The glory that used to be Wake Forest athletics
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
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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
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