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Despite Mostly Miserable Football History, Deacons Breathing Rare Air With Grobe

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




THE ORANGE BOWL:
Wake Forest (11-2) vs. Louisville (11-1), Jan. 2, 8 p.m., FOX

By Bill Hass
ACCSports.com

December 21, 2006

WINSTON-SALEM – A few years ago, a running back at Wake Forest was asked how he came to play for the Demon Deacons.

He answered that he was surprised when he was first contacted because, "I didn't know Wake Forest had a football team."

Given the generally woeful history of Wake football, he probably wasn't alone in his ignorance. In many seasons, the Deacons were so far under the football radar that people might have noticed them only if their team happened to beat Wake.

My, how times have changed.

"Little old Wake Forest" is the catch-phrase being used as people around the country sit up and take notice of the Deacons' accomplishments and impending game against Louisville in the Orange Bowl.

Ironically, "little old Wake Forest" was first used by former basketball coach Dave Odom one year, when his Deacons jumped to a 12-0 start. The phrase was not well-received by many of the Deacon faithful at the time.

But there seems to be no stigma attached to it now, as the football program is recognized nationally as one of the feel-good stories of the year. "Little old Wake Forest" playing in the Orange Bowl? Hey, that ranks right up there with, "Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus."

The feeling in the air around Wake is palpable, something usually experienced during hoops season. It was there when the Deacons were ranked No. 1 with the exciting Chris Paul playing point guard, and when they won consecutive ACC Tournaments with Tim Duncan and Randolph Childress.

"You notice a different attitude, a spring in people's steps, an enthusiasm about athletics," Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman said. "People want to talk about football, about athletics in general, and that leads to conversation about the university itself."

Dr. Nathan Hatch, Wake Forest's president, said people constantly refer to the Deacon football team when he talks with them in his travels.

"Among the grads and long-time fans, there is a tremendous joy, almost a euphoria," Hatch said. "In Jacksonville (after the ACC championship game), I saw numerous grown men crying. That makes it much sweeter for everyone."

The benefits to the school are many. A spike in applications is expected, and although the full extent won't be known until they all arrive in mid-January, Hatch said he had heard they're up about 20 percent already.

That's not an unusual correlation when a sports team does well. Applications to Wake Forest increased by more than 900 between Duncan's freshman year in 1994 and his senior year in 1997. They increased again, to a lesser degree, when the Josh Howard-led basketball team won the ACC regular-season championship in 2002-03.

Merchandise orders are up. Buz Moser, director of University Stores, believes that December business might be 30-50 percent higher than normal. ACC championship hats and t-shirts sold briskly the morning after the Deacons beat Georgia Tech in Jacksonville. If an Orange Bowl victory follows, that merchandise also should be a hot seller.

To handle the business, Moser tripled the number of phone lines and quadrupled the number of workers taking on-line orders, which have come from such unexpected places as Ghana.

"Across the board, it has been phenomenal," Moser said. "Part of it is that the economy is better and gas prices are lower than at this time last year. We've had success in sports like men's and women's soccer and field hockey. But without a doubt, the success of the football team has had an impact."

That impact also applies to alumni giving. James Bullock, Wake's vice president for university advancement, said the team's 11-2 record increases the willingness of alumni to take phone calls and talk to solicitors face-to-face. He expects an increase in the percentage of alumni who give financial support.

In addition, Bullock said, the Orange Bowl is drawing Wake alumni together like no other event. The Deacons sold out their allotment of 17,500 tickets, and he estimates that as many as two-thirds are alumni.

"We believe the group in south Florida will be the biggest gathering of Wake Forest alumni ever," Bullock said. "Certainly outside of Winston-Salem."

The fast start of the football team, winning its first five games, also had a direct bearing on raising money for Deacon Tower, the new press box scheduled to be ready for the 2008 season. The response to the two-month sales period was beyond Wellman's wildest hopes.

"We thought if we could sell 75 percent, that would be a strong indication of support," Wellman said. "We had 602 club seats to sell, and we sold 750. We had 12 club tables and sold 30. We had 27 box suites and sold them all."

Talks have begun with the architect to see if a slightly larger structure can be built. If not, folks who can't be fit in will be accommodated in other ways. That's a pleasant problem Wellman didn't anticipate.

The point is, this is a time rarely seen at Wake Forest. To understand how the Deacons got here, it's necessary to examine three elements of the football program – where it has been, where it is now and where it might be headed.

WHERE WAKE HAS BEEN

Wake's football history has not been pretty. Through the end of the 2005 season, its all-time winning percentage of .399 ranked above only Kent State's .388 among the 110 oldest Division I-A teams. Within the ACC, it was even worse, just .287.

Between the formation of the ACC in 1953 and 2001, Wake had two winless seasons, six one-win seasons, eight two-win seasons and 12 three-win seasons. To put it another way, in 28 of those 48 seasons, the Deacons won three or fewer games. Eight times, they didn't win a single conference game. They won one ACC title, in 1970, and went to just five bowls. The school record for wins was eight.

Such accomplished coaches as John Mackovic, Al Groh and Bill Dooley, despite some successful seasons, were not able to produce a consistent winner.

"In the past, we have teased our fans with a good year and then the next season would fall back to the bottom half of the conference," Wellman said.

It was following just such a season, 2-9 in 2000 after the Deacons won the Aloha Bowl in 1999, when Wellman fired Jim Caldwell and began looking for a new coach. He had some solid recommendations on Jim Grobe from Mike Hamrick, the AD at East Carolina at the time, and former Virginia AD and ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan.

Wellman also liked Grobe's experience as an assistant at Air Force, a somewhat parallel school in terms of academics and recruiting, and the success he had at Ohio, turning a program regarded as the worst in the country (17 wins in 10 years) quickly into a competitive one.

Grobe has an affable, self-effacing, laid-back personality that is completely genuine. But he also is organized and detail-oriented, and his ice-blue eyes don't miss anything.

"I could tell he was a competitor, someone who loves to win," Wellman said. "He had discipline, and he had a plan to win with no shortcuts. He was very confident in himself."

Grobe went into the Wake Forest job with his eyes open and a six-year contract. In one of his early interviews, he made it clear that he and his staff were not there "to commit professional suicide." Although there was a long-range plan in place from the beginning, the coach didn't start by talking about bowl games and conference titles.

"Our first goal was to play hard for four quarters," Grobe said. "The second was to compete in every game and have a chance to win. And the third was to win more than we lost. That's what we talked to the kids about. When you're building, you have to take baby steps."

The talent shelves were not bare when Grobe arrived. His team served notice that things would be different in its first game, going on the road to lay a 21-18 defeat on East Carolina, which had high expectations and a future NFL quarterback in David Garrard.

That year produced a 6-5 record, followed by a 6-6 regular season the next year. The ACC brokered a deal to get the Deacons into the Seattle Bowl, where they thumped Oregon 38-17.

After that second season, Baylor made a serious overture to hire Grobe, before settling on Guy Morriss. Wellman then awarded Grobe a new 10-year contract, unprecedented for the school in its length and public announcement.

"When Ron Wellman gave me a 10-year contract, he wasn't just being nice to me," Grobe said. "It enabled us to lock down our plan and really be patient. The security enables us to do what's best for the program."

WHERE WAKE IS NOW

That plan was to redshirt every player, if possible, of every recruiting class. Grobe said from the beginning that it would take six years to judge a program. By then, a coach would have a roster entirely of players he recruited, including his first class of fifth-year seniors.

The idea is that enough 22-year-old players should have a physical advantage over an opposing team playing a lot of 18- and 19-year-olds. Ideally, Grobe would like to have around 15 fifth-year seniors, 15 fourth-year juniors and 15 third-year sophomores making up the bulk of the depth chart, supplemented by redshirt freshmen. That way, the classes replenish themselves each year.

Redshirting en masse doesn't work for everyone. At Ohio, which was way down in numbers when Grobe arrived, it was necessary to play 12 or 13 true freshmen the first season.

"We learned that you don't get the best four years of a player's career when he plays so early," Grobe said.

At Wake, the number of veteran players on hand was pretty good, and Grobe was able to put the plan fully in place in his second year. It wasn't easy; the temptation to play a true freshman who could help immediately was great.

There were a few players who, because of injuries or lack of depth at a position, had to be thrown into action right away. Tailback Chris Barclay and punter Ryan Plackemeier both played as true freshmen out of necessity. But mostly, the Deacons stuck to the plan.

The redshirt process enables the Deacon staff to recruit in a different way. They don't view a prospect in terms of what he looks like now, but rather what he might look like in two or three years. They don't care how many stars a recruiting service puts by a player's name. They check him on film and in person, and if he qualifies academically and they believe he's a playmaker, they go after him.

Barclay and wide receiver Willie Idlette were deemed too small by most big-name schools, but Wake liked their speed. Middle linebacker Jon Abbate and quarterback Riley Skinner were considered too short, but Wake liked their toughness and ability to make plays. When the Deacons looked at in-state linebacker Aaron Curry, whose motor never stops, they were astonished to find that no one else was interested.

That doesn't mean Wake ignores highly rated players. Defensive end Bryan Andrews was a Parade All-America selection. Quarterback Ben Mauk was the player of the year in Ohio. Cornerback Alphonso Smith was set to go to Pittsburgh before two of his teammates in Pahokee, Fla., convinced him to join them at Wake Forest.

The Deacons will take the best players they can get, but they also have a knack for identifying raw jewels, polishing them for a year or two, and then unleashing them on unsuspecting opponents.

The redshirt plan takes time to mature. The Deacons endured seasons of 5-7, 4-7 and 4-7 before this year. They lost several games in the final moments, particularly in 2005. But that might have helped in the long run.

Wake's coaches and players believed they were going to have a good team this year. If they were miffed about being picked last in the Atlantic Division, they mostly kept it to themselves, although they didn't understand it.

On the field, they went about their business in a more mature manner. The biggest play of the season might have been made by safety Chip Vaughn, who blocked a Duke field goal attempt on the last play to preserve a 14-13 win in the second game. A loss there might have changed the season dramatically.

After that, there were interceptions at the end of games to clinch wins over N.C. State, North Carolina and Boston College. Luck surely was involved, but when a team makes that many big plays to win games, it's no coincidence.

Wake also showed its maturity in overcoming its two losses. The Deacons were on their way to beating Clemson when a field goal was muffed and returned for a touchdown, completely changing the momentum and leading to a 27-17 loss. Past teams might have had a hard time recovering; this one ran off four straight wins.

After Virginia Tech paddled the Deacons, down to their fifth-string running back, 27-6, Wake had another chance to fold. But it clinched a berth in the championship game by winning on the road at Maryland, 38-24.

Evidence of better depth came in the way the Deacons overcame injuries. Defensive end Matt Robinson never got on the field because of a kneecap injury. Neither did Demir Boldin, potentially their best receiver, who was lost to academics. Mauk went down in the first game, tailback Micah Andrews in the third, both gone for the year. Abbate and free safety Josh Gattis, both considered indispensable to the defense, missed some time.

So Skinner emerged from nowhere to produce poised, decisive play at quarterback. Kenneth Moore shifted from wide receiver to tailback and had big games against Maryland and Georgia Tech. Jeremy Thompson and Jyles Tucker stepped up their play at defensive end.

"There are no cliques, no egos on this team," said Bill Faircloth, Wake's long-time director of football operations. "If somebody goes down, somebody else picks it up."

The national media has labeled this season a Cinderella story, with some justification, given the school's football past. Hatch referred to "the underdog story, the unheralded team that overcame serious injuries and kept finding ways to win." And it's likely that even the players and coaches didn't see success coming to this extent.

Yet there's more to it than the Cinderella aspect.

"This is certainly a special season," Grobe said, "but it didn't come from a fairy tale. It's been hard work, and we've paid our dues to make this happen. We've earned the opportunity to be in the Orange Bowl."

WHERE WAKE IS GOING

In the short term, a whole lot of Deacons are heading to Miami. Wake has sold out its Orange Bowl allotment of 17,500 tickets.

"We had no idea what to expect, because we had no model on which to base it," Wellman said. "The fans stepped up in grand fashion. If you look at the ratio between the student body (4,300 undergraduates) and tickets sold, it's like Ohio State selling 250,000 tickets."

As for future seasons, no one believes the Deacons are going to dominate the ACC. The league is too good, and too balanced these days, for any program to dominate, even if Miami and Florida State can return to the levels to which they're accustomed.

Yet there's no reason the Deacons can't continue to compete for this rare air.

"It depends on what your feeling is about sustaining," Grobe said. "If you mean win 11 games and go to the Orange Bowl every year, most programs would have trouble sustaining that.

"What we want to do is be a successful program that wins our share, plays in a bowl game and competes for a championship every year. That doesn't mean you'll win it every year, but that would be
sustaining."

Wake's redshirt program should continue to pay dividends. Even as stalwarts such as Idlette, Gattis, offensive tackle Steve Vallos, receiver Nate Morton, safety Patrick Ghee, cornerback Riley Swanson, defensive tackle Jamil Smith and offensive tackle Arby Jones leave after this year, a good class of juniors will roll up to be seniors, and a better class of sophomores becomes juniors.

Of course, with success come higher expectations. Some of those, among coaches and players, are fine. But what about fans? At many schools these days, they seem to consider success a birthright and not something that's earned.

Wellman said he welcomes higher expectations and believes that if Wake contends on an annual basis, with regular bowl games and a championship to show for it on occasion, fans will be satisfied.

"We don't want fans thinking negative thoughts," Wellman said. "It's a major shift. Fans used to hope we were competitive, then they used to hope we would win. Now they anticipate winning. The consequences of the other end of the spectrum, not thinking you can win at all, are more dire."

Faircloth, who has been a player, student, assistant coach and assistant AD at Wake Forest for 32 years, literally has seen it all.

"The thing about winning and losing both," Faircloth said, "is that once you get it going, it's hard to stop."

An important key to continued success is keeping Grobe's assistants intact, if possible. He brought his entire staff, save one who stayed behind to be the head coach at Ohio, with him to Wake. They didn't have to spend time learning each other when they arrived. In six years, he has made only three hires. That kind of continuity is extremely rare in the college ranks.

"He has great loyalty," Faircloth said. "He lets them coach, so he can spend his time on the players and the total football program. Guys really like to work for him."

The increased exposure of this year's team may make some of the assistants desirable to other programs. They have ambitions, and Grobe is willing to help them be fulfilled.

It's up to Wellman to see that the assistants are taken care of financially. And, although Grobe has six years left on his contract, Wellman already is thinking about rewards.

As a private school, Wake does not release salary information. A nationwide study by USA Today, based on tax returns, put Grobe's 2006 compensation package at $987,843. His name comes up regularly in speculation about openings at schools, most recently Alabama, that easily could double that.

Yet a bigger school doesn't necessarily fit Grobe. He's smart enough not to rule out a move forever, but he always gives the indication that he wants to stay where he is.

"We have an open, honest, candid relationship," Wellman said. "When he says publicly that Wake Forest is his school, that he loves to be here and intends to stay here, I believe him.

"He and I have been talking since mid-October about his future and his desire to stay. We've had very good conversations, and we're still talking. There are six years left on his contract, so it's not an emergency."

What that means is open to interpretation, but a new contract, and perhaps bumps for the assistants, is not out of the question.

There are never any guarantees about the future. But as long as Grobe is in charge of the program, it seems unlikely that the Deacons will sink back to the depths of the league and remain there.

And after this year, it's unlikely that anyone will say, "I didn't know Wake Forest had a football team."

WAKE FOREST

Departing Players

Starters (7)

FS Josh Gattis, SS Patrick Ghee, WR/PR Willie Idlette, NG Jamil Smith, CB Riley Swanson, DE Jyles Tucker, LT Steve Vallos

Other Contributors

DE Bryan Andrews, LB Pierre Easley (2005 starter), OT Arby Jones (2004-05 starter), WR Nate Morton (2004-05 starter), FB Damon McWhite

2007 Returning Starters^

Offense (9)

Pos. Name Ht./Wt. 2007 Class
QB Riley Skinner 6-1/195 So.
RB Kenneth Moore 6-0/195
Sr.
FB Rich Belton 6-1/250 Jr.
WR Kevin Marion 5-10/160
Sr.
TE Zac Selmon 6-5/250 Sr.
LG Louis Frazier 6-4/302
Sr.
OC Steve Justice 6-4/280 Sr.
RG Chris DeGeare 6-4/350 Jr.
RT Jeff Griffin 6-3/295
So.

Defense (6)

DT Zach Stukes 6-2/260 Sr.
DE Jeremy Thompson 6-5/250 Sr.
LB Aaron Curry 6-3/240
Jr.
LB Jon Abbate 5-11/245 Sr.
LB Stanley Arnoux 6-0/245
Jr.
CB Kevin Patterson 5-10/182 *Jr.

Special Teams (2)

PK Sam Swank 6-2/205 Jr.
P Sam Swank 6-2/205
Jr.

  • – has utilized redshirt season
    ^ – six/more 2006 regular-season starts

Other Tested Returnees

Offense

RB Micah Andrews, OG Matthew Brim (2004-05 starter), RB De'Angelo Bryant, RB Kevin Harris, DS Nick Jarvis, KR Kevin Marion, QB Benjamin Mauk, FB Damon McWhite, FB Mike Rinfrette, TE John Tereshinski (2005 starter)

Defense

LB Eric Berry, DE Anthony Davis, CB Kerry Major, NG Boo Robinson, DE Matt Robinson (2004-05 starter), DT John Russell, CB Alphonso Smith (2005 starter), FS Chip Vaughn

Recent Results

Year ACC Overall Postseason

1997 3-5 (6) 5-6 None
1998 2-6 (7) 3-8 None
1999 3-5 (5) 7-5 Aloha Bowl (W)
2000 1-7 (8) 2-9 None
2001 3-5 (7) 6-5 None
2002 3-5 (7) 7-6 Seattle Bowl (W)
2003 3-5 (7) 5-7 None
2004 1-7 (10) 4-7 None
2005 3-5 (4A) 4-7 None
2006 6-2 (1A) 11-2 Orange Bowl

ACC: 28-52 (.350)
Overall: 54-62 (.466)

2007 Opponents

Home

Team 2006 Record^
Florida State 6-6 (3-5)
Maryland 8-4 (5-3)
North Carolina 3-9 (2-6)
N.C. State 3-9 (2-6)
Army 3-9
Nebraska 9-4 (6-2)

Away
Boston College 9-3 (5-3)
Clemson 8-4 (5-3)
Duke 0-12 (0-8)
Virginia 5-7 (4-4)
Navy 9-3
Vanderbilt 4-8 (1-7)

^ – regular season only (conference)
NOTE: Finalized dates/times TBA.

Bill Hass, a regular contributor to the ACC Sports Journal and ACCSports.com, was a long-time Wake Forest beat writer for the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record. He has covered the Demon Deacons for 10 years.