The glory that used to be Wake Forest athletics

David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/MCT

David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/MCT

We used to be a basketball powerhouse.

We used to gain NCAA tournament berths and rank among the top programs of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

We have played in the Orange Bowl and  we are the smallest school to ever appear in a Bowl Championship Series game.

We once had a culture of excellence in our basketball program and a football program with a bright future.

Now, we have fallen far behind the pack.

As our conference grows stronger and expands with the additions of Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Louisville, we are struggling to keep up.

In this past Saturday’s matchup against No. 2 Florida State, our team threw almost as many interceptions (six) as it did complete passes (seven). With the exception of the N.C. State game, the Deacon’s play the rest of the season has been fairly abysmal. We simply have not been up to the competition.

Many people in the Wake community blame our inability to compete on the high academic standards that we have for our athletes and the all-important culture of the university.

The athletic department has made it clear that it is more important to recruit students who can graduate from Wake Forest and represent our motto of “Pro Humanitate” than it is to win games. In the wake of the suspension of numerous football players before last October’s game against Maryland, Ron Wellman and Jim Grobe co-authored an email to the Deacon Club.

They stressed the point of having a strong culture and developing players who would succeed in their lives off the field as well as on the field.

“Winning is VERY important but it will not be pursued at the expense of our integrity,” the pair wrote. “Our players need a reminder sometimes that their commitment to football extends beyond the practice field. We want our players to look back years from now and know that they were more important to us than winning a football game.”

While recruiting good citizens and holding our players accountable for their actions should be a priority, many wonder if strong athletic performance is being compromised for culture.

“I don’t believe the culture is an excuse but rather an indication that times have changed and we’re a little late to the party,” alumnus and Deacon Club member Steve Mitchem said. “Duke, Vandy, Stanford and Northwestern all seem to have that ‘culture’ we identify as Wake Forest culture, but unlike us, [they] all seem to have figured out a way to use that message in marketing their universities and are competing at an acceptable to high level in athletics.”

Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MCT

Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MCT

Despite this focus on culture, the 2012 All-ACC Academic football team included just two Demon Deacons.  On the other hand, Duke, which possesses a curriculum arguably more rigorous than our own, placed 21 players on the team. The Blue Devils also managed to qualify for a bowl game last year and have done the same this season thanks to a 7-2 start. The only teams with fewer selections than the Deacs were Boston College, Miami and FSU.

For a time it seemed current head coach Jim Grobe would turn the program around; under his direction the team won 28 games from 2006-08 and was ranked nationally each of those years. But since that magical 2006 season the team has regressed back to its underwhelming norm.

Wake Forest was a founding member of the ACC, yet has only captured the conference title twice, once in 1970 and then again during the fairytale 2006 season. After Saturday’s loss, the program dropped to 1-54 all-time against top-10 ranked opponents, with the only win coming against Tennessee back in 1946.

Jeff Bzdelik

Jeff Bzdelik

Our football team is not the only program struggling to succeed. In recent years, our basketball team, which once grabbed the national spotlight and dominated on the court, has floundered. We have not once made the NCAA tournament during Coach Jeff Bzdelik’s tenure. In the 1990s, we made the NCAA tournament seven years in a row. We made the tournament each year from 2001 to 2005. In 2009 and 2010, we made the tournament as a fourth seed and ninth seed respectively.

Under Bzdelik, we have been shut out from the postseason, including the NIT. We have consistently finished in the bottom of the pack in the ACC — last place in 2011, tied for last in 2012 and tied for ninth in our 12-team conference in 2013. Many people blame this slump on the new and improved culture of Wake Forest.  In December 2012, Ron Wellman told the Winston-Salem Journal about his vision for the university’s athletic culture.

Ron Wellman

Ron Wellman

“I can tell that we want a culture that reflects Wake Forest,” Wellman said, “that reflects the values and the ideas and the standards of this university, with players that are representing this university in that manner.”

The word “culture” has become synonymous with Wake Forest Athletics ever since former basketball coach Dino Gaudio was fired in April 2010. The reason cited for his firing was lack of performance, despite the team reaching the second round of the NCAA Tournament that spring.

“Wake Forest has had success in the past without sacrificing our ‘culture’,” alumnus and first-year law student Marcus Fields said. “I have been attending Wake Forest games since 1991 and since that time Wake has made 14 NCAA tournaments and been ranked in the top 10 at some point during the season 9 times. I did not start hearing about the ‘culture’ of Wake Forest until the year after Dino Gaudio was fired.”

Bzdelik has seen far less success in the post season than Gaudio, as he has not won a postseason game since 2008.

Dino Gaudio

Dino Gaudio

“Several players who supposedly did not fit into the ‘Wake Forest culture’ were allowed to stay on the team long after Dino Gaudio was fired. All in all the ‘culture’ talk just doesn’t add up. It is revisionist history at best and disrespectful and dishonest at worst,” Fields said.

But Ron Wellman has stood by Bzdelik and says that he is a man who understands Wake Forest culture. Wellman claims to believe that Bzdelik’s tenure has been a success.

“Jeff has done everything we asked him to do when he first came here,” Wellman told WXII after extending Bzdelik’s contract last March. “He has made every decision for the long-term benefit and well-being of our program.” Even in the face of adversity and national outcry last year, Wellman stood by Bzdelik and said, “I’m certainly not discouraged by what I’m seeing.”

starnewsonline.com

starnewsonline.com

But students and the Wake Forest community are discouraged. A website dedicated to firing Bzdelik and Wellman gained national attention after they placed an advertisement on a billboard on U.S Route 52 in Winston and ran an advertisement in the Old Gold & Black. The grumblings in the community continue to grow louder while the seats at games frequently remain empty.

In addition, the team’s academic culture does not seem to have improved from the Gaudio era. Last year only one member of the men’s basketball team made the All-ACC Academic Team, Tyler Cavanaugh, who was then a freshman that was yet to declare a major.

Our recent lack of success makes students and alumni question whether maintaining high standards of excellence for recruits and players conflicts with success on the football field and the basketball court. Perhaps the university simply needs to find coaches and administrators who can more effectively execute its vision of strong culture and equally strong performance.

“Over the past three years Wake Forest has lost 30 games by 15 or more points and 60 overall,” Fields said. “That’s as many 15-point losses as Wake had in the previous nine years combined. That is not ‘historically competitive.’ Unfortunately most of the people who were with me on the floor after the Duke game in 2008 simply don’t care anymore. I went to the game against VMI and other than a few tie-dyed students in the band it might as well have been empty.”

As Wellman said in that same 2012 interview, “[The fans] want to win. That’s the bottom line, that we’ve got to win. And when we win, everybody will appreciate Jeff.”

But for now we’re left waiting for a winning season.

Reporting contributed by Hilary Burns

  • Black & Gold

    “With the exception of the N.C. State game, the Deacon’s play the rest of the season has been fairly abysmal. We simply have not been up to the competition.”

    I guess the student-writers were too drunk to remember the Maryland game – if they even showed up to that one that is. (There’s an article idea for you!)
    Miami wasn’t bad either. Great effort just fell short.

    We’re the only ACC school that has had to play 3 top-10 teams.

    FTR though, I don’t think anyone is happy with the team being 4-6. Too much talent to not have 6 wins right now.

  • TY

    Don’t worry my faithful blind sheep, my rebuttal will be printed soon.

  • NotRonWellman

    I hear that Ron Wellman is a really great guy. Very smart and modest. I’d be honored if he were the AD at my school.

    • njplanter

      We would be honored too….PLEAE TAKE HIM NOW !

  • TheOldGoldandBlackonTobaccoRoad(akaDingDong)

    How does Randy Casstevens fit into the culture narrative?

  • Mitchell Tague

    There’s a fine line between focusing on winning and sacrificing the university’s integrity for the sake of it, and this article almost feels biased towards the latter. I can’t speak much to the football team, but I am currently pro-Bzdelik.
    The issue was that Dino Gaudio recruited players who simply weren’t Wake Forest student material. Skip Prosser, author of much of Wake’s basketball success, always put his recruits’ academics and character on the same level as basketball (the ABCs of success). Dino Gaudio neglected the first two in recruiting players like Melvin Tabb, Ari Stewart, and most notably Tony Woods. Dino needed to be outed for that reason and that reason alone, not to mention the (so far not proven, not disproven) belief that he was pressuring professors to give his daughter better grades.
    This current group of sophomores that gave us glimmers of hope with the Miami and NC State games? Bzdelik’s first class of his own recruits. Have the first three seasons been pleasant? No. Have they been necessary? Yes. I dare you to find a bigger Wake Forest basketball fan than me (except maybe John Walsh), and I am glad the change occurred. I would rather cheer for a losing team than a team that doesn’t represent Wake Forest properly. And if you can’t find it within yourself to stick with Wake and cheer on, through the good and bad, don’t you dare call yourself a true Wake fan.
    /endrant

    • Alex

      Tony Woods was a Prosser recruit. Keep drinking that Kool-aid though.

    • Mike

      Tony Woods, Ty Walker and Al-Farouq Aminu were all signed as verbal commits by Skip Prosser before his death. They were not Gaudio’s recruits.

      As Fields says in the article, the whole culture thing is “revisionist history at best.”

    • DeaconChick04

      Did you even go to Wake? You’re clueless and wrong on all accounts.

    • Patrick

      Bzz’s first class was Fields, Fisher and Green. Great job there. The culture argument is unnecessary. There are many schools that we consider our peers which achieve success and culture. Frankly, every time I hear the culture argument, it strikes me as incredibly disrespectful to members of the Wake Forest family. The way Dino’s name, as well as numerous former players, have been drug through the mud to justify the current regime is incredibly uncultured.

      Finally, a downturn in the program is acceptable to achieve broad goals. But when does that downturn become permanent mediocrity? Four years in the ACC cellar? A journeyman head coach with no history of continued success? Continued poor recruiting which will unbalance our program for years? Why is this allowed to continue?

  • Sporty Spice

    Preach guurl…and Nick.

  • Will

    So your arguments for Bzdelik are:

    1) We needed a culture change

    And a coach who screams profanity at opposing fans is an example of this “culture”: http://tinyurl.com/n7zy5ug

    2) Melvin Tabb, Ari Stewart, and Tony Woods were not good Wake Forest Student Athletes.

    Okay, so there have been 9 dismissals and transfers under Bzdelik including some kids who he recruited. That is great–bring kids here as “recruits” just to see them leave. And Tony Woods was a Prosser recruit.

    3) Dino was pressuring professors to give his daughter good grades.

    I am not even going to address this idiocy, but okay.

    4) “And if you can’t find it within yourself to stick with Wake and cheer on, through the good and bad, don’t you dare call yourself a true Wake fan”

    Mark Twain said: “Loyalty to country ALWAYS. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.” This is how I feel–I love Wake Forest, but the current Athletic Department does not deserve our respect our loyalty. It is clear that nepotism and a complete disregard for reality are the norm.

    When I was at Wake, I always thought of it as a school of winners (successful alums, elite academics, and very competitive athletics). Apparently, the only culture shift that has occurred is towards blaming others and mediocrity.

  • Chris

    Great artticle Molly and Nick.
    Here’s a sign of the times for you for those more optimistic than me:
    The ACC-Big Ten Challenge pits teams from the two best conferences in college basketball. Unfortunately, several teams from the ACC, due to recent expansion of the conference, are unable to participate in the Challenge. The bottom three teams from the preceding season are the teams being excluded this year. Among those being left out is none other than–wait for it–Wake Forest.
    It’s sad that in almost five years we could go from being ranked #1 in the nation to being picked to finish third to last in a fifteen member conference. It doesn’t take long to kill a brand, but sure as heck takes forever to rebuild it.

  • DeaconFan

    “Perhaps the university simply needs to find coaches and administrators who can more effectively execute its vision of strong culture and equally strong performance.”

    DAMN, never thought I would see that kind of criticism from the OGB. This article was surprisingly candid and absolutely necessary.

  • Randy

    I have been a WFU fan since a young child (in my late 50′ now). During my younger years I could not wait for BB season to repair the damaged heart stings of a difficult FB season. Then came a few seasons where I could boast to my friend how proud I was of WFU. Now those days seem oh so long ago. Every week I feel those same feelings I had as a child except I have no BB season to look forward to….. to improve, I feel my only voice as a fan is $ or lack of investment in my WFU… so sad.

  • Kathy Kennedy

    It is precisely because I am an avid Deacon fan and love Wake Forest that I support major changes in the Athletic Department, including replacement of Ron Wellman and Jeff Bzdelik. I support the players, and believe they would be better served by a different administration and coach. Acceptance of mediocrity does not serve WFU in terms of the athletes, academic excellence, or fan support.

  • Jaybo

    Bzdelik is the worst coach in the history of the ACC. Even worse than Staak. That has nothing to do with culture. Nice spin garbage, Wellman.

  • Wake Alum

    Ron Wellman said this of Dino Gaudio: On October 14, 2009, Wake Forest University Director of Athletics Ron Wellman announced that after two seasons he was giving basketball coach Dino Gaudio a contract extension through the 2013-14 season. “Dino has continued to move our basketball program forward, much as was anticipated when he was hired two years ago,” said Wellman. “We are pleased with the progress of the student-athletes, both on and off the court, and Dino is responsible for that progress” (citation: http://www.wakeforestsports.com/sports/m-baskbl/spec-rel/101409aaa.html).

    Adding to that, Jeff Bzdelik made the same excuses based on culture, blaming his players and the previous coach for his own failure, when he was a losing coach at the University of Colorado – see here: http://www.bloggersodear.com/2013/4/10/4210476/recordings-of-jeff-bzdelik-making-the-same-excuses-at-colorado-as-he

    It’s clear that this culture nonsense has been a sheer myth created by Ron Wellman and Jeff Bzdelik to shield themselves from performance-based criticism. It’s an insult to Wake Forest fans and alumni and I haven’t met one Wake fan or alumnus who isn’t calling for Ron Wellman and Jeff Bzdelik to be fired by the University.

  • Cameron Yow

    Congratulations for superb, courageous journalism! Iconoclasts have always been the exemplary exceptions at Wake Forest; however, if you scrutinize the history, it is they who best embody and exemplify the indomitable spirit that has always characterized Wake Forest and its athletic teams.

    It is that spirit that has compelled me to follow Wake athletics since my 1964 freshman year. It is that spirit that I now find lacking in Wake’s football and basketball programs. Historically, Wake was always presumed to be overmatched; yet, game after game, Wake athletes competed beyond expectations. Today, I watch a superbly talented football team which should have competed for the ACC championship mired with the exasperation of being ill prepared, forced to take the field with an unimaginative, totally predictable offensive game plan for which every opponent has been able to prepare since Troy Calhoun’s departure. I’ve endured the disintegration of the spirit Skip Prosser restored to the basketball program for reasons never adequately justified.

    I internalize great angst over the current disarray I observe.

    I’m heartened you’ve displayed the initiative, the courage, the indomitable spirit to speak to its redress.

    Cameron Yow

  • Chris Paul

    I bet y’all want me back, huh?

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