Currie Comes Through

So now that sanity has finally, at long last prevailed at Wake and Danny Manning has been relieved of the duties he spent six interminable years proving he couldn’t fulfill, a question I’ve been mulling for months has been answered.

Just how bad did John Currie want to clean up the mess left by his predecessor, Ron Wellman?

Bad enough, as we found out yesterday, to fire Manning during a pandemic.

And for that, he deserves major props. Good for John Currie, good for the long-suffering fans and even better for the hard-working players who may now, if Currie plays his next hand right, have a chance to actually finish above 10th in the ACC. A new day has dawned, and Currie has shown Wake a way out of the darkness that has enveloped the once-proud program over this lost decade.

But as we all know, a firing – even one as necessary and long-overdue as this one – is only as good as the hiring that follows. To do the job he was hired do do, to pull Wake basketball from the abyss, Currie has to find and hire the right guy.

Or has he already found him? That was on one of the first thoughts that passed through my head upon hearing the news yesterday morning, that it would explain why Currie cut Manning loose on April 24 – and not April 1 or May 15. Yes, Currie did say in yesterday’s media availability that the search is only now beginning. But that’s what a director of athletics has to say to avoid embarrassing both himself and the guy he was cashiering.

(In fact most of what Currie said yesterday was what a man in his situation pretty much has to say – which is as little as possible. I get it. Over my 45 years of sportswriting I asked countless questions I knew there was no way the person could answer. But the questions still have to be asked, just in case clarity and candor might prevail.)

But Currie has had months and months to plot his course of action, and by now has to have a pretty good idea of who he wants and his chances of getting them. Again, my instincts tell me the deal has already gone down, and in a week or so we’ll all find out if I’m right.

The home run hire is obviously John Beilein. He’s a proven coach the fan base could rally around, and he has the kind of name recognition that could attract interest from players exploring greener pastures in the months to come. And if the NCAA does indeed allow players to transfer without penalty, we’ll see more than a few programs go from the outhouse to the penthouse in record time.

John Beilein can coach. I didn’t have to be in Cleveland on March 19, 2005 to know that, but I was there to see his West Virginia squad take out Skip Prosser and Wake in Chris Paul’s final game in gold and black. John Beilein can coach. He’s a proven commodity.

Yeah, I know, he’s an old (67) proven commodity, but Currie’s focus, to my mind, should be on getting Wake out of the ditch it’s currently in, and then concern himself with what happens afterward.

Now is certainly not the time to take another flyer. Wellman took two in a row by hiring Jeff Bzdelik in 2010 and Manning in 2014, and we all know how that worked out.

It’s not that I’m philosophically opposed to a program taking a flyer on a coach. North Carolina took a chance on a relatively unknown assistant who turned out to be Dean Smith. Duke plucked a coach coming off a 9-17 season at Army (of all places) who turned out to be Mike Krzyzewski. And Dave Odom, lest we forget, had a losing record as a head coach before he was hired at Wake by Gene Hooks in 1989, ushering in the longest period of sustained success the program has ever known.

But now is not the time for a gamble. The die-hards who still care about Wake basketball have been through too much already. For Currie to play a hunch — as Wellman did with Bzdelik and Manning – that doesn’t work out would be disastrous and undo all the good he did yesterday.

As for candidates other than Beilein, I’m seeing the same names as you. Wake has done a brutally effective job in the past half-dozen or so years of controlling the message, which is why so few people really know what’s going on in the program. As a small, private school, Wake is well-positioned to avoid transparency, and those days of the program being a reporter’s dream beat are long since gone.

I got to know Pat Kelsey during his stay, and like him. I love his energy and passion. The question there is the same one I have with Wes Miller. How does success at places like Winthrop and UNC Greensboro translate into what he will face going against the likes of Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski, Tony Bennett and Leonard Hamilton?:

I also got to know Russell Turner when he was with Odom in the early 1990s, which, by the way, is when Currie was at Wake as well. Russell is one of my favorite former assistants. He’s smart and driven, and knows what he’s doing. Like another former assistant, Chris Mack, Russell can be a red-ass. That showed up during his unfortunate incident with the player from Oregon during the 2019 NCAA Tournament, for which he apologized repeatedly and profusely. But that said, no one who knows Russell Turner at all would ever recognize him as a bigot.

He just hates to lose, and that rank aversion, on that day, at that moment, got the best of him.

Danny Manning infamously said the day he was introduced as Wake’s coach that his program would be one that hangs its hat on defense. Well Turner’s California-Irvine program has done just that, and the hard-nosed, grind-it-out style of basketball he has fashioned has resulted in five first-place finishes in the Big West and two trips to the NCAA Tournament.

So if you haven’t figured it out by now, in the absence of Beilein, Turner is the man I would want to see standing courtside when next season’s Deacons take the court.

At least it won’t be Danny Manning, which begs one final question.

How bad does a coach have to be to be fired during a pandemic?