May 14,2002 WINSTON-SALEM The recent announcement of Wake Forest getting commitments from junior basketball players Chris Paul and Todd Henley was celebrated by Deacons fans far and wide. Many immediately declared the days of North Carolina and N.C. State's in-state stranglehold over for good.
But before everyone hails the return of Wake Forest to a dominant in-state program, let's pause to catch our breath.
Yes, the signing of two of the state's top players was a great day for a strong program. It was a clear-cut sign that second-year coach Skip Prosser is willing and able to do what most of his predecessors either wouldn't attempt or couldn't pull off looking UNC and NCSU right in the eyes on the recruiting trail and beating them. That, beyond any doubt, was fair cause for rejoicing in Winston-Salem. It also nicely followed this year's promising class, which (disregarding some prep school detours) featured four more good players from North Carolina.
But let's remember that the dominance of the other programs was not built overnight. Since Wake's only Final Four appearance (1962), the Tar Heels and Wolfpack have combined for 14 Final Fours and four national titles. That kind of reputation will not go away overnight, either. Let's also take a closer look at the two commitments that put Wake fans over the top.
First, Henley while a good player isn't much different than the type of North Carolina player the Demon Deacons signed under previous staffs. Dave Odom did well in getting the second-tier guys, including Antwan Scott and Scooter Banks, but he was rarely (Rodney Rogers) in the running for top-notch players such as Jerry Stackhouse, Antawn Jamison or Shavlik Randolph. The Henley commitment did nothing to change that pattern. He is a solid prospect, but out-recruiting Clemson, Virginia Tech, Furman and UNC Greensboro (his other offers) for a recruit generally deserves only so much excitement.
Second, the Deacons had a few inside connections in landing Paul, considered one of the nation's top point guards in the Class of 2003. That's not necessarily a bad thing heck, recruiting is all about hard work and connections but it would be an illogical leap to suggest that Wake Forest has become a recruiting superpower overnight.
"The top programs know that, all things being equal, most kids will pick their school over the competition," one veteran recruiting analyst said. "We talk to these kids all the time, and it wouldn't be right to say that they view Wake Forest in the same way they view Duke or North Carolina or Kentucky or UCLA. In fact, you almost never hear a prospect say he grew up dreaming of playing for the Demon Deacons.
"But remember what I said: All things being equal. Skip Prosser and his staff made sure that all things weren't equal with Chris Paul, because all things being equal' he probably would have gone somewhere else. Wake knew that, so they approached him in a way that would make them stand out from everyone else, and it worked."
So what wasn't equal?
How's this for connections: David Laton, Paul's coach at West Forsyth High School, was an assistant at Army under Dino Gaudio, who's now a Wake Forest assistant. Tim Fuller, a former Wake player, is an assistant at West Forsyth.
How's this for hard work: While UNC, N.C. State and many others put in overtime on the Class of 2002 recruiting trail in the months leading up the spring signing period, the Wake Forest staff had long ago switched its focus to the junior class. The Deacons locked up the NCAA-maximum five 2001-02 prospects in November, so their energies were focused on making a lasting impression on Paul (their top target) and other rising seniors. It worked.
"Nobody recruited me longer or harder than Wake Forest," Paul said. "They were there from the beginning, and I remembered that."
A little bit of luck doesn't hurt, either. How many schools have a top-50 prep point guard playing less than 15 minutes from campus, in this case a quick trip down I-40 from Winston-Salem? Although it's not at all unusual in the basketball recruiting world for a California prospect to play his college ball on the East Coast, the majority of kids want to stay close to home. That way, they can go home on weekends if they choose. Their friends and family can see them play, in person, much more often. Holidays are simpler.
All that said, the in-state power does seem to be shifting. This is not an attempt to downgrade the Deacons' recruiting efforts but rather an effort to keep a little perspective around them.
Another example: Remember that Eric Williams the top-ranked prospect in the Deacons' 2002 signing class was not a national recruit when he signed with Wake Forest last fall. He developed into a McDonald's All-American during his senior season. Another player who said he wanted to play close to home, he looked at nearby UNC (no scholarship offer) and NCSU (Herb Sendek in hot water at the time) before warming up to the Deacs.
Again, the bottom line is that Wake Forest got Williams and deserves full credit for signing such a promising prospect, but out-of-their-control circumstances clearly played at least as big a role as any recruiting power the Deacons may have wielded in the process.
In any event, Wake makes a good case for being the second-best program in the state, especially in terms of stability. Think about it: If you were a recruit, how attracted would you be to N.C. State, which finally made the NCAA Tournament after a 10-year drought, or North Carolina, which just went through its worst season since joining the ACC? Right now, Prosser is a better bet to see his incoming freshmen through to the end of their college careers than either Sendek or Matt Doherty.
Thanks to Odom and now Prosser, Wake's program hasn't had a downturn in more than a decade. It has a solid talent base and an excellent coaching staff.
Prosser also didn't hold back any of his aggressive attitude during this process. At one point, he said: "We aren't the University of North Carolina at Winston-Salem." He also said: "We decided we were going to recruit the best players, regardless of who else was recruiting them." That certainly differs from the stance of Odom, who often spoke longingly of the recruiting power that's inherent to state-system schools and became notorious for his "project" recruits.
Of course, the proof is on the letters of intent, where we have yet to see if Prosser can consistently back up that talk. But Paul is an excellent opening salvo, and Prosser can make more of an impression with the rest of this class, which includes Reyshawn Terry (Winston-Salem Reynolds), Anthony King (Southern Durham), Bobby Perry (Durham Hillside) and Jeremy Ingram (Kinston). Still, the only national recruit on that list is Ingram, and Paul's signing and Wake's strong guard lineup may rule him out.
So it may be a few years before anyone knows if Prosser can consistently land nationally sought players from North Carolina, before anyone sees if the balance of power has really shifted.
For Wake Forest fans, though, just the idea is a very welcome thought.
Challenge: Changing In-State Profile
Wake Forest is trying to make inroads in North Carolina in at least two other significant ways.
First, former sports information director Jon Justus is trying to boost the Deacons' radio presence around the state. He just recently added a second FM station (the other the flagship comes out of the Virginia mountains) to a relatively weak lineup. While it can be heard mainly in Franklin County, it can sometimes reach the important Triangle area of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill.
This looks to be a cycle: The more Wake players are from North Carolina and the more Wake wins, the more demand for the Deacons around the state. The more they're on radio/TV and in the minds of prospects, the more chance they have to land more in-state players and, possibly, to win more games.
The other attack is to become more of a player with the state high school athletic association. The state recently announced that it will hold the cross country and wrestling championships in Forsyth County for the next three years.
Even more interesting is that Wake's Groves Stadium likely will host two of the now eight football championship games. Previously, the games had been in the Triangle, and the state said no other universities showed any interest in hosting.
Obviously, hosting the games can be a great opportunity for Jim Grobe and his staff to impress recruits, parents and coaches. But don't lose sight of how Grobe also can spin this development to his own administration.
So far, Grobe has focused attention on getting improvements to the football offices and practice field. (Remember the field behind your middle school? That's pretty much where the Wake football team practices.) But don't think he won't be telling athletic director Ron Wellman that Groves really needs to look good for these state championship games.
Watch and see if Wake doesn't do at least some cosmetic work at Groves soon.
Baseball: Two Interesting Stories
Speaking of facilities, it's ironic that the man with the school's best program baseball coach George Greer labors with some of the worst facilities.
Greer, who has the Deacons among the nation's elite again, works in the only ACC field without lights, and it's missing plenty of other amenities as well. Wake bid for an NCAA regional this season, but it had to do so by using Ernie Shore Field (Winston-Salem's minor-league park) instead of its own.
While Greer may never get lights because of the stadium's location, near a residential area, he will have plenty of ammunition for other improvements. Every other program in the ACC (except Maryland) has made or plans some significant upgrades. That includes perennial doormat Virginia, which appeared ready to drop baseball just a few years ago.
Another baseball note this one a little unsettling during such a happy season involves Greer's "suspension" of sophomore star Jamie D'Antona.
First, the four-game suspension came because of D'Antona's celebration after Wake won the opener of its series against Clemson, a matchup of top-five teams. Reportedly, the violation of team rules involved alcohol. (Teammate Ryder Mathias served a one-game suspension.) The idea that a player could be so careless with two games remaining in a huge series is distressing.
Second, it was unsettling that D'Antona actually played in the second game of the series, after he was suspended. When Nick Blue's balky shoulder was injured again, Greer went to D'Antona because he was essentially out of infielders for the road game. While Greer was forced into the move, it still sent a dangerous message.
It also pointed out the difference in coaching college baseball versus football or basketball. Can you imagine the media scrutiny if Prosser suspended Josh Howard, then played him in the next game, which just happened to be really important? That would get the Deacons plenty of attention, just not the kind anyone at Wake Forest wants to see.