A couple of weeks ago, a friend sent me the following DM on Twitter:
"Any chance Jim Grobe gets fired this season?”
My immediate, knee-jerk response:
“Can’t imagine why that would happen.”
“Five straight losing seasons?” my friend responded.
“Two words: Wake Forest. Two more: Orange Bowl,” was my oh-so-witty answer.
And that was that. But then, last week, I saw this post by the stat wonks at Football Study Hall. I won’t bore you with all the number-crunching (which is to say, I don’t totally understand all the stats involved), but they came up with a formula for determining the “effect” a coach has on a team during a season. Basically, they calculated the “apparent talent” of a team, and then used that number to arrive at an estimate for “team quality.” Then they used a formula to calculate the team’s actual “team quality.” If a team’s actual quality score is higher than its estimate, then you have a positive “coaching effect.” If actual quality fails to match the estimate, then you have evidence of a negative coaching effect.
Not surprisingly, Grobe fared very well during the halcyon days of 2006-2008. In 2008, Wake’s quality outperformed its talent by 14 percent. In 2006 there was a 13% positive coaching effect. In 2007, 10%. Even in 2009, Riley Skinner’s senior season (more on him later), when Wake went 5-7, Grobe and his staff had an 8% positive coaching effect.
But after that? 2010? -17%. 2011? -2% 2012? -20%. Yikes.
That 2012 score was as low as Greg Robinson’s second-to-last season at Syracuse (the Orange went 2-10) and lower than the final seasons (i.e. the ones in which they got fired) for Ted Roof (Duke), Walt Harris (Stanford), Sylvester Croom (Mississippi St.) and Steve Kragthorpe (Louisville). Ted Roof is a fine defensive coordinator, but if you’re being mentioned in the same breath as his head coaching days in Durham, that’s … not good.
So that got me back to thinking about my friend’s DM. No, I don’t think Grobe’s in any danger. In case you hadn’t noticed, Wake AD Ron Wellman’s got a few other things on his plate right now, many of them having to do with basketball coach Jeff Bzdelik. And if Wellman’s defending Bzdelik’s performance right now, you think he’s going to have serious issues with what Grobe has done lately?
Still, what Grobe has done lately is at least give the rest of us a reason to pause, and ponder whether we should be thinking of him the same way we did back when he was considered one of the top coaches in the business.
So I allowed a little healthy skepticism in and let my mind wander a bit …
THE AMATO COMPARISON
I know, I know, I know. The two coaches could not be more different. But hear me out. I started covering the N.C. State beat for the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record in 2004. In other words, A.P. (After Philip Rivers). You know the rest of this story; three seasons later it was all over for Amato. I was struck by how quickly Amato’s success during the Philip Rivers years became a weapon used against him. The gap between Amato’s record with Rivers and the coach’s record without him was used as evidence by Amato detractors that the QB had made the coach. Once Rivers moved on to the NFL, the argument went, we saw the real Amato...the one who couldn’t get the job done.
Amato’s record in his first four seasons – all with Rivers as his quarterback – was 34-17. In Amato’s next three, Rivers-free seasons, State went 15-20.
Grobe’s record in five years pre-Riley Skinner was 26-32; in the four years with Skinner, it was 33-19; in the three years since Skinner left, 14-23.
I know this is, in several ways, an apples-to-oranges comparison. Amato was a polarizing figure, one with a combative relationship with the press. Grobe is a well-liked and respected public figure who has built up goodwill with the media. And while Amato could be judged against former State coaches such as Dick Sheridan and Lou Holtz, Grobe’s stiffest competition in the Wake coaching legacy is Peahead Walker, who last coached the Deacs in 1950. In between Walker and Grobe? Not much.
Which brings us around to my first Twitter defense of Grobe: It’s Wake Forest. What do you expect?
EXPECTATIONS VS. CAPABILITIES
Wake Forest before Jim Grobe arrived in Winston-Salem was pretty much a non-factor in football. It made a sporadic bowl appearance here and there, but in general, after Walker left in 1950, the Deacs went through five decades of losing.
This paragraph from Grobe’s Wake bio sums up his impact pretty well.
Grobe has taken the Deacons where no previous Wake Forest football coach has gone. He has led the Deacons to more bowl games, more eight-win seasons, and more bowl victories than any coach in school history. Grobe and the Deacons put together a three-year streak of winning seasons (2006-08), a feat which had not been accomplished in over 50 years. The Deacons' 33 wins from 2006-09 were the most wins ever during a four-year period of Wake Forest football.
So if you judge Grobe against the 50 years of Wake football before him, he should have a statue built outside Groves Stadium, right now. And then you shake your head at anyone who’s grumbling about Grobe and mutter something about the coach becoming a victim of the expectations he helped build.
But fans – and quite frankly ADs and wealthy boosters as well – judge coaches against their programs' present. And while Grobe did indeed build expectations where there were none, he also built Wake’s capabilities.
It’s no longer Groves Stadium, glorified high school field. It’s BB&T Field at Groves Stadium, a symbol that Wake now takes football seriously. So do recruits. Consider that the estimated team quality score for Wake from 2010-2012 has been an average of 201.7. During 2006-08, it was just 195.7. That’s a function of an increase in Wake’s “apparent talent” score. Are those numbers exact? No. But they do further the impression that this isn’t poor little old Wake anymore.
The whole expectations vs. capabilities question then got me to thinking about Bobby Bowden. Probably no other coach, except perhaps Joe Paterno at Penn State, is more closely identified with a program than Bowden. For years, he was Florida State football. Bowden took a sleepy backwater program and turned it into a national powerhouse. And when FSU started to dip in Bowden’s final years, his defenders brought up this point repeatedly. Seminole fans, they argued, should be thankful that Bowden built up the program to the point where eight and nine-win seasons were considered a disappointment.
All true, but so was the fact that an 8-5 season in Tallahassee WAS (and is) a disappointment. And when Jimbo Fisher – a fine coach, but not likely to ever be a labeled a legend like his predecessor – ripped of 31 wins in the first three seasons after Bowden’s departure, it became clear that those merciless expectations were actually right in line with FSU’s capabilities.
Which brings us back to Grobe and Wake Forest. If the Deacs do indeed stumble to a fifth-straight losing season, how disgruntled do Wake fans have a right to be? Certainly they now expect better than that. And I would say the program is capable of more, as well.
But that gap between current results and current capabilities is not a wide one; certainly not like the one FSU had at the end of Bowden’s tenure. And while I think it’s possible that there may be another coach out there who could squeeze more out of Wake football than what Jim Grobe currently is getting, I also believe there are a lot of coaches who couldn’t match what Grobe has done, even in the past four seasons. It’s always the first question I ask angry fans when they want their coach tossed aside: “Who could you get who you know could do a better job?”
Right now there is no clear answer to that question at Wake. Frankly, there may not be one. But I also don’t think – if this season is the Deacs’ fifth straight with a losing record – it would be heresy for Wake fans to at least ask.