Forbes’ Fire in the Belly

Even before Steve Forbes first won an ACC game, I was sold.

The long lost decade of Wake Forest basketball is coming to a merciful – and long overdue – end.

Even before Steve Forbes first won an ACC game, his Deacons were a handful for pretty much every team they played – the obvious exception being Georgia Tech. Even while losing their first six conference games, the Deacons reminded me of bubble gum stuck to a Nike.

You can take a butter knife and dig at that bubble gum, by gum, but it’s all but impossible to carve away.

The Deacons play hard. They play tough. And, most of all, they are tenacious.

And sitting on the couch of my locked-down Oldtown hacienda, I’ve been loving it.

Those faithful fans who have stuck with Wake Forest deserve better than they got over the past 10 seasons. The once proud basketball tradition was shredded by one losing season after another, but what was most depressing was a sense that nothing was changing.

To ever crawl out of the wilderness, the Deacons needed a real coach.

And in Steve Forbes, they have one.

Unlike his two most recent predecessors, Forbes has personality. And as the likes of Jim Valvano and Skip Prosser have taught us, personality can go a long ways toward building support and passion for a program.

But the biggest difference among Forbes and his two most recent predecessors is his hunger. He wins as a coach because he can’t afford to lose. He has no comfortable seat on an NBA bench or a mic in an ESPN studio to fall back on.

All successful coaches are hungry. Mike Krzyzewski, the most successful coach in college basketball history, arrived in the ACC as hungry as any coach I’ve ever covered – with the possible exception being his fellow Hall-of-Famer, Dean Smith.

To find a good college basketball coach, look for the fire in the belly.

And if you’re looking for a coach at Wake Forest, where nothing is guaranteed, that fire had best be raging.

The fire was raging in Forbes’ belly when he decided, as a Sports Information Director at his alma mater Southern Arkansas University, that he wanted to coach. It was raging ever hotter as he clawed his way up the ranks of the profession as an assistant at Southwestern Community College, Barton Community College, Idaho, Louisiana Tech, Texas A&M and Tennessee.

And when he suffered a fall from grace that would have extinguished the flame in most of us – the firing from Tennessee when head coach Bruce Pearl was busted by the NCAA for recruiting violations – Forbes simply rolled up his sleeve and started over at Northwest Florida State.

Do you reckon any of the two most recent Wake coaches have ever heard of Northwest Florida State? If so, that makes one of us.

Undaunted Forbes made enough of a name in two seasons as an assistant at Wichita State to get a crack at a head coaching job at East Tennessee State. With failuire, once again, no option, Forbes won 130 of 173 games and two conference championships in his five seasons in the backwater of Johnson City, Tennessee.

Still he arrived at Wake with something to prove. A man like Steve Forbes of Lone Tree, Iowa, will always have something to prove – to himself if nobody else.

Even before he assembled and kept together a competitive team during a pandemic, even before he beat Pitt and Boston College, even before his Deacons took a powerful Florida State team to overtime, Steve Forbes had proven to me that he’s the right man for the job.

I’ve loved the way he threw the greenest of rookies Carter Whitt into the fire almost as soon as he arrived on campus from high school. Nobody but the Deacons expect anything from the Deacons this season, so I figured the experience would do the kid a world of good.

And judging from Whitt’s most recent performances – including his nine-assist, three-turnover game at Florida State — I was right.

I loved the way he dealt with the selfishness he saw in the debacle at Notre Dame, which he rightly ascribed to the results of the “disease of me.’’ You have to wonder how a coach deals with a player such as Ismael Massoud, who two games after lighting up Pittsburgh for 31 points, played 12 minutes without scoring against Miami. You have to wonder how a coach deals with a Jahcobi Neath, whose hopes of being a major player this season have been largely usurped by transfer Daivien Williamson and Whitt,

And I especially loved his final comment after the victory over Boston College, when a reporter urged Forbes to “enjoy that beer.’’

“Oh it won’t be one,’’ Forbe deadpanned. “I can promise you that.’’

Finally after a decade no one will ever want to remember, Wake has a coach after my own heart – not to mention my own taste buds and my own belly.