October 18, 2004 WINSTON-SALEM Coaches Jim Grobe and Skip Prosser have become friends since arriving at Wake Forest.
In mid-October, Grobe had a week off from the football schedule, and Prosser took a breath or two before his whirlwind basketball season began. The two found time to talk at one point, and it's possible that the conversation turned to success and how it's defined at Wake Forest. Both men are facing expectations that just seem to keep rising.
When each arrived at Wake, success was easy to define just inject a little life into two struggling programs. In football, the Deacons had spent years establishing their reputation as one of the country's worst programs. While Wake basketball certainly had more past success, things had ground to a halt under Dave Odom.
Grobe didn't have much of a measuring stick in his predecessor, Jim Caldwell. While Caldwell did win a bowl game in 1999, he won more than three games only twice in his eight seasons. Most fans would have accepted almost anything from Grobe.
Expectations were a little higher for Prosser, as most fans believed that Wake should be competing at the top levels of the ACC. Still, Odom had been to the NCAA Tournament only once in his last four years, and that resulted in a memorable meltdown against Butler. Most fans still respected Odom, one of the all-time nice guys of college athletics, but they were bored with him and his program. Prosser certainly had a honeymoon period.
But Grobe and Prosser have done so well in four years that the memories of frustrations under Caldwell and Odom are long gone for many. In football, fans no longer are satisfied with .500 records, and they're reacting to close losses with calls for coordinator's heads. In basketball, if Prosser doesn't win the ACC regular season, tournament and/or make the NCAA title game, many fans will consider the 2004-05 season a disappointment.
So how exactly should success be defined at Wake Forest?
Football: History Means Something
Success is a word that isn't mentioned often in association with Wake Forest football.
The Demon Deacons have the nation's second-worst all-time winning percentage in Division I-A, topping only Kent State. Wake is the only ACC program under .500 overall, and only once in league history has Wake ended the season ranked. The Deacons have played in only four bowl games since joining the conference. (Duke is the only other program in single digits.) They have finished over .500 in the league only six times, with a winning percentage of .286. (Nobody else is under .400.) Wake won its only ACC title in 1970.
So what is fair to expect from Grobe, in the toughest version of the ACC yet? Well, no Wake coach in the ACC era has left the school with a .500 record, but some have proved you can win.
But can you do it regularly? Most winning seasons were one-shot deals, followed by more futility. Bill Dooley is the only coach who came close to sustained success, with three winning seasons out of six and three seasons of four wins in the league. But Dooley's other three teams were terrible, and he left the program pretty bare for Caldwell. Only twice in the ACC era has Wake had two consecutive winning seasons.
"I look back on it and I say, 'Gosh, Cal Stoll and John Mackovic and Al Groh and Bill Dooley,'" said Gene Hooks, a former Wake athletic director, when Grobe was hired. "We had good coaches. It's a hard job."
So if you're trying to get a measure for success and want to be optimistic, don't judge Wake by its own past. Even then, when most people look outside for comparable schools, they look to places such as Duke, Vanderbilt, Northwestern and Rice. That's not very encouraging, either.
Grobe probably would rather point to a program such as Air Force, which often is out-manned in terms of pure talent. In Grobe's 11 years as an assistant there, the Falcons had nine winning seasons and went to seven bowl games. At the same time, Air Force doesn't play in a BCS conference.
Perhaps a more appropriate comparison would be Stanford, a small private school that plays in the Pacific-10. Although Wake doesn't quite have the same California sunshine as a recruiting draw, it's reasonable to believe that the Deacons could compete at a similar level, especially if the school can improve fund-raising to the Cardinal's famously high level. In the last 50 years, Stanford is at .500 overall, with four Pac-10 titles and 11 bowl games, including five since 1991.
With the notable exception of the conference championships, that seems to be a pretty fair standard for Grobe: Keep Wake at or above .500 overall, making bowl games every other year or so on average. So far, so good: Grobe is at .500, and he had Wake bowl-eligible in two of his first three seasons and came very close to a third.
In addition, the coach has the most supportive administration and fans in the school's history, and next year he'll have his top collection of talent yet. The year after that, you can already look ahead at the depth chart and see solid replacements at each position. But to have expectations of consistently playing in the top half of the league is probably unrealistic, considering the disadvantages built into the Wake job.
When he was hired, Grobe stayed away from specific predictions, but he did offer this: "At one time, people at Ohio University didn't dream about competing with the better teams. They just wanted to beat the bottom-rung teams. We got to the point where when we took the field, it didn't matter who we played. Everybody thought we had a chance to win. And that's what we want to do here. We want to get to the point that every time we go out on the field no matter who we're playing people think we've got a shot to win."
Grobe already has done that. All things considered, that may be the best measuring stick Wake Forest fans can hope for on the gridiron.
Basketball: Everything Is Possible
In basketball, Wake's history has been a little different OK, a lot different. The Demon Deacons have a much better reputation in hoops, including several legendary periods, such as those under Bones McKinney in the ACC's early years, under Carl Tacy in the 1970s and early 1980s, and even to some degree under Odom.
But still, Wake basketball never has been quite what many of its fans would like, especially with the teams in the nearby Triangle area of North Carolina often near the top of the national rankings.
Pre-Prosser, Wake had only one outright regular-season ACC title and two ties at the top. The Deacons have won the ACC Tournament four times, but only twice in the last 40 years. Wake has been to the NCAA Tournament 19 times, but it has been to only one Final Four (1962), and only one regional final in the last 20 years.
Prosser has won 20 or more games in each of his first three seasons, and he certainly should do it again this season. Is it realistic to expect him to keep it up? Neither of the previous Wake coaches (Tacy, Odom) who won 20 or more for three straight years could do it again the following year or, for that matter, even keep the program at a high level.
Because it's easier for smaller schools to have an impact in basketball, which requires the successful recruitment of only four prospects per year on average, many more national comparisons are available. The most obvious one, though, is right down the road at Duke.
The Blue Devils have proven that programs of Wake's size can be consistently great. Mike Krzyzewski didn't win 20 games until his fourth season (1984), so Prosser has a head start in that regard. But when Krzyzewski started winning, he didn't stop, failing to win at least 20 only twice since. In addition, he's dominated in the postseason, a place where Prosser has struggled so far.
So while Krzyzewski is a Hall of Famer, many believe it's fair to hold Prosser to expectations of a similarly high level. Of course, most also understand it won't be easy.
This year will be Prosser's first as a coach at that top level, and then next year, he will lose a lot, especially if point guard Chris Paul goes pro. This year will be another kind of test as well. So far, Prosser hasn't consistently signed the kind of recruits that suggest he's ready to play as one of the nation's best. He needs to translate this season into recruiting success, especially with the strong Class of 2006.
Can Prosser do more than Odom and Tacy? All things considered, there's no doubt about it.