Wake: A Program in Exile

By the time I retired from writing for daily newspapers in August of 2017, I had long since concluded that no story should ever be written about any coach in any sport at any time in the history of that sport without at least a fleeting reference the Grand Disclaimer of All-Time.

Which is:

A coach who wins often enough can do no wrong.

A coach who loses often enough can do no right.

If Wake was 75-58– and more to the point, 52-20 in ACC play – over Danny Manning’s four-plus seasons as head coach, it would matter little that Manning was hired after a run of six good weeks during his second season at Tulsa.

It would matter little that because of his guarded, some might say aloof nature, he has forged little to no connection with the media or fanbase.

It would matter little that he has yet to answer (that I’ve heard) any question asked him with any specificity or detail.

It would matter little that Manning at least appears to lack the fire in the belly of a Chris Mack or a Buzz Williams or a Jeff Capel or a Roy Williams or a Mike Kzyzewski or a Kevin Keatts or, for that matter, most any of his of his fellow coaching brethren.

And I don’t even think it would matter all that much that five players with eligibility remaining voted with their feet, by departing the program in search of greener pastures since last season.

But the cold hard facts of life for that ever-dwindling core of Wake fans who have yet to give up on the program are that Manning is not 74-56 and 20-52 in ACC play over his four-plus seasons as Wake’s head coach.

Manning, instead is, 58-75 and 20-52.

And because he loses and loses often, all the above questions and criticisms do matter, and they matter greatly.

And what matters even more is that in Manning’s fifth season as head coach his team is losing at home to one of the worst teams in all of college basketball, Houston Baptist. What matters even more is that in Manning’s fifth season as head coach, his team is extended into the final minute to beat another of the worst teams in college basketball, Western Carolina.

Again, at home.

What matters even more is that during a three-day period when the rest of the ACC is either coming off, playing or getting ready to play games in the vaunted ACC/Big Ten Challenge on packages televised across the globe, Wake is playing at home against Western Carolina in front of 3,500 gluttons for punishment.

As my man Evan Lepler mentioned during the play-by-play streaming on ACCN Extra, Wake was in exile from the ACC last night. Pitt, the only team picked to finish below Wake this season, was making a damn good showing in a 69-68 loss at 14th-ranked Iowa. N.C. State gave Wisconsin all it wanted at one of the toughest places to win in all of college basketball, the notorious Kohl Center. And Louisville was giving ACC foes a glimpse of what to expect under Mack by knocking off No. 9 Michigan State.

All while, once again, Wake is barely beating Western Carolina at home in front of 3,500 gluttons for punishment.

Has there ever been a time when Wake’s ties to the ACC – at least in the flagship sport of basketball – felt more tenuous?

Looking for some explanation, some reasonable alibi or justification for what I had just watched on ACCN streaming, I checked out Manning’s post-game address on Les Johns’ Demon Deacon Digest. Since retirement I’ve gotten really good at wasting time.

Asked if he was surprised to to find himself in a game late after leading 21-3 early, Manning’s answer was “that’s college basketball.’’

Well that’s not college basketball as played at SMU, which beat Western Carolina by 33. That’s not college basketball as played by Jacksonville State, which beat Western Carolina by 31. That’s not college basketball as played at Arizona, which beat Houston Baptist by 30. That’s not college basketball as played at Wisconsin, which beat Houston Baptist by 37.

But it is college basketball as played at Wake in Danny Manning’s fifth season as head coach.

The one rationalization Manning was quick to mention was the inexperience of his fifth team at Wake Forest.

“We’re a young team,’’ he said. And then he repeated it.

What he didn’t mention is that Bryant Crawford, Doral Moore and Keyshawn Woods had, among them, played a combined 247 games at Wake, and all had eligibility remaining. All were bragged on time and again by Manning during their career at Wake, and yet all chose to play this season elsewhere – Crawford in Israel, Moore in the G-Leage and Woods as a highly effective grad transfer at Ohio State.

Yes Wake is young, again. And there’s a reason Wake is young, again.

But is there any reason Danny Manning is still head basketball coach at Wake Forest?

If so, I’d love to hear it.

Clawson Wills Deacons to a Bowl

Hiring decisions, like elections, have consequences.

Or so I seem to remember reading somewhere recently.

In the 12th game of Dave Clawson’s fifth season as head football coach at Wake, the Deacons overcame more than enough injuries to scuttle a lesser team, the loss of one quarterback to suspension and another to injury and the unsettling cashiering of a defensive coordinator a third of the way through the season to stomp Duke into the rain-soaked turf of Wallace Wade and become bowl eligible for the third-straight season.

Watching the Deacons saddle up running back Cade Carney and ride him to today’s 59-7 drubbing of an ancient rival brought to mind what I heard about how Clawson came to be hired at Wake, and how desperately he wanted the job.

As the story goes, Athletics Director Ron Wellman dispatched Mike Buddie, then his right-hand man, to Bowling Green to get a read on this guy named Clawson, who was fresh off coaching the Falcons to a MAC Championship.

Clawson sits Buddie (who today is director of athletics at Furman) down at his kitchen table and won’t let him leave until he had laid out in infinite detail the plan he had to make Wake a consistent winner in the ACC. The interview, as I recall hearing, lasted into the wee hours of the morning.

And when Wellman made the decision to hire Clawson over Pete Lembo of Ball State, Clawson could not get over his luck.

“I really wanted to be at Wake Forest,’’ Clawson said. “The second this job opened, I was dreaming that I was at a podium talking to all these reporters.

“I want to be here. This is a great place, and I think we can achieve great things.’’

Clawson arrived at Wake hungry, with something to prove. And what he has been proving these past five seasons is that Wellman followed one grand-slam hire in football – that of Jim Grobe – with a second straight.

Dave Clawson willed this team to a bowl in one of the great coaching performances I’ve witnessed in my 45 years as a sportswriter.

As I wrote earlier, commission the statue, and pay the man whatever is required to keep him. He’s earned every bit of it.

The Wake team that was getting hammered by Notre Dame (57-26), Clemson (63-3), Florida State (38-17) and Syracuse (41-24) had no business playing in a bowl. But Clawson would not settle for anything less, nor would he allow his team to settle for anything less.

So Wellman, the man most responsible for the demise of a once-proud basketball program, was prescient enough in another sport to hire the school’s two best football coaches since the advent of the ACC in 1953. How could one man get it so wrong, twice in a row, in one sport, and so right, twice in a row, in another?

The difference between Danny Manning and Dave Clawson could not be more obvious after a weekend in which Wake followed in a 24-hour whirl one of the worst losses ever in basketball with one of the best ever in football. The difference between Manning and Clawson is that one is hungry, the same one who has spent a life proving himself.

In 1988, Danny Manning was the best player in college basketball, the toast of the sport. He could have moved to Timbuktu after leading Kansas to the National Championship, never to be heard from again, and he would forever remain a legend.

In 1988, Dave Clawson was a defensive back for Williams College, a Division III school in Williamstown, Mass.

Over the subsequent 15 years, while Manning was making millions playing in the NBA, Clawson was clawing his way up the coaching ladder, from graduate assistant at Albany, to secondary, running backs and quarterbacks coach at Buffalo, to running backs coach at Lehigh, to offensive coordinator at Villanova, to head coach at Fordham, to head coach at Richmond – and following an ill-fated season spent as offensive coordinator at Tennessee – to head coach at Bowling Green.

He remained hungry, and he arrived at Wake hungry. If I had to guess, he’ll be hungry all his born days.

Nobody becomes as good at anything as Manning was at basketball without the requisite drive and determination. And Manning showed that in his rise through high schools and college, and he definitely showed that while overcoming one crippling injury after another to carve out an NBA career.

But when he decided to take up coaching, and returned to Kansas at the bottom rung, he did so because he wanted to. If you see hunger in Danny Manning, that makes one of us.

Dave Clawson doesn’t coach because he wants to. He was born to coach.

Dave Clawson doesn’t win because he wants to. Dave Clawson wins because he has to.

He’s too hungry to lose.

Realizing early in my life that I’m not management timber, I never had to make any hiring decisions. But if Ron Wellman were to ever ask me what he should look for in hiring a basketball coach at Wake, I’d say go with the hungriest coach he can find.

At Wake, nothing else will suffice.

Worst Loss Ever?

In the fifth game of Danny Manning’s fifth season as Wake’s head basketball coach, the Deacons committed 22 turnovers while forcing 10, yielded 16 offensive rebounds, didn’t make a field goal in the final 8:58 of regulation, blew a 14-point lead in the final eight minutes of regulation and lost at home to Houston Baptist in overtime, 93-91.

Yes, that Houston Baptist, the one picked to finish 10th in the vaunted 13-team Southland Conference – ahead of such juggernauts as Nicholls, Northwestern State and Incarnate Word.

Yes, that Houston Baptist, the one that was 1-2, having lost to Arizona by 30 and to Wisconsin by 37.

Yes, that Houston Baptist, the program coming off a 6-25 season in which it won all of two games in the vaunted Southland Conference.

Yes, that Houston Baptist, the program ranked 296 by KenPom – precisely 174 spots below the lowest-ranked ACC team, Pittsburgh.

Yes, that Houston Baptist, the team that scored on 27 of the final 44 times it crossed half-court today in possession of the basketball. The one that spent the first half sizing up the Deacons, and the rest of the game taking the fight to them. The one that gave five players hailing from the state of North Carolina the homecoming of their lifetime.

The Houston Baptist that shouldn’t even be on the same court as an ACC team, much less beating one.

There are bad losses in basketball, and there are worse losses in basketball. Given when it came – in the fifth season under a coach that has already lost to Delaware State, Georgia Southern and Liberty – this one has to be at least in the conversation for worst loss in Wake basketball history.

Yeah, I remember Stetson, the team that knocked off Wake in the same season its coached got fired for losing too many games. But that loss came in Jeff Bzdelik’s first game as head coach at Wake.

Today’s loss came in Manning’s 131st game in charge of the Deacons’ basketball fortunes. And of those 131 games, the Deacons have won 57. In Manning’s 131st game in charge of the Deacons’ basketball fortunes, he calls timeout for the climatic play and the Deacons end up with a long, contested 3-pointer from Brandon Childress that clanked hard off the rim.

“We just wanted to spread the floor,” Manning explained. “We didn’t know the defense, what they were going to come out in. And for us, it’s just ball movement and be able to attack.

“And we were a little stagnant. And we didn’t move the ball and we didn’t get a paint touch. They wanted us to shoot long jump shots and we settled for it too many times.”

I can recall when Wake was good in basketball, which means only that I’m old.

And I’m beginning to wonder if I’m too old to ever again see a day when Wake is again a respected member of the ACC.

Hiring decisions, like elections, have consequences.

When Athletics Director Ron Wellman decided that Dino Gaudio was not the face he wanted of the Wake basketball program, he hired Bzdelik.

And when Bzdelik’s 51-76 record proved untenable, the same man, Wellman, hired Danny Manning fresh off his only two seasons as a head basketball coach at Tulsa.

Whit Babcock, the director of Virginia Tech, found himself in a similar predicament as Wellman going into the 2014-15 season, having watched his basketball program lose 41 of 63 games under coach James Johnson.

So Babcock’s solution was to hire Buzz Williams, and in the four-plus seasons since the Hokies have won 78 and lost 60, played in post-season three-straight seasons and in the NCAA Tournament two-straight seasons, are coming off a 21-12 campaign and are currently ranked No. 13 at 4-0 going into tomorrow’s game against St. Francis.

I defy anyone to name any historical advantage Virginia Tech has over Wake in basketball, but look at the gap between the two programs.

Babcock cared enough about the brand of basketball played by his school to fire a coach after two seasons when it became evident that coach was not the right man for the job.

If losing to Houston Baptist at home in the fifth game of your fifth season doesn’t prove you’re not the right man for the job, then I have to wonder what would. And I also have to wonder if Wake did at long last make a move, would the decision be left to the same man who hired Jeff Bzdelik and Danny Manning?

What’s that definition of insanity again?

Pitt Showed How It’s Done

The Wake faithful who showed up at BB&T Field today saw a team they came into the season hoping to see.

They saw a team with an imposing offensive line brawny and cohesive enough to impose its will on the opponent, especially as the game wore on and the defense wore down.

They saw a team with a resourceful defense that made the stops that had to be made.

They saw a team that bounced back from early-season stumbles to get better and better week by week.

They saw a team that stunned all the experts by marching inexorably to a division title and a berth in the ACC championship.

And they filed out of BB&T Field wishing if only it had been their team who showed all that and not the visiting Pitt Panthers.

The 34-13 setback to Pitt was all but in the cards going into this one. The Panthers were on a big-time roll and besides that, they’ve proven over the back half of the season to be pretty damn good. And Wake, for all the pluck it showed in the first half, appeared spent, done, kaput as the clock and Pitt rolled own.

If nothing else, what we saw today made last week’s upset of N.C. State appear all the more remarkable. But Pitt did what the Wolfpack was unable to do, which was wear the thread-bare Deacons’ defense to the nub by the midway point of the fourth quarter. And quarterback Jamie Newman was unable to do what he did a week ago, which was to stand in the pocket and make the throws that have to be made to pull off the kind of stunner Wake pulled last week.

The fans were undoubtedly grumbling when Dave Clawson chose to kick the field goal trailing 20-10 with 12 ½ minutes to go. But what I felt at the time proved to be the case.

It really didn’t matter. Nothing less than a Panther turnover was going to give Wake any chance whatsoever to be in the game at the end.

There’s no statistic in football – and may not be in all of sports – bigger than the turnover. A team can drive the ball 98 yards and fumble on the one, and have nothing other than field position to show for all those runs and passes and first downs.

If the Deacons were going to do anything really special this season they were going to have to win the turnover-margin, and perhaps even handily. I was happy to see that my guy Evan Lepler had the opportunity to stay at home and handle the play-by-play duties for the Fox Sports South telecast, and as he pointed out so astutely, a Wake team has never lost the turnover margin and made a bowl.

With the two interceptions Newman threw today, the Deacons are minus-9 on turnovers for the season. What really jumps out, though, is that Wake has now played 11 games while intercepting only four passes.

The secondary was a big-time question mark going into the season, and unfortunately for Clawson and his staff, that question has been answered.

So the Deacons have one more chance – next week at Duke – to win a sixth game and make a bowl for a third-straight season. All the countless hours they have put in since the end of last season – all the windsprints, all the off-season workouts, all the blood, sweat and tears left on the field – will come down to 60 minutes at Wallace Wade Stadium.

For Wake to even still have a chance at a bowl at this late stage is, to me, impressive. But to the Black and Gold faithful who made the final game at BB&T Field, that’s not anywhere near as impressive as that team from Pittsburgh that rolled to a Coastal Division title.

Congrats to Pat Narduzzi and his Panthers for a job well-done.

Black and Gold Path of Least Resistance

For all the comings and goings during Danny Manning’s four-plus seasons at Wake – and lately those going have been doing so at an alarming rate – one constant remains.

The Deacons can’t defend, or at least they can’t do so well enough collectively to be more than fodder to those good teams lucky enough to play them. Such was the case in Year One of Manning’s run at Wake, and such is the case at the start of Year Five.

Manning’s counterpart, Phil Martelli of St. Joe’s, had plenty of reason to feel good going into the Myrtle Beach Invitational. His daughter gave birth to Martelli’s grandson and his Hawks were afforded the Path of Least Resistance into the semifinals of the tournament.

A Path of Least Resistance is what Wake has been since the day Manning arrived, and that’s what the Deacons were again today in a demoralizing 89-69 thumping. Whether it’s advancing in a tournament or climbing one more step toward the top of the ACC standings, few teams provide less resistance than a Wake team coached by Danny Manning.

This one was more demoralizing than so many that came before because of all the optimism around the program going into the season.

You know #newbeginnings, and all that.

The Deacons did, after all, add highly-regarded freshmen Jaylen Hoard, Isaiah Mucius and Sharone Wright, Jr., and Manning and his staff were coming off a full season of coaching up promising sophomores Chaundee Brown and Olivier Sarr.

Yet over the first 10 minutes of the second half – while the Hawks were scoring on 14 of 20 possessions to blow a tie game wide open – the brand of basketball being played by the Deacons looked for all the world like the same old same old we’ve all been watching for the past four years.

We saw it all once again, hot shooters shooting wide-open shots, drivers driving straight-line to the basket for layups, cutters cutting off ball screens to find nobody between them and the basket.

Over my seasons since retirement, I watch Wake basketball with a pad in my hand, and tally how many possessions opponents get and how many times the Deacons stop them from scoring. Even with counting the three St. Joe’s possessions after both coaches emptied their bench – the Hawks scored on 38 of their 68 possessions.

They scored on 19 of 35 in the first half, and 19 of 33 in the second. But they made their greatest hay midway through the second half by scoring on seven straight possessions.

Not until the damage had already been done, and St. Joe’s was looking forward to its next game in the tournament, did Wake stop the Hawks twice in a row in the second half. And not until the coaches emptied the bench did the Deacons stop St. Joe’s more than twice in a row.

The season-opening 90-78 victory over North Carolina A&T was fun, in that we got to see Hoard and Mucius finally put their considerable athletic talents on display in a college setting, and had reason to wonder just how good Wright, Brown and Sarr might be. But alarm bells had to go off when the Aggies shot 46 percent from the floor and 42 percent from 3-point range, while being forced into just eight turnovers.

Then comes today, when the Hawks shoot 52 percent from the floor and 53 percent from beyond the arc and score 89 points while committing just eight turnovers.

Hoard and Mucius are good offensive players, and they’re going to fill a high-light reel for the season. Brown looked good in the first half, before pulling his all-to-familiar disappearing act in the second.

But can the Deacons beat anybody good when their starting center, Sarr, plays 22 minutes and gets only one shot – a 3-pointer he drilled from the top of the key?

Throughout my career, I resisted making snap judgments, and I continue to do so today. It’s a long season, and all that. Nothing is static in life. Everything is dynamic, in a state of flux.

Maybe today was a case of early-season jitters, and maybe the Deacons will come out and romp through the next two games of the tournament. I’d like to think that’s the case, and might even succeed if what we saw today didn’t look so much like what we’ve all seen so many times before.

Commission the Statue

We had us another hot time in the old town of Bethania last night at our Open Mic at Muddy Creek Cafe.

As always, it was all kinds of people playing all kinds of music all kinds of ways having all kinds of fun doing so.

But as good a night as I had, I know one guy who had a better night. A much better night.

In fact it’s hard for me to remember a Wake football coach having a better night – at least not in the regular season — than Dave Clawson enjoyed last night about 100 miles east of Bethania at N.C. State.

Everybody knew going in that Wake never wins at N.C. State. Everybody knew Wake was too depleted on defense to hold the 14th-ranked Wolfpack to fewer than 50 points. Everybody knew there was no way Wake was going to walk into Carter-Finley Stadium with a quarterback who had never started a game and get out with anything less than a old-fashion tail-whipping.

Betting was never my thing during my years as a sportswriter, partly because I’m too tight to part with my money but mostly because I didn’t think that professionally it would be a good idea.

But if I had bet on last night’s game I would have lost bigly. I mean really hugely. Because, like pretty much everybody who wasn’t on the team bus from Winston-Salem to Raleigh, I thought there was no way Wake would win.

Dave Clawson proved me wrong. Dave Clawson proved everybody wrong, and as a result the Deacons got back on that team bus and celebrated their most improbable 27-23 victory all the way back down I-40 to campus.

Dave Clawson proved me wrong in more ways than one. I thought it was wrong to fire Jay Sawvel, the defensive coordinator, three games into the season. My position, I thought, was confirmed when the Deacons continued to get shredded long after Sawvel was gone.

But to take a defense that had given up 177 points in its previous four games and coach it up to the point it could hold N.C. State to two touchdowns and three field goals was one of the inspired coaching performances I can remember. Making it all the more astounding was the fact Clawson had only five days to do it.

(And by the way, who was it that broke up Ryan Finley’s fourth-down pass late, a play that gave the Deacons a chance to win? It was none other than the much-maligned – by me and pretty much everybody – Ja’Sir Taylor. What a night.)

Dave Clawson proved me wrong for positing that he and his staff had squandered the four years that John Wolford started at quarterback without recruiting a quarterback good enough to either beat out or back up freshman Sam Hartman. I’ve said before that Jamie Newman, at 6-4, 230, certainly looks the part of an ACC quarterback, but last night he also played like one when it mattered most, directing the two fourth-quarter touchdown drives that pulled out the victory.

Now I could grumble about how seldom any of us are told about the injuries on the Wake team, and how none of us knew the litany of injuries that had kept Jamie Newman sidelined. I could even suggest – admittedly without a shred of evidence to back it up – that maybe Clawson was starting the wrong guy all along, or, short of that, too slow to insert Newman for Hartman when the going got rough.

I could also point out that Clawson came around to the realization that I, like many others, had arrived at weeks earlier – that to protect his worn and tattered defense he needed to run fewer plays on offense. He freely acknowledged that the strategy last night was to downshift on offense.

But to cast any aspersions on the kind of victory Wake enjoyed last night at N.C. State would be small of me, and I don’t want to be like that. Dave Clawson pulled off one of the most amazing victories in the history of Wake football, and he deserves every bit of credit we can shower him with.

I admittedly get a big kick out of reading message-board chatter both for smiles and to gauge the mood and shifts of a fan base. As one would certainly expect, the Wolfpack fans howling on PackPride.com late into the night were all about firing everybody from Dave Doeren right down the ball boys.

But even when Wake was losing to BC, Florida State and Syracuse and giving up 63 points to Clemson, I was writing that Dave Clawson is a good football coach, and that Wake was lucky to have him. I was writing that he was a good football coach having a bad season.

Well Dave Clawson’s season got a whole lot better last night in Raleigh. The Deacons found another option at quarterback, beat a heated rival at a place where Wake never wins, all the while improving to 5-5 with games against Pitt (home) and Duke (away) left to play.

A couple of weeks ago, after the victory over Louisville, I wrote that if Dave Clawson can get a team to a bowl in this, of all, seasons, Wake should erect a statue to him and that he would be worth more to the school than said school could ever hope to pay him.

I knew all along he was a good football coach. But I never thought he was as good as what we saw last night.

Dave Clawson proved me wrong. And it didn’t hurt my feelings one bit.

Rookie Quarterback Blues, Verse Deux

(Editors note: No sooner had I posted this blog than I caught Les Johns’ scoop in Demon Deacon Digest that freshman quarterback Sam Hartman has been lost for the rest of the season because of injury. Off to play music today. Will address development in days to come).

Much was made in yesterday’s telecast of Syracuse’s 41-24 victory over the Deacons concerning the similarities between the quarterback who just graduated out of the Wake program and the one who just arrived.

Sideline reporter Rebecca Kaple reported that Coach Dino Babers of the Orange saw them as basically the same guy. The quote was something to the effect of “they took the quarterback they had last season as a senior and started him over as a freshman.’’

The comparisons between John Wolford and Sam Hartman are inescapable. Both are relatively short white quarterbacks dangerous either running or throwing the football. And both are sharp enough to absorb an offense early and well enough to begin their careers on the field.

Neither was a highly-coveted blue chip recruit and yet both possess the kind of gravitas it takes to command the respect of older, more grizzled teammates.

Yet as the game unfolded, what became clearer and clearer to these old rheumy eyes was the difference between the two.

Physically, they’re different. Hartman seems a tad taller and is definitely more rangy. Wolford looked stocky to me when he arrived, even before he spent the next four years in the weight room adding muscle.

If pressed as to which is the most physically talented, I’d probably say Hartman. He appears to have more arm strength, perhaps a few more miles-per-hour on his passes, if nothing else.

But to even be compared to John Wolford, a quarterback would have to be one of the toughest hombres to ever suit up for Wake football. Wolford absorbed an unholy pounding over the first half of his career, and not only survived, but thrived well enough to lead the Deacons to back-to-back winning seasons capped by bowl victories over Temple and Texas A&M and leave Wake ranked third in all-time passing yards, second in touchdown passes and second to only the legendary Riley Skinner for total yards.

None of this is to say that Hartman is soft. He would have to have the requisite sand to even take a snap from center in his first season, much less get up from all the times he has been slammed unceremoniously to the turf.

As someone who couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to be pancaked by a bull-rushing 300-pound defensive tackle, I’m not about to call anybody who has lived to tell about it yellow. Nobody who suits up for college football is yellow, for the weak and timid have been long beforehand culled from the sport.

But it’s what I’ve seen from Hartman in his first nine games that separates him most from the man he succeeded. I’ve seen him flinch.

I’ve seen him come out strong, only to get rattled and a bit gunshy once he’s been hit a time or two. I saw it yesterday when he overthrew a wide open Matt Colburn down the right sidelines, and a play or two later overthrew a wide open Scotty Washington down the left sideline.

I saw it when he dropped back and whiffed his pass for a fumble that Syracuse converted into a game-changing touchdown.

Maybe, thinking back to 2014, John Wolford flinched a time or two as a freshman quarterback breaking into the ACC. Maybe my memory is colored rose by by immense respect for John Wolford and all he became as a junior and senior.

But that said, I can’t for the life of me remember John Wolford flinching. I do remember him getting sacked something like 48 times as a freshman and around 40 as a sophomore. I would prefer to be a bit more specific, but the only sack stats I could find from past seasons were team stats and not broken down by player.

Hartman has also been roughed up, as all ACC quarterbacks are. But the 24 sacks Wake has taken through nine games is a far cry from what Wolford endured his freshman season.

It has become pretty apparent by now that Hartman, at this stage in his career, is not ready for all he has been asked to do. Coach Dave Clawson said as much after yesterday’s fifth loss of the season – which left the Deacons needing to win two of their final three to play in a bowl.

“We’ve got to get Sam to not turn the ball over,’’ Clawson said. “We’re putting way too much pressure on Sam right now.

“If he goes, we go. We’re in it together, but that’s the nature of the quarterback position.’’

So Clawson has been here twice already in his five seasons at Wake, throwing a freshman quarterback to the wolves.

The first time was not on him. The offensive cupboard was so bare when he and his staff arrived that freshman John Wolford was really the only option.

But he does bear responsibility for this season’s predicament. How valuable would it be if there was a back-up quarterback on the roster ready to come in and at least spell a rattled Hartman for a series or two, and perhaps even give the opposing defensive coordinator something else to worry about?

As I’ve written before, ostensibly that alternative should be Kendall Hinton, the guy Clawson described in such glowing terms these past three seasons. The way Clawson raved about Hinton’s electrifying elusiveness had me anticipating the ACC’s second coming of Lamar Jackson.

But as fate would have it, Hinton was suspended for the first three games for the ubiquitous “violation of team rules,’’ and his redshirt junior season has unraveled. If you’re like me (a disturbing thought indeed) you’d love to know the real story of Hinton’s season, the reason for the suspension and why he has played only a handful of plays through the first nine games.

But Clawson has followed the same script as most of his college coaching brethren and pulled the shutters down around the Wake program. Practices are closed, injuries are cloaked and the real reason a player is not playing is way too hard to pry out.

Don’t worry about it folks. It’s all on a need-to-know basis.

When finally asked about Hinton after Saturday’s loss, Clawson reached deep into the locked box for the disabled list. Again, Clawson prefers to talk about injuries after a game, and rarely before.

“Kendall is hurt again,’’ Clawson said. “We gave Kendall No. 5 today because we were going to get him involved with special teams. There were going to be chances when he and Cam Glenn (who also wears No. 2) would be on the field together. He was cleared to practice Tuesday, then he got hurt with a new injury. There was an ankle injury last week, and a hip flexor now.

“It’s just sometimes when it rains, it pours.’’

The downpour leaves Wake with three scholarship quarterbacks. Redshirt sophomore Jamie Newman looks the part, but has played only sparingly and hasn’t been all impressive while doing so. And Tayvon Bowers is a redshirt freshman who I know absolutely nothing about, other than he was beaten out by a quarterback who arrived at Wake six months after he did.

The quarterback who beat Bowers out, Sam Hartman, has shown promise. My guess is that, in time, he will end up being the answer for the Deacons’ quarterback needs. He may even turn out to be one of Wake’s all-time greats.

But he does need to toughen up, and learn how to deal with the physical demands of the position. Happy feet from your quarterbacks lead to sad results on the scoreboard.

In time – and he has plenty of it remaining – Hartman may turn out to be as resolute, as stouthearted, as indomitable as the quarterback he replaced.

I haven’t seen it yet. I’ll keep looking, but I haven’t seen it yet.

Wake Turns to Nestor Once Again

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.

Karma 56, Louisville 35

On the karmic scale of 0-100, Wake Forest’s 56-35 victory at Louisville yesterday registered somewhere north of 250.

Even someone who trained themselves for four decades to not exult or despair over the outcome of an athletic event could take deep satisfaction in the way this one came down.

There was Bobby Petrino, as reptilian of a coach as I ever had the displeasure of crossing paths with, screaming at a team that had clearly given up on him, in front of a cavernous stadium with row after row of empty seats.

There was Lonnie Galloway, the former Wake assistant who conspired to cheat his old employer, standing on the Louisville sidelines wondering where he’ll be coaching next season.

There was Matt Colburn, the running back who had his scholarship offer from Louisville yanked two days before signing day, running over, around and through the dispirited Cardinal defense to three touchdowns and a career-best 243 rushing yards.

There was a Wake defense that had been summarily dismantled by Boston College, Notre Dame and Clemson reassembling at least well enough to keep the Deacons’ bowl hopes alive.

And making the spectacle all the more enjoyable was the opportunity to take it all in with an old friend. I call him an old friend, even though he’s only about half my age.

His name is Evan Lepler, and he was the play-by-play guy in yesterday’s Fox Sport Southeast telecast.

I was lucky enough to get to know Evan during his pass through Wake Forest a dozen or so years ago, and even had the pleasure of meeting his folks, Steve and Ramie of Sharon, Mass., on that historic day the Deacons played Louisville in the Orange Bowl.

Good folks.

I’ve closely followed Lepler’s rise through the ranks from the play-by-play announcer for the Salem Redbirds of the Carolina League, through his involvement with Ultimate Frisbee on to an ever-increasing number of assignments to major college football and basketball. A favorite saying of mine is that good things happen to good people, and the good things that have been happening to Evan Lepler these past couple of years include the marriage to his sweetheart Caleigh, and the arrival of the apple of their eyes, little miss Olivia Bennett.

Listen. Evan is a friend so I’m going to tell you he’s a good play-by-play regardless of his abilities. But thankfully I don’t have to deceive anyone by saying Evan is not only good, he’s getting better game by game.

That’s the way with smart people. They get better the more they do whatever they’ve chosen to do, and I fully expect Evan Lepler to be a heavyweight in his chosen field long before Olivia Bennett begins to consider colleges she might attend.

He’s clearly a pro, which is why anyone who didn’t know his background could have ever guessed he graduated from Wake in 2007. It would have been disappointing to hear him spend the telecast waving black and gold pom poms.

But by this point in his career, I have to believe he doesn’t live and die with the outcome of a sporting event. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, and Saturday’s game might have been as close to that exception as Evan is going to experience this season.

Again, smart people get better the more they do what they’ve chosen to do. In that vein, Dave Clawson has spent 19 years getting better and better as a football coach.

As I’ve written before, coaches, like players, like everybody, have their good seasons and their bad seasons. Coming out of last week’s loss at Florida State, it was pretty apparent that Dave Clawson was having a bad season.

The argument could be made that he was a victim of his own success, that he had raised the expectations to a point that it was becoming increasingly difficult to satisfy the masses. And there’s no disputing that the breaks have gone against the Deacons this season, what with the early suspension to Kendall Hinton and the epidemic of injuries that have ravaged critical positions on defense.

But here we are eight games into the season, and the Deacons have a fighting chance to win six games and play in a bowl for the third straight campaign. They gave themselves that chance by beating Louisville and improving to 4-4 with Syracuse (home), N.C. State (away), Pitt (home) and Duke (away) left to play.

Dave Clawson proved to me in his first four seasons at Wake that he’s a good coach, one of the best the school has ever been lucky enough to hire. And I remained convinced Dave Clawson is a good football coach – albeit one having a bad season — even when his team was giving up 41 points to BC, 56 to Notre Dame and 63 to Clemson.

But if he can somehow get this team to a bowl in this, of all seasons, then it would be one of the best performances from any coach I’ve every crossed paths with. If Wake plays in a bowl in 2018, the school should erect a statue to Dave Clawson.

If Wake plays in a bowl in 2018, he’ll be worth more to the school than said school could ever hope to pay him.

Speaking of schools paying football coaches, it’s going to be fun to see if Louisville digs deep enough to come up with the $14 million buyout it will take to get rid of Bobby Petrino.

On a day that Petrino was looking about as a bad as coach can look, two folks from Wake – one in the television booth and one directing the victory on the sidelines — were looking mighty, mighty good.

Never bet against karma.

All-Points-Bulletin Out for Kendall Hinton

I just think that Kendall Hinton is too good an athlete. He makes too many plays. If we don’t utilize Kendall Hinton, that’s a huge, huge mistake.’’Dave Clawson, Aug. 2016.

For three seasons, Coach Dave Clawson couldn’t say enough nice things about Kendall Hinton – no matter how hard he tried.

And he tried really hard. Trust me on this one. I was still riding the Wake beat for the Winston-Salem Journal at the time and was hearing, over and over again how dynamic, how explosive, how elusive one Kendall Hinton of Southern Durham High School really, really was.

Clawson was so high on Hinton that he named him the starter going into my last preseason camp of 2017, over another guy named John Wolford who, in the final game of the previous season, had directed a 34-26 bowl victory over Temple.

Fast forward through a season and a half, through Wolford’s ascent into the pantheon of all-time Wake quarterbacks and Hinton’s three-game suspension to start the 2018 campaign, all the way to Saturday’s trip to Tallahassee to play struggling Florida State. Or at least the Seminoles were struggling until they had the chance to play what’s left of Clawson’s fifth team at Wake.

I listened transfixed to Clawson’s post-game after FSU’s methodical 38-17 beat-down, and heard how the Deacons were down to one scholarship linebacker, Justin Strnad, and how hard converted safety Luke Masterson played, and how the offense continues to struggle in the hands of freshman quarterback Sam Hartman, who completed 22 of 46 passes for 227 yards and two touchdowns, while throwing an interception and getting sacked four times.

“He was very up-and-down,’’ Clawson said. “He really struggled. He made some really poor decisions in the pocket. We get a first-and-10 and get a re-set, and he takes a 12-yard sack. And we go for it on fourth down and he takes another sack and we give them the ball at midfield. And then third-down we go for it – obviously we go for it on third down – but nobody’s open and he just goes backwards

“So he made some really poor decisions in the pocket and they cost us a lot of yardage. This isn’t high-school football. You play defensive ends that are faster than you. He’s a true freshman quarterback and he competes and he plays hard, but he’s learning some lessons the hard way.’’

It was never the plan, Clawson went on to say, to play a freshman quarterback, which at least implies that the dynamic, explosive elusive Kendall Hinton screwed up Plan A by getting himself suspended for three games for the ubiquitous “violation of team rules.’’

Hinton was so elusive on Saturday that he wasn’t even in Tallahassee. Clawson prefers to talk about injuries after a game instead of before. Turns out Hinton turned his ankle during the off-week, an injury that went undisclosed – as undisclosed as Hinton’s reasons for missing the first three games – until Conor O’Neill of the Winston-Salem Journal tweeted the news out to us civilians sometime during the second half.

So what, we’re left to wonder, is the story with the dynamic, explosive, elusive Kendall Hinton? We know he was moved to slot receiver following the suspension, but then heard he had been moved back to his time-tested role of back-up quarterback. There were even fleeting Kendall Hinton sightings against Notre Dame, Rice and Clemson, though he hardly looked like the answer while throwing incomplete on all five of his attempts against the Tigers.

I, for one, wondered if Clawson would take advantage of the off-week to work the dynamic, explosive, elusive Kendall Hinton back into the mix. But little did I know, and apparently little did anyone outside the program know, that the dynamic, explosive elusive Kendall Hinton had been added to the Deacons’ ever-burgeoning injury list.

Look, I have no idea if Clawson should turn to Hinton in an effort to save the season. I don’t go to practices anymore. But, one problem with trying to follow this team, is that nobody goes to practices anymore. Any information we get is spoon-fed to us civilians by Clawson and the players, when it’s disseminated at all.

It has become apparent that Clawson felt compelled to throw Hartman into the fray before Hartman was ready. Clawson as much as admitted that Saturday. Maybe the offensive game plan is so baked-in by now that attempting a dramatic overhaul at this stage would be folly. Maybe now that he’s in for a dime with Hartman, Clawson is in for the whole dollar.

But we also saw Clawson’s other option, Jamie Newman, on Saturday, and Newman hardly distinguished himself. The other scholarship quarterback, Tayvon Bowers, is a redshirt freshman who was beaten out by a freshman. Bowers has yet to see the field.

John Wolford started at quarterback for four seasons. That means Clawson and his staff had four seasons to recruit depth at football’s most critical positions. Seven games through his fifth season, Clawson does not have a quarterback who appears capable of winning games against upper-division ACC competition.

Or if he does, he’s not playing him.

As it stands today, your guess is as good as mine.