WINSTON-SALEM – The conflict inside the Wake Forest fanbase was readily apparent on Oct. 5, when N.C. State’s football team came to town.
As fans jammed together near the main entrance before the game, an N.C. State fan took a verbal jab at a Wake Forest fan. The Deacon fan responded so loud that most of the throng could hear him: “Hey, we both suck. As long as you help us get rid of Grobe, I don’t care if you win.”
After a pause, he added, almost as loudly: “Oh, and Wellman. He’s gotta go, too.”
Four hours later, though, the parking lots were full of mostly happy Wake Forest fans. Coach Jim Grobe and his despised coordinator, Steed Lobotzke, rolled out a new offensive look and called one of the more impressive games of Grobe’s tenure, and the Deacons dominated the Wolfpack.
Other fans weren’t sure how to feel since they see football and basketball losses as the quickest way to get rid of Grobe, athletic director Ron Wellman and basketball coach Jeff Bzdelik. At this point, they’re basically rooting for the house to burn down so the athletic program can be rebuilt from scratch.
Even those in the middle somewhere wondered why the coaching staff couldn’t have come up with this kind of plan earlier, instead of the option-based attack that looked doomed all through spring and fall practice. The 3-3 Deacons suddenly didn’t seem far away from a team that could be 5-1, with a game they gave away at Boston College and a last-second loss to Louisiana-Monroe.
Meanwhile, a wild storyline involving an airplane banner played out in the background. The group of fans that has paid for newspaper ads and a billboard calling for the ouster of Wellman and Bzdelik had set their sights on football. Supposedly, they hired a company to fly a negative banner over the stadium in the hour before the N.C. State game, only to have the company pull out at the last minute.
Since most of the plan had been revealed on the message boards, the group immediately stirred up suspicion that Wake Forest had “gotten to” the company at the last minute to squash the flight. Moreover, after Wake’s best on-field performance in almost a year, they were left to wonder what to do after a week off: try to plan a flyover at the Maryland game or not?
So Wake Forest athletics has come to this: All three of its main players could be on the way out at some point soon, and that wouldn’t bother a big section of the fanbase. How that timeline might play out is really the most interesting factor. Grobe and Wellman could be nearing retirement, and Bzdelik has done nothing so far to show he is the long-term solution.
Before we look more closely, we should make it clear that there is no pressure within the Wake Forest administration for change in Grobe and Wellman’s cases. The feeling is that both have earned the right to go out in whatever way they choose.
Let’s start with Grobe, who will be 62 years old when spring football rolls around next year. He’s been a coach since 1975, and many have speculated that this could be his last season. While he’s said nothing on the record, the timing did seem to be good, at least before the season started.
Grobe went all in with playing true freshmen, breaking from his usual strategy in hopes of putting the best team on the field. The core of this team is veterans, and it seemed as if that would be the recipe for a bowl game, which would be a fitting way to leave. After a shaky start, though, that kind of “ride off into the sunset” scenario doesn’t look quite as possible.
If this season doesn’t finish well, you could see Grobe not wanting to go out on a bad note. But at the same time, it is easy to wonder if Grobe would want to oversee pushing restart next season: His offense will lose a four-year starter at quarterback, its leading rusher, one of the top receivers in ACC history and three starters along the line (include tight end). On defense, he’ll lose all three of his defensive line starters, among six starters overall.
That doesn’t sound like a scenario that would entice a coach to stick around, especially one who has made more than $15 million from Wake Forest just since his Orange Bowl appearance.
The timing of Wellman’s decision could impact Grobe, too. If he knows that Wellman is close to retiring, it’s unlikely he’d want to stick around to have to get to know another AD. Plus, if he retires with Wellman in place, he probably would have more say in who might take over.
Which brings up another sticking point: Grobe’s loyalty to his assistants. It seems likely from his history that Grobe would push Wellman to keep his staff and promote from within. When Grobe left Ohio to come to WFU, his defensive coordinator, Brian Knorr, took over, but he went 11-35 in four seasons. Knorr is again Grobe’s defensive coordinator, but his previous experience makes him an unlikely candidate.
You would hope that both Grobe and Wellman would recognize that promoting Lobotzke would be like driving a stake into the heart of their fanbase, even if they believe he could succeed. At this point, Lobo is too polarizing a figure.
That really leaves only one intriguing internal name: Warren Belin. Although he is not a “Grobe guy” and only started at Wake in March, Belin has checkboxes in a lot of key areas: He’s a former Deacon (1987-1990), an N.C. native (Marshville), he’s black and he has coached high-level football (Georgia, Carolina Panthers) and at smaller football schools (including Vanderbilt for eight years). The last part is always a key for Wake Forest hires: Do they know how to recruit and win at schools that don’t have a lot of natural advantages?
That brings us to Wellman. He’ll be 66 by the time next football and basketball seasons roll around. He will have completed his run with theNCAA men’s basketball championship committee. The university is kicking off a capital campaign this fall, so he will have a chance to get that off the ground. It would seem to be a great time to step aside and let someone new lead the charge to rebuild the major programs and raise money.
But Wellman is not one to go easily into the night. Despite his quiet demeanor, he’s a competitor and has quite a strong ego. To walk away with his two major programs perhaps in shambles and fans calling for his head doesn’t fit with what he’s spent his life building.
If Grobe could go to a bowl and Bzdelik could win 20 games, Wellman would be in great shape to leave. But if WFU misses a bowl, Grobe retires and then Bzdelik struggles, the timeline gets murkier. In that scenario, Wellman could be faced with hiring two new coaches before stepping down, if not this year, then soon.
That would be very unusual. Recent ACC history shows that almost every time a school is faced with this scenario, the new athletic director is brought in to be able to choose the new coaches. Dick Baddour stepping down at UNC before a new football coach was hired is the most recent example.
With Wellman’s firm hand, it’s easy to see him wanting to put a final stamp on both programs before he leaves by putting in new coaches. He would likely see it as his final gift to Wake Forest. Many in the fanbase would question that wisdom right now.
Recruiting Could Take Hit
Meanwhile, the uncertainty on all fronts isn’t helping recruiting. We’ve already highlighted the problems that Bzdelik had filling his third recruiting spot, missing on a number of players before getting a commitment from the relatively unknown Rondale Watson.
In football, the Deacons have gotten commitments from just 10 players, and a number of names have rolled off the board to other schools in the past month. Most ACC programs have at least 15 commitments by now, with some well above that.
However, this is not that unusual for Grobe. First, he often has small signing classes. This year, he only has 13 seniors. Add perhaps 2-3 redshirt juniors who may graduate and leave the program, and that doesn’t leave many spots.
The last several years, Grobe hasn’t had more than 12 commitments at this point. And looking back, even that number is high. In the mid-2000s, Grobe often only had five or six commitments by October.
In those days, Grobe and his staff did their best work in December and January, often after players realized that the big programs were no longer looking at them. Among the names who committed in December and January are the most recognizable of Grobe’s tenure: Jon Abbate, Riley Skinner, Kenny Moore, Aaron Curry, Alphonso Smith, Sam Swank, Kyle Wilber and others.
The atmosphere surrounding the program this December and January could be decidedly different. But whatever staff is in place will be under pressure to land players that can help take the program back to bowl games.