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Against Most Odds, Grobe's At It Again

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

September 8, 2003 WINSTON-SALEM — During the offseason, one very important question was answered about Wake Forest football: Would Jim Grobe return as its coach? Athletic director Ron Wellman made sure there was no doubt by getting Grobe to sign a 10-year contract. But that was about the only question that was cleared up. Heading into the season, many more lingered over the Deacons: Could the offense succeed with a new coordinator, quarterback, tailback, fullback and a rebuilt offensive line? What about the defense, which lost its entire starting front, an already thin position? It continues to appear that perhaps the only answer needed was that Grobe was returning as the coach. With an upset start to this football season, Grobe and his staff quickly made another huge step from the world of relative unknowns toward trendy Genius Of The Month status on the national scene. (Yes, that was “Wake Forest football” and “national scene” in the same sentence.) Want to know about the flexbone, “orbit sweeps” or the 3-3-5 defense? Get in line with the other coaches outside Grobe's office. What in the world is going on in Winston-Salem? Sure, seeds were sown over the past two seasons for an improving program, but this year clearly looked to be a probable bump in the road. The Deacons were too young and had too many question marks along the line to be much better than .500. Yet, just two games into the season, the Deacons have beaten a good Boston College team on the road and thumped what some (since demoted) pundits thought was the ACC's best team, N.C. State. With some problems appearing at Virginia and Maryland, the whole outlook for the season has changed. Even Grobe is surprised. “We're a young football team,” he said after beating the Wolfpack. “I've told everybody that we're a work in progress. We're not exactly where we need to be. I've got to be real, real honest with you: These guys are exceeding my expectations. I really thought we could win. There's no question about that. I really did. I just thought early in the year we could be a football team that could make too many mistakes to be a team that could win, and these guys are proving me wrong. “They've played… especially our young kids have played better than I expected the young guys to play this early in the season. Having guys like Willie Idlette step up. Last week he had the big run. This week he had the punt return. When you're getting that kind of play out of young guys, it's somewhat unexpected, but we're going to take it. “So I don't really know how good a team we are yet. I'm proud of what we've done for two weeks, but we've got 10 games to go, so… we've got a chance. I told our kids early, ‘We've got a chance to beat everybody.'” That's typical of Grobe, and it's what distinguishes him from many who've coached at Wake Forest, including his predecessor Jim Caldwell. Grobe, much like Skip Prosser on the basketball side, has concentrated as much on changing attitudes as on Xs and Os. Instead of bemoaning the inherent problems of coaching at a small school — a trap even some successful Wake coaches, including Dave Odom, have fallen into — Grobe has recruited around it and refused to let his players think they have excuses. Did he out-recruit N.C. State the last few years by anyone's measure, even his own? No, but this season he put a more poised, disciplined and determined team on the field than the Wolfpack. “Those kids at Wake Forest,” N.C. State coach Chuck Amato said, “they've got heart, man.” Before the game, Grobe had the foresight to prepare his team for when they took the lead. He told his players to remember not being able to close out an upset bid of Florida State last year. He prepared them for the fact that no matter what they did, N.C. State's offense was going to make some big plays on them. Then he took the ball after winning the coin toss, something almost unheard of in these days of deferring. His players answered with a 10-play touchdown drive, with many of the yards coming between the tackles, and the tone was set. Then his team heeded his warnings: The Deacons continued to put the pressure on the Wolfpack, taking each hit calmly and answering with its own punishment. Early in the fourth quarter, with Wake leading 31-17, the Deacons throttled N.C. State on a fourth-down play at the end of a 15-play drive. Six plays later, all on the ground, Wake had gone 69 yards for a clinching score. Sure, this team has its problems. The defense in particular appears to have some familiar issues. One example: It either gets no pressure on the quarterback, or it has to bring a big blitz to do so, leaving plenty of open room for receivers. But at the same time, Grobe's vaunted rushing attack hasn't even been healthy yet. One experienced lineman (Mark Moroz) is banged up, and another (Craig Jones) is suspended for four games. Running back Chris Barclay gained 90 yards against N.C. State, but he was clearly slowed in the open field. So, most importantly, the team's outlook is shockingly different from those who remember most of the Caldwell era. Caldwell's teams always seemed to be bickering amongst themselves, and any success seemed like a shock instead of an expectation. Subtly, the difference between eras still can be seen in the locker room. Seniors speak positively, but many still tend to talk about Wake as the fighting underdog. Younger players — some of whom have been to a bowl game in their only season of college football — don't act like success is anything strange at all. That's a huge tipping point for a program. “There's something about this team,” senior guard Tyson Clabo said. “Some of the players on this team, they have a swagger about themselves, and they just don't care. These young guys just don't care. They will hit anyone. They will play anyone.” It's difficult to downplay the significance of the victory outside of just this season's record. Off the field, soundly beating a ranked opponent in a regionally televised game has to make high school coaches and recruits sit up and take notice. On the field, it's doubtful that teams will look wide-eyed at the Deacons much longer, as Barclay said some N.C. State players did. “You could look around the field,” Barclay said, “and they were looking like, ‘Wake Forest?'”

Groves Fans Still Outnumbered The most difficult attitude adjustment still appears to be in the area fans. If anything negative came out of the N.C. State victory, it was that Wake football still hasn't caught on fully, despite its recent improvements. The crowd was the third-largest in Groves Stadium history (35,741), but red was the dominant color. Though many Wake fans were enthusiastic, their cheers hardly made a dent from a distance, but the few “Wolf — Pack” and “Red — White” chants by the N.C. State fans resonated clearly. Few of the top Groves crowds arise directly from Wake's own success, as most are instead a result of a successful local opponent's fans. The biggest exception probably is the 34,060 who showed up to see 6-1 Wake take on No. 13 Auburn in 1979. The onus doesn't really sit with Wake Forest, which has limited student and alumni bases and always will. Even when the Deacons are at the top of their enthusiasm, they're rarely going to draw more than 10,000 from that group. So that means Wake somehow has to energize the rest of the area, which has been dulled by years of Deacons losses. The school's marketing department is using a catchy new phrase — “The Triad's ACC Team” — and has taken out numerous newspaper ads and billboards. Still, many challenges exist in an area still dominated by out-of-town loyalties, especially those to UNC or N.C. State. The Deacons still come out on the short end of available souvenir gear and radio affiliates. The bottom line to making more progress with the fans is winning, though, and Grobe and his staff are well on the way to taking care of that.