars of the Earth.

Whoever thought a tale about building a cathedral in 12th Century Britain could be so spell-binding?

But a writer who, in my mind, is giving them all a run for their money is one I came across a couple of years back named Steven Saylor. He writes about a period I find infinitely engrossing, Roman history in the final century BC, the time of Sulla, Cicero, Spartacus, Pompey and, of course the great one himself, Julius Caesar.

His hero is a Roman citizen named Gordianus the Finder, who over past couple of years has become one of my all-time favorite literary characters. If there’s anyone reading this who has any say in the development of television or cinematic entertainment, I’m going to give you the best advice of your career.

Take the character Gordianus the Finder and make a series out of him. You’d be rich and famous and I’d be happy and grateful to have something good to watch.

Gordianus was called The Finder because his powers of deduction were so uncanny that he – and ostensibly only he – could unlock the deepest, darkest secrets of the deep and dark Roman Empire. And everyone knew it, so they would hire him to glean the kind of information that could make a society rumble and an empire crumble.

He was, in short, a PI, a Private Investigator centuries before the term was coined.

So the series would have that element, and even those who have little interest in Roman history would have trouble resisting a good mystery. And Saylor, besides having researched his history to infinite detail, also writes a good mystery.

Best I can tell, Saylor has trotted out 16 tales of Gordianus The Finder so far in a series titled Roma Sub Rosa. In Latin, a matter deemed Sub Rosa meant it was confidential.

Unless I’m mistaken I’ve read six of the 16 Gordianus the Finder. Every one has been a page-turner.

Only I never read them in any particular order, just whenever I could find one on the shelves of a local library or second-hand book store. So by the closing chapters of The Judgment of Caesar, which I polished off over the holidays, I decided to take a Veeckian approach to the series and read them in order.

By The Judgment of Caesar, Gordianus was an old man riddled by the aches and pains and frustrations that I, at 66, know all too well. I could relate.

But it’s been fun starting back at the start, with The Seven Wonders, when Gordianus is a fresh-faced whippersnapper of 18 years old who had just donned his toga signifying adulthood. He travels the ancient world with a celebrated poet gone incognito named Antipeter of Sidon solving mysteries from Ephesus to Rhodes to Olympia to Babylon to Memphis.

I’ve already checked the local library’s catalog to find that most of the books are in one branch or another. And here in Winston-Salem, those running the library are great about transferring a book from a far-away branch to one much closer.

Another trick I’ve learned is to buy a book used on-line and have it sent to your house. You can usually find a decent copy for less than 10 dollars, postage included.

The Seven Wonders closes in Egypt where Gordianus finds and buys the love of his life, a slave named Bethesda. So obviously he remains there for the second book of the series Raiders of the Nile, which I’ve yet to read but am looking forward to with great anticipation.

What I’ve found is retirement is boring only to those who allow it to be.