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Post-thanksgiving Reminder: Wake Forest Fans Should Appreciate Grobe

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

By Dave Glenn and Staff

November 30, 2004 WINSTON-SALEM — Jim Grobe fell short of a bowl game this season, for the third time in his four years at Wake Forest. At 4-7 and 1-7 in the ACC, the Deacons finished their 2004 campaign with the fewest overall and league wins of his tenure. For most, that probably sounds like a team headed in the wrong direction, possibly even a program that might be considering a change at the top.

But this isn't most programs. This is Wake Forest. And this isn't most coaches. This is Jim Grobe, scrap-heap reclaimer.

So instead, fair-minded college football fans still can celebrate Grobe for what he's accomplished, both at Wake and Ohio. Consider this: The Bobcats were horrible before Grobe arrived, they've been horrible since he left, and they were very successful in between. There may be no greater endorsement for a coach in any sport than that.

If you looked at Grobe's career path, you might think the man isn't very smart. He put in 17 years as an assistant before striking out on his own — at Ohio. At the time, many asked the obvious question: A coach connected to seven bowl appearances under Air Force legend Fisher DeBerry, and the best he can do is Ohio?

"Even Coach DeBerry told me I was crazy when I took that job. I think he even used the term 'career suicide,'" Grobe said. "Looking back, I'm glad I was just stubborn enough to think we could do something good (at Ohio). There was nothing easy about it, but a lot of hard work by a lot of tough-minded people finally paid off."

When Grobe arrived, Ohio was one of the nation's worst programs. During the previous season, the Bobcats were 0-11, getting outscored
259-82. In the 10 seasons before Grobe, Ohio went 21-95-5, finishing with two or fewer wins eight times. The Bobcats hadn't had a winning season since 1982 and hadn't won a conference title since 1968.

Grobe had the Bobcats to .500 by his second year and at 8-3 by his third.

So after taking a program from the brink of being disbanded, Grobe parlayed his success into a job at — Wake Forest. Again, the questions: Every program in need is looking at hot Mid-American Conference coaches, and the best he can do is Wake?

When Grobe arrived, yes, Wake Forest also was one of the nation's worst programs. During the previous season, the Deacons were 2-9, giving up more than 33 points a game. In the 10 years before Grobe, Wake went 37-75, finishing with three or fewer wins seven times. The Deacs had only nine winning seasons since moving to Winston-Salem in 1956 and just one conference title since the ACC formed in 1953. In fact, when Grobe arrived, the Deacons barely were fending off Kent in a percentage-point battle for the worst team in Division I-A history. The Deacs had a .396 all-time winning percentage, topping Kent by .005.

Grobe had Wake bowl-eligible in his first season, and he beat Oregon in a bowl in his second.

So while Grobe's path might not look so smart, he certainly looks pretty intelligent. What makes Grobe the right man for these jobs?

First, he understands how important it is to attack the attitude of the program — the players, the administration and the fans. The players are no doubt run-down and disgruntled. At Wake, coach Jim Caldwell's bunch was full of bad seeds and in-fighting.

"We had a very, very demoralized, splintered group (at Ohio)," Grobe said. "When you put in all that hard work and effort and get absolutely nothing for your time, then it's hard to stay upbeat and positive."

So Grobe does that for them to start. He's unflinchingly positive, and he cleans house of those who aren't. He gears all of his activities toward instilling a strong work ethic and teamwork. He often talks about his team as his family.

"When (Coach Grobe) first came in, we had just had a horrible season," said Wake receiver Jason Anderson, a senior. "For him to come in there and weed out all of the bad people who put us through what we went through, he showed us that he wanted to work to win. That attitude has stayed with us, and he expects 150 percent out of every player."

But Grobe knows it's not just the players; the administration has to be on board, too. At Ohio, he got the Bobcats to hire a ninth assistant coach, build the Carin Center, a strength-and-conditioning facility, and undertake a $2.8 million stadium renovation. At Wake, Grobe already has had the administration address the football offices, the practice facilities and put together a plan for improvements to Groves Stadium and Bridger Fieldhouse.

Grobe's attitude change applies to the fans, as well. Obviously, when you take over a downtrodden program, you have little enthusiasm in your fan base. But Grobe is a great ambassador, perhaps the most accessible and media-friendly head coach in the ACC in the two major sports, and his fun results on the field don't hurt, either.

At Ohio, Grobe more than tripled season ticket sales, brought together corporate-sponsored tailgate parties, and added fireworks and night games. In the 74-year history of Ohio's Peden Stadium, the top 16 crowds came either during Grobe's era or in the two seasons after the excitement his tenure created with the Bobcats. At Wake this year, the Demon Deacons set single-game and season attendance records. Grobe now owns the top three season attendance averages in school history and three of the top five single-game marks.

After attitude, Grobe knows that it takes innovative schemes to succeed at a downtrodden program. If you're likely never going to have the athletes of the other schools in your conference, then you have to adapt.

At Ohio, it was the triple-option offense. At Wake, Grobe has used a 3-3-5 defense and an innovative zone-blocking offensive scheme that relies on movement and angles instead of pure power. While the play-calling deservedly has taken some heat this season, the scheme has put Wake at the top of the league in rushing each year. It remains to be seen how the staff adapts next season, with more experience and talent on hand.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Grobe knows how to recruit at an "underdog" school. The Sports Journal has detailed the many strategies Grobe and his assistants have used to improve Wake's talent level, despite the numerous built-in disadvantages for the Deacons.

For example, Wake's staff identifies talent very early and hits hard on the kinds of players who are on backup lists for bigger schools. When the heavyweights get around to making offers, Grobe often has locked the player in for the Deacs already. Another trick is to look for prospects with physical skills that need refining or who suffered an injury. While bigger programs may hesitate, Grobe often jumps in, confident in his ability to develop skills.

So is Grobe the perfect coach? No, but he may be the perfect coach for Wake Forest. Fans should take note of several things when they question Grobe and the program's future, a hobby that became surprisingly popular in some circles this fall.

First, if nothing else, Grobe has Wake Forest in almost every game. While the Deacons might never get to fight for a BCS bowl, they aren't the joke of college football — see Duke or Rice or Vanderbilt — anymore. That's a tremendous accomplishment.

In Caldwell's eight years, Wake lost 24 games by at least 21 points. Grobe's teams have suffered only four such defeats. Caldwell's Deacons gave up 50-plus points 11 times. Grobe's teams have suffered that fate only twice.

"I think the thing we've done — and this is good — is that we've become very competitive," Grobe said. "I think teams take us seriously now. I think teams have to prepare for us, but I don't think anybody's afraid of us. Hopefully, one day we'll get to the point where we're expected to win more than our share and not just expected to be a tough little competitive football program."

Second, Grobe suffered a bit of a downturn at Ohio, too. In both places, he's been able to shape some talent on hand, then suffered through some struggles when the transition recruiting years filled the upper classes. When his recruits matured, he improved to 7-4. Wake is likely to see something similar. Grobe is paying for the transition classes now, but next year's Deacons should be his most talented bunch. The next two years should see better results.

Third, just be careful what you wish for. Ohio didn't find it easy to replace Grobe. Despite promoting a Grobe protege, Brian Knorr, the Bobcats quickly fell back into their losing ways. Knorr went 11-35 in four years, never winning more than four games. He was fired in November.

In fact, Knorr won only one game during the season after Grobe left. Could the cupboard have been that bare, after what Grobe built? It's difficult to believe that Grobe couldn't have done better with the same group.

A similar thought permeated the press box at Wake Forest this season. Considering the Deacons' inexperience, injuries and other setbacks, many have said that this is the kind of team Caldwell would have brought home with one or two wins. Instead, Grobe won four games, and six of his seven losses were by seven points or less.

While it's difficult in a BCS conference to be a program known as a "spoiler" or the best second-division team in the country or whatever you want to call the Deacons, it's still a heck of a lot better than the previous 50 years. Losing no longer is just accepted.

Wake athletic director Ron Wellman knew as much when he wisely signed Grobe to a 10-year contract extension in 2003. Recently, when denying interest in the vacant East Carolina job, Grobe emphasized that he has bigger plans.

"For me right now, myself and my coaches are kind of on a mission," Grobe said. "We've got the right foundation, and good things are going to happen. I'm not going to take a chance to not see this thing through."

For that, in the aftermath of Thanksgiving, Wake Forest should be very thankful.

UCF-O'Leary: Winless In Orlando

ORLANDO — It was a tough season for a tough man.

Georgia Tech's 1-10 disaster a decade ago is as close as George O'Leary can come to comparing what went on with him in 2004. But in so many ways, that year really doesn't come close to eclipsing this.

Nearly a year after getting his first job back in college football after a national rÈsumÈ scandal, O'Leary guides a Central Florida program that now has the nation's longest losing streak. Hounded by unrelenting attrition, the Golden Knights finished 0-11, the only team in Division I-A not to win a game in 2004.

Army, East Carolina, Duke, SMU, San Jose State — even Temple — can look down at UCF. Since midseason, shortly after a four-touchdown loss at Buffalo, the Knights were pegged as the worst team in America.

"I've never been through anything like this," said O'Leary, who arrived in Orlando in January, following a two-year stint with the Minnesota Vikings. "The coaches, they're frustrated. I'm frustrated. I feel bad for the players, because they practiced hard every week. Ö But we'll get it going. We'll get some players. I try to look at the positives. That's the only way you can look at it."

To look at it any other way would mean O'Leary taking his eyes off the ball. He refuses.

"There were only so many sunrises and sunsets that these guys could use to get better," he said, "and now we have more of them. We need to get stronger, get faster, and we need to recruit. That's the priority. We need more stronger, faster talent."

And perhaps an institutional memory block. It wasn't too long ago that UCF fielded a football team that could scare any team in America. In fact, the Knights stunned about half of the Southeastern Conference, Georgia Tech, Clemson, Penn State and Syracuse in recent seasons before falling short. They also beat Alabama in 2000, in what turned out to be Mike DuBose's final game coaching the Crimson Tide.

Cracks started showing last year. A 3-7 start, evidence of players giving up and a shortage of depth led UCF athletic director Steve Orsini to fire sixth-year coach Mike Kruczek. A month later, in walked O'Leary.

UCF was the first university to take a chance on him after the rÈsumÈ scandal cost him the Notre Dame job in 2001 — five days after he got it. Faculty protested the hire, O'Leary's $700,000 salary and his $1 million staff. The coach admits now that he didn't know what he was walking into.

"I mean, I knew we were rebuilding," O'Leary said. "I saw some of the players and just physically they weren't as big as I like."

In the spring, he found out they weren't as fast, either. He knew 2004 was going to be a long season. Still, he thought the Knights would be competitive in the Mid-American Conference.

But his hard-line approach cost him more than a few players, even before two-a-days. From the day O'Leary started until the final week of the season, more than two dozen players quit, were run off or left the program because of academic reasons. At least one unforeseen academic casualty hurt. So did at least one other non-academic suspension, plus a slew of secondary injuries before the conference season started.

When it was over, safety Peter Sands was sidelined for the year by grades (O'Leary found out five days before the team was to fly to Wisconsin for the season opener), five other safeties were hurt or suspended, and five offensive linemen had vanished. One was a projected starting tackle.

Almost as an omen, O'Leary's mother died the week of the season opener. The coach missed the 34-6 loss to the Badgers so he could eulogize her in New York.

"Unbelievable," defensive coordinator Lance Thompson said. "The things we went through, nobody would believe it. But the bottom line is, we've got to get better, then get ready to go out and compete again."

There was an entire litany of heartbreak, each with its own particular tug. First came O'Leary's personal loss. He met his team in Wisconsin after the game — because the Knights were stranded in Madison by a slow-moving hurricane that jogged across Orlando.

UCF lost non-conference games to Wisconsin and Penn State as O'Leary used them to sort out his quarterback situation. The fourth week brought a loss to Buffalo. Yep, Buffalo, owner of one of the most moribund programs in I-A history. UCF was embarrassed 48-20. That loss put on notice everyone involved with the program: 0-11 was in play.

A week later came the most valiant effort of the season. Behind quarterback Steven Moffett, the Knights rallied from a 21-point deficit to take a 28-27 lead with 45 seconds to play. The defense couldn't hang on. Northern Illinois kicked a 39-yard field goal on the final play for a 30-28 victory. Another second-half rally a week later fell short against Akron.

The Knights never had a chance against defensive buzzsaws Miami-Ohio and Marshall. The game UCF could have won was at Ball State. In fact, the Knights dominated the first half — and trailed 14-7 at the break. UCF led 21-17 midway through the fourth quarter but gave up consecutive long pass plays. Ball State 24, UCF 21.

The season finale came on a Tuesday night in Orlando. Kent State quarterback Joshua Cribbs was much too much for a slow, depth-challenged defense. Cribbs passed for five touchdowns and ran for one. UCF had its worst and winless season. Its 1982 team also was winless, but it played a 10-game schedule that year.

"I think we got better almost every week, but we still couldn't sustain the whole game," said Moffett, mimicking O'Leary's diagnosis. "We'd block well the first half but not so well the second half, or it'd take too long to figure out how to move the ball. By the time we figured it out, we were so far behind we had to pass."

Predictably, UCF-related message boards on the internet lit up O'Leary and the coaching staff as the losing streak grew.

Barbs were sharpened most for offensive coordinator Tim Salem. Faced with playing the youngest offensive line in the MAC and using a trio of virtually untested quarterbacks, Salem's run-first offense averaged 2.5 yards a carry. The Knights had one of the worst running games in the country. Overall, their offense was the worst. It averaged 280 yards and less than 16 points. By season's end, opponents racked up 50 sacks — the most ever surrendered by UCF by 10.

It was a mess, and the coach experienced something similar only once before. O'Leary headed the defense at Georgia Tech when the Yellow Jackets shared the 1990 national championship, and he was in charge of it again when the Jackets stumbled through 1-10 four seasons later.

That, he said, was a bad experience, "but that team had some talent. It was all young, but there was talent there." And, of course, that season cost Bill Lewis his job and earned O'Leary a promotion as interim Georgia Tech coach and, in quick fashion, the full-time job.

Although perhaps unavoidable, the timing of this UCF season could not have been worse for a school looking to make a splash in-state and regionally. With a growing student body (now at 44,000) and constant talk of potential impact athletically and intellectually, UCF was among the players in last year's sweeping conference realignment game.

This was the Knights' final season in the MAC, in which it was a football-only member for three years. (Other sports are playing their final seasons in the Atlantic Sun Conference.) In July, UCF will join re-formed Conference USA, becoming an East Division member with East Carolina, UAB, Southern Miss, Memphis and all-sports MAC defector Marshall.

The move to CUSA, announced a year ago, and the hiring of O'Leary, provided a jump-start for the Knights on several fronts. They partnered with the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce to sell a record number of season-ticket packages. With the addition of a new fund-raising position to O'Leary's willingness to ask donors for money and build stronger relationships with boosters, the school will pay off a $4.3 million indoor practice facility in January, just as the building opens. Not only will it be the only indoor facility in Florida, it also will represent the fastest-built athletic facility in UCF history.

While O'Leary can use the building to lure recruits — he'd like to sign as many as a dozen mid-year junior college or prep school prospects in December — the school must continue to sell a dream of I-A football success. The Knights never properly built off their landmark 9-2 season in 1998, the year quarterback Daunte Culpepper took them to a provisional postseason bid (Aloha Bowl) that unraveled when Miami upended UCLA on the regular season's final day.

They can point to the impending move to CUSA, but the bottom line is UCF has to sell tickets and raise money after 0-11.

"No question, at some point we have to win some games," O'Leary said. "You have to show results. But I said it when I got here: There are no quick fixes in football. It's a process. It takes time."

O'Leary has some. He has four years left on his contract. That's four more recruiting classes to compile. At this point, that's his only focus.

"The people who know football, they understand how this goes," he said. "They know it's not easy."

And the people who don't know football?

"I don't care about them," O'Leary said. "I'm not doing this for them."

— Alan Schmadtke, Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel

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