January 9, 2007
WINSTON-SALEM Down years are a part of every basketball program. Even powerhouses such as Duke and North Carolina have blips on the radar every now and then.
But it's possible that no program stands to lose more from a consistent downturn than Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons' tenuous hold on their fan base means that losing seasons can carry a higher price tag than they might at most programs.
Wake's issues are well-documented. It is the ACC's smallest school, and one of the smallest with a Division I athletic program. Its alumni base is dwarfed by most others. Its hometown is right in the heart of ACC country, meaning the city is filled with fans of other programs. That doesn't even include alums of the other area schools, including Appalachian State, Charlotte and others.
So Wake's battle always has been to attract the non-alums around town to fill out the stands. By being a winning program, Wake basketball has managed to do some of that over time. It certainly has provided a genuine outlet for fans who simply don't like UNC, N.C. State and/or Duke.
In addition, the program has to try to make home games tough on opponents, despite having a small student section in a relatively large arena. That arena is not on campus and doesn't belong to Wake, which also has kept it from boasting too much "Wake flavor" over the years.
The off-court part of the program took a huge leap forward after coach Skip Prosser arrived in 2002. Now, though, Wake's losing ways threaten to tear down what Prosser and the school have worked so hard to build.
When Prosser arrived, he came from a rabid atmosphere at Xavier. He came to a program that hadn't had a losing season since 1990 but, amazingly, had very limited excitement around it. Wake certainly boasted little home-court advantage.
Prosser and his younger assistants immediately set out to change that, with help from the Wake marketing staff. The program and the coliseum underwent a laundry list of changes, all designed to create an intimidating atmosphere that clearly screamed "Wake Forest" at opponents.
Prosser also regularly spoke with fans and students, sending them e-mails when he couldn't speak in person. He made sure to mention them after games, praising them or challenging them. Prosser was open to the media and made frequent appearances. He didn't close practices and was a great quote.
Prosser also benefited from having good teams and by featuring two local stars, Josh Howard and Chris Paul. But by all regards, his focus and drive made the process a success. In less than three years, Joel Coliseum was a hot ticket for fans (not just alums) and a hotbox for opponents. The atmosphere gained national attention when the Deacons upset Duke in February 2004.
Less than three years later, Prosser had to use the football program to talk to his team about atmosphere. Who would have thought that would happen?
This year, Prosser exposed his young players to the football team's success and the excitement around it as often as he could. Since Wake played at Miami on Jan. 6, Prosser arranged to take his team to the Orange Bowl to be around the football excitement.
"The longer you're at a Wake Forest, the more you appreciate the uniqueness of the school," Prosser said. "What's going on with football now should be cause for such a tremendous celebration. I want our players to be a part of that celebration.
"I'm not sure that other schools have the same kind of feeling that is present at Wake Forest. We're looking forward to being down there celebrating with the other Wake Forest people."
The problem? Prosser now has to go outside his own program for that energy boost.
LOSING TREND HARD TO REVERSE
By the end of the 3-13 ACC season last year, excitement had waned around the program. Games were still sellouts, but that was by ticket-counting sleight of hand only. And the once-loud "buzz" was a faint hum.
The Deacons' mediocre current season (9-5, 1-1 ACC) so far has done little to re-energize the Prosser-created "Tie-Dye Nation," let alone any of the unaffiliated in town. Right now, Wake has no household names and isn't winning consistently. That's not a good formula for marketing.
In fact, the team's sour play almost makes some of the excitement-builders seem a little wrong. When you have a team to back it up, the "Welcome to the Jungle," motorcycle-riding intro is great. But when the team behind it is so-so, something just doesn't feel right.
So Wake has a lot riding on its play during the ACC season. Certainly, there's the postseason hopes and future recruiting, but perhaps also all the marketing momentum Prosser has built. A tepid second half might give him a mountain to climb. Historically, that mountain hasn't been scaled by many.
The typical successful coaching tenure looks sort of like the bell curve coach takes over a program that's down, builds it into a winner for a period of time, then eventually takes another job or falls off enough to get fired. During that period, there can be a bad season here or there.
But an examination of ACC history shows that it's extremely rare for a coach to do what Prosser may have to do: build a program, then have at least two significantly down years consecutively, then rebuild it as a consistent winner.
Bobby Cremins of Georgia Tech had perhaps the most roller-coaster career of any successful ACC coach. Yet even his down periods usually were for only one season at a time before he resurfaced. Duke had a slight slip in 1995-96 before rebounding, but Mike Krzyzewski was hardly in danger of losing the tradition and atmosphere around his program during that period.
The best example (and possibly the only true ACC example) of a coach having to do what Prosser may face is Wake's own Carl Tacy, who took over in 1973.
By his fourth season, Tacy had built a winning program. Wake had three good years, including a final eight NCAA showing in 1977. Then Tacy had two losing seasons. He bounced back from those with four straight 20-win seasons.
Interestingly, atmosphere was a big issue during Tacy's tenure as well. During those 20-win seasons, the Deacons played most of their home games in Greensboro, about 30 minutes from campus.
When Prosser took the Wake job, he had a larger rebuilding project off the court than he did on it. Perhaps now, six years later, the rebuilding challenge is larger on the court, but he's in great danger of going back almost to square one off the court, without some second-half excitement.