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Considering Recent Mackovic Disaster, Wake's 2000 Decision Looks Even Better

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

By Dave Glenn, ACCSports.com
Oct. 1, 2003

WINSTON-SALEM — During the past year, Arizona football fans and Wake Forest football fans have shared one thing: concern about the future of their head coach. But while both may have wondered how long their coach would stay, the Wake faithful should be thankful that their worry hasn't spawned for the same reason, because Arizona's fate could have been their own. Wake fans were wondering if Jim Grobe had been too successful and would get a better offer. Arizona fans were suffering through the misery of John Mackovic, the man the Demon Deacons briefly considered hiring instead of Grobe three years ago. The Wildcats, after sticking with Mackovic through an ugly player revolt last season, took the extremely rare step of firing a college coach in midseason when they dumped an unsuccessful Mackovic on Sept. 28. The dramatic events in Arizona begged some ACC-related questions: How close was Mackovic to being a Deacon again, and how close was Grobe to never making the Wake radar? On the Sunday of Thanksgiving break in 2000, Wake Forest announced it had fired coach Jim Caldwell after eight mostly dreadful seasons. Athletic director Ron Wellman was quiet about his search, as always, but it didn't take long for reporters to learn that Mackovic had entered the picture. Mackovic, then with ESPN, was a former Wake Forest quarterback who had coached the team from 1978-80. After invigorating a dormant program, he left to become an assistant with the Dallas Cowboys. He later coached the Kansas City Chiefs and at Illinois and Texas. In the first week of the Wake search, Mackovic was the only known candidate. By the end of the week, even Wellman admitted to some conversations between the two parties. But the AD's comments hinted at one possible problem with Mackovic, a man Wellman likes and respects a great deal but possibly didn't see as a great fit for Wake Forest. “If you look at the coaches we have currently — and I'm not talking about football only — they all have one common denominator,” Wellman said. “And that is a coach who believes in the values of this university, the standards of this university and uses them in a positive way. Someone who is going to try to change the standards and the values and the admission standards, and all of that business at Wake Forest, is not going to succeed here. And we won't have someone like that at Wake Forest.” But wasn't Mackovic a Wake guy, someone who already knew the parameters of the job? Yes, but after he left, he worked in some very high-profile positions, where he made big money and could take advantage of less stringent academic requirements. Even under those conditions, he didn't always succeed. Would he be willing to step down monetarily and mentally to coach at Wake, after having coached at Texas? Could he fit into Wake's standards, or would he constantly be bending them or complaining about them? Mackovic was a pretty popular candidate among fans, many of whom felt Wake had to get a name coach to make a mark. Players weren't going to come to the program, so the program's leader had to grab attention on his own. At the time, other names floated were Jim Reid of Richmond, Bobby Johnson of Furman (now at Vanderbilt), Jimmye Laycock of William & Mary, Paul Johnson of Georgia Southern (now at Navy) and Rickey Bustle (now at Louisiana-Lafayette), then the offensive coordinator at Virginia Tech. But none indicated that Wake had shown any interest. By Saturday, Mackovic called Wellman and told him he was taking the Arizona job. Wellman later hinted that Mackovic wasn't prepared to come back and face the prospect of rebuilding and possibly losing at his old school. “When I met with John Mackovic last week, I consulted with him about the needs of our program and explored at great length and detail his returning as head coach,” Wellman said at the time. “There was sincere interest on his part, but he also recognized that returning to his alma mater after so many years presents challenges that are not associated with any other job.” So Wake Forest opened its search, and it ended up with Grobe from Ohio, who seems to be great fit for working with less and getting the most out of a program. Mackovic — and Arizona — ended up in an absolute mess. Successful at each of his previous stops, Mackovic struggled with the Wildcats. After being out of coaching for two years, Mackovic — 57 when he took the job — never seemed to fit in with his new team. He never posted a winning mark and, 10 games into last season, more than 40 players were granted an audience with the school president to talk about the coach's alleged verbal abuse. Mackovic held a tearful news conference, promising to be a better communicator. But after a 1-4 start to this season, Arizona cut him loose. That was quite different from Mackovic's tour at Wake Forest, which was a whirlwind. After helping develop Purdue's Mark Herrmann, then the all-time NCAA passing yardage leader, Mackovic came to Wake and turned unheralded Jay Venuto into the ACC player of the year. By the end of his second season, the rumor mill was in full swing, and it didn't stop until he finally left a year later. In that second season, the Deacons went 8-4 (4-2 ACC), losing to LSU in the Tangerine Bowl. Mackovic's name was in heavy rotation after his third season, 1980, when Wake went 5-6. His name actually was thrown around in the speculation at Notre Dame, where Dan Devine was resigning. That job eventually went to Gerry Faust, but other suitors lined up for Mackovic: San Diego State, Texas Tech and Memphis State. Mackovic was making about $48,000 at Wake Forest, and it was mentioned that he might jump at Navy's $70,000 if George Welsh left the Midshipmen. But when Mackovic stayed put through the winter hirings and firings, the Deacons felt comfortable that he would complete the final year of his contract. Instead, the dominoes began to fall. Offensive coordinator Dan Reeves left the Dallas Cowboys to take Denver's head coaching spot. Then Gil Brandt, the director of player personnel in Dallas, remembered Mackovic, with whom he'd played golf in a charity event the year before. Though it was the middle of spring practice, Brandt and coach Tom Landry decided to approach Mackovic. Less than a week after the first contact, Mackovic left Wake to be the Cowboys' quarterbacks coach. Most around the Wake Forest camp were shocked at the timing of the move, but not that it happened. A small group was tired of the constant rumors and felt it was time for Mackovic to leave. But most saw it as an opportunity too good to pass up and wished Mackovic well. After years of losing, few fans saw their own school as a coaching destination, but felt it was a stepping stone. Mackovic had made Wake football exciting, and there remains little ill will toward him from Deacons fans. Though shocked by the timing, most of the players were realistic. “We knew he wasn't going to be here for our whole careers,” quarterback Gary Schofield said. “We accepted that fact. I think everyone on the team knew he would leave after next season (when his contract ran out).” Wake's players didn't have anything negative to say about playing for Mackovic, but Schofield did offer a possible hint at Mackovic's future problems. “I feel like he should have at least told the coaches that something was going on,” Schofield said. “After all, they're supposed to be his friends. But there was always a lot of tension between him and the assistant coaches, because he wanted to do things his way. He didn't delegate authority well.” After leaving Wake, Mackovic spent two seasons with the Cowboys, then took over the Chiefs, whom he took to the playoffs. He went
30-16-1 and went to bowls in all four seasons at Illinois, then had success at Texas, including three straight bowl appearances. But he went 4-7 in 1997 and suddenly found himself out of work. After Mackovic, Wake didn't spend a lot of time looking, perhaps because of the timing of the vacancy. The hot public rumor was an offensive coordinator named Steve Spurrier, who could continue the passing offense installed by Mackovic. At the time, though, Spurrier's coaching credentials involved only one year as quarterbacks coach at Florida and a year each as offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech and Duke. When Wake looked elsewhere, Spurrier spent two more years as a Duke assistant, then became a highly successful head coach in the USFL, at Duke and at Florida, and now with the Washington Redskins. The Deacons wasted no time with outside candidates, though. Mackovic's decision was announced on March 25, and defensive coordinator Al Groh's promotion to head coach came two days later. Groh had just joined the staff on Jan. 20. Groh couldn't recapture much of Mackovic's magic, posting only one season of .500 or better in his six at Wake. He, too, moved on to the NFL ranks, eventually becoming the head coach of the New York Jets, before moving back to college to lead Virginia. It's interesting to note that the same problems mentioned when Mackovic left Wake Forest haunted the program for years. One was a need for someone to embrace the job, despite its many drawbacks, and stick with it. “What we need is stability in the program,” said Deacon Club member Smith Young of Lexington in 1980. “We need a coach who thinks this is the greatest job in the world and is willing to make a career of it.” Another was the idea that Wake Forest didn't value football and didn't give it the resources to be an attractive job. “It comes as no surprise to me, because Wake Forest doesn't make any good effort to keep anybody good here,” said Deacon Club member William H. Todd of Mackovic's departure. “I think (athletic director) Dr. (Gene) Hooks ought to make the job attractive enough to keep a good man.” Perhaps, after years of frustration, Wake finally has solved both problems. Grobe has embraced the job, and Wellman appears to be providing the resources. Maybe fans will never know for sure what would have happened with Mackovic's candidacy at Wake Forest in 2000 if Arizona hadn't plucked him off the market. It's safe to say, though, that those fans are thankful the Wildcats stepped in when they did. FSU's Rix Difficult To Embrace TALLAHASSEE — Short of grabbing Florida State quarterback Chris Rix by his shoulders and shaking him senseless, it's hard to imagine what it takes to get the mercurial junior's attention. The Seminoles' third-year starter should have been basking in the glow of a 5-0 start and FSU's No. 5 ranking heading into its showdown against Miami, but the only glow Rix attracted was the illuminating spotlight of negative publicity. His most recent off-field misstep — a pair of parking infractions, leading to $120 in fines and overblown national publicity — merely solidified his standing as the most notorious athlete on campus. How else do you explain why fellow students would turn on the school's star quarterback? Two days before Rix threw for a career-high 394 yards in the Seminoles' public undressing of Colorado, his late-model garnet Chevy Tahoe was booted by the university's parking services staff for occupying a handicapped parking space outside a classroom building. Shortly after 11 a.m., Rix wheeled his SUV into the open space and was immediately confronted by students, who publicly dressed him down for the stunt. Instead of moving the vehicle, Rix rushed past the angry students and ran into the building. One student left a note on his windshield. According to a parking services employee, the message read: “Based on the way you played for three quarters against Georgia Tech, maybe you need this space.” Rix did have a handicap tag hanging from his mirror, but it belonged to an elderly woman for whom he frequently runs errands. Rix and other sources confirmed the tag was legitimate. His excuse for utilizing the space was not. “I was trying not to be late (for class),” said Rix, who was hustling to a class where he serves as a teaching assistant. “I parked right out in front of the building, where there were four handicapped spots. I thought I'd be OK for an hour.” That may be true on most campuses, where minor indiscretions by a recognizable athlete often are greeted with a wink and a nod. Not Rix. Not at FSU. Not even after issuing a public apology for using the handicap space. “I would not be happy, if I was a handicapped person and I saw someone who was not handicapped parking in that spot,” Rix said. “It definitely won't happen again.” On the very day the handicap parking violation hit the press, Rix was ticketed again. This time it was for pulling his vehicle into a space reserved for outpatients in front of an on-campus rehabilitation facility. FSU coach Bobby Bowden, Rix's greatest ally through his many ups and downs, issued a terse statement after the second offense: “He's not above the rules, and he apparently hasn't learned that yet. Obviously, running him every morning hasn't helped it sink in, so we'll use a stronger method to get the point across.” If Rix didn't fully understand the incredible disdain showered upon him before, he should have realized it when his second parking violation was reported by a student, who had in fact been tipped off by a professor. Several pictures of Rix's illegally parked vehicle were taken. One was forwarded to the local Associated Press office, which chose not to publish it. A second student, working for the school newspaper, snapped a photo that ran across two-thirds of the front page (above the fold) in the next edition of the paper. Since succeeding Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke at the start of the 2001 season, Rix has been openly criticized for his play. Overzealous fans can be unmerciful when you've lost seven of your first 21 starts for a program that hadn't lost seven games — total — over the previous three seasons. He's also been an easy mark for disenchanted fans, in part because he burst onto the scene by passing out business cards introducing himself as the FSU quarterback. Modesty is not a Rix strength. The native Californian has his own website, a “Lookout DB” vanity license plate and a penchant for drawing attention to himself while professing his Christian faith. Prior to this season, he wasn't above dressing down teammates on the field, though he was prone to untimely gaffes of his own while attempting to make big plays. Those errors led to his benching last season in favor of ill-fated but likeable backup Adrian McPherson. That Rix wears the same jersey number as Weinke (16), styles his hair with No. 16 gel and carries himself with a confidence that belies his own on-field shortcomings only exacerbates the level of contempt held for him by fellow students. Rix has never been embraced by his classmates, nor some of his teammates. How else do you explain the quarterback losing an election for a relatively insignificant student government position during his sophomore year? And even when he's been able to rise to the occasion in the face of detractors, as he did last fall when he engineered an upset of Florida following McPherson's dismissal from the team, Rix is capable of mucking it up. The story goes that Rix overslept for a religion final last December. That led to his suspension for the Sugar Bowl, according to FSU athletic department (not NCAA) policy. It was a game the Seminoles may have won had he played. The fact is, Rix skipped two exams, had missed two-thirds of that semester's classes in one religion course and still failed to show up for that final despite receiving a phone call from a well-intentioned classmate while the exam was being administered. Rix, in fact, did endure an undisclosed family issue that took a personal toll on him last fall. Nevertheless, his blatant disregard for policy — and, in essence, his teammates — further ostracized him from the team. He already had fallen out of favor, in part because of repeated absences from workouts and late arrivals for meetings. After announcing the morning after the Sugar Bowl loss to Georgia that Rix would return to the school and be the frontrunner for the starting job, Bowden conditionally re-instated him to the team in January. He was placed under a media gag order, which he violated once, but met all of the coach's requirements. Rix's performance in spring practice earned him MVP honors. Bowden has repeatedly called him “a natural-born leader,” though not recently. For his part, Rix has made honest attempts to tone down his act in an effort to become a more effective leader within the team. He regularly credits his teammates, more willingly accepts responsibility for his mistakes and has not publicly sought the attention he seemed to crave during his first two years as the starter. His teammates, even those who were loudly opposed to him last season, have stood behind him. “He's more dependable,” senior defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. “Chris Rix made a couple mistakes this year, but I don't point a finger at him because I know everybody makes mistakes. I support him. He's an accountable guy. He works hard. It's about supporting him. We know we need him, and it's the bottom line.” Of course, it's easier to stand behind Rix when things are going well. But what happens if Rix plays poorly and the Seminoles lose? It's hard to imagine him taking a bigger public-relations hit than he's already absorbed. Rix does understand the highs and lows that come with playing quarterback at a school that has won two national championships and produced two Heisman winners, and he said he's not concerned about his legacy. “Honestly, being in the third year of my career, I'm not too much focused on that,” Rix said as he prepared to face Miami. “I might have been in the past. Individually, I'm not focused on my legacy or whether this game is going to define me. After my career is over, I'll let others … determine what Chris Rix did when he was here.” Especially in the eyes of his fellow students, that will be one interesting conversation.

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