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.