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Wake Faces Recurring Nightmare

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

By Dave Glenn and staff, ACC Sports Journal
December 2, 2002 WINSTON-SALEM — As the calendar turned to December, two things dominated the conversation of Wake Forest football fans: the short-term status of second-year coach Jim Grobe, and the bowl possibilities for another six-win (6-6 this time) football team. At press time, the Deacons had not received a bowl bid, and Grobe had not jumped to Baylor or anywhere else. While the resolutions of both situations probably won't become clear for a week or more, the background behind both cases strongly suggested that both scenarios were unlikely.

A bowl bid still could happen (an ECU victory over Cincinnati would help) but it's a longshot, despite the fact that the ACC office has been working overtime on the Deacons' behalf. If Wake Forest had beaten Maryland, the ACC had locked up a spot in the Motor City Bowl (the Big Ten didn't qualify enough teams for its tie-in) for the Deacons, but Wake couldn't uphold its end of the bargain.

Meanwhile, the much-discussed potential jump by Grobe to Baylor also seemed unlikely. On one hand, who is his right mind would want to take over a program with an empty cupboard at a small school that's never been competitive in the very challenging Big 12? On the other hand, Grobe's representatives had some preliminary discussions with Baylor officials in late November, and the coach was expected to visit campus and formally interview for the position in early December.

Nobody should completely rule out the idea of Grobe leaving Wake Forest this offseason. Why? For starters, the coach himself certainly hasn't ruled it out. His public comments on the matter have been almost pointedly nebulous, leaving the door wide open for just about any conclusion. Even his apparent willingness to interview is a bold statement.

Obviously, if Grobe does anticipate leaving the Deacons this year, he's avoiding sweeping declarations in an effort to protect his reputation. (Remember Bill Lewis guaranteeing he'd stay at ECU, then jumping ship right after the Peach Bowl?) In the meantime, Grobe has made the Wake Forest fan base — and, more importantly, a few recruits — a little nervous.

While Baylor has some advantages over Wake Forest, they seem small enough that a potential move would be a very odd one for Grobe — and one that would speak very badly of his view of the situation at Wake. But even if Grobe declines an opportunity at Baylor, or schools of similar ilk, what about other openings? Michigan State? Stay tuned.

There is no shortage of factors to suggest that the Baylor job, and the timing of its availability, is a poor fit for Grobe. Consider:

  • Grobe has absolutely no history as a “job jumper.” In a nomadic industry, he's been a rock of stability. As an assistant, he spent five years at Marshall and 11 years at Air Force. He spent six years as Ohio's head coach before leaving for Wake. He's not a man who seeks the spotlight, and his appreciation for fairness and loyalty are unquestioned. In that regard, he may feel he has a commitment to Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman and to the program — and that there's still work to be done. He has yet to lead the Deacons to a bowl (barring a miracle this season), and he hasn't posted even a .500 record in the ACC. (He went 3-5 in 2001 and 2002.) So far, he's made them only a mediocre team in a mediocre football conference.
  • Grobe has ACC ties (Virginia grad), and his well-established recruiting areas (Ohio, Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, etc.) can work for an ACC school, especially one located in the western part of North Carolina. He has no apparent ties to Baylor or its recruiting base. A Big Ten school would be another story, though.

Meanwhile, two things loom as factors Grobe could consider on either side of the equation:

  • He is extremely loyal to his staff. Eight of his nine assistants were with him at Ohio, and seven of those spent four or more years there with him. It seems unlikely that Grobe would ask them (and their families) to jump for a job such as Baylor, which might not offer them a lot more money. (The Bears reportedly are offering to improve Grobe's compensation package by 50 percent.) However, this loyalty also could work in favor of a school pursuing Grobe. If they were willing to put up big money for his staff as well, he might be more likely to jump.
  • Strength of conference also can be seen both ways. Grobe realizes that it's easier for a weaker program such as Wake Forest to compete in the ACC than it would be in the SEC, Big 12 or Big Ten. One could make the case that Grobe was only a few plays away from a big bowl in each of the last two years with the Demon Deacons. It's doubtful that, with similar talent in one of those leagues, he would have even thought about a bowl, let alone a major one. However, from an ego standpoint, he also must know that if he can win in one of those conferences, he's a cinch for big bowls and big money. For example, the third-place team from the Big Ten and the third- and fourth-place teams from the SEC play in desirable Jan. 1 bowls. The third-place team from the ACC gets only the fifth-place team from the SEC on Dec. 31.

Why else might Grobe leave?

  • Money is always a factor. Most major schools will be able to offer much more than Wake Forest. Even in the ACC, which wasn't built on football, Wake has a very hard time competing financially. In the most recent EADA (Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act) reports, which basically cover the 2000-01 academic year, Wake made $5 million in revenue from football. Five of the other eight ACC schools made more than twice that, topped by Clemson at $19.8 million and FSU at $16.4 million. A sixth school fell just below the mark, at $9.6 million. Only Maryland ($7.1 million) and Duke ($6.6 million) were even in Wake's range. For comparison's sake, Baylor made only about $1 million more than Wake in the same academic year, but Michigan State made $14.3 million. Facilities also are affected by money. While the Deacons have made recent strides in this area and have more plans for football set for the next year, they still lack the deep pockets to consistently rank with other programs.
  • Both of the above factors stem in part from attendance problems. Wake's alumni base is so small that it simply can't put enough fannies in the seats. For the four seasons from 1998-2001, Wake's average NCAA rank in attendance was 86.3 out of 117 Division I-A programs. Those numbers reflect two bowl-eligible seasons, including one in which the Deacons beat two ranked teams in Winston-Salem and went to the Aloha Bowl. (They ranked 94th that year.) For comparison, Duke's average rank during that period was exactly one spot worse than Wake's, and the Blue Devils won a total of seven games in those four years. Even if Wake filled its stadium with 31,500 people for each home game, think of the revenue difference with a school such as Clemson, which sells about 80,000 tickets a game.
  • All of the above affect recruiting, and Grobe and his staff now realize how difficult it is to recruit at Wake. While the Deacons have signed a couple of highly rated prospects in recent years, they still can't get in the door of most top players. In addition, Wake's academic standards eliminate a number of others from even being possibilities. Mostly, Grobe and his assistants are recruiting good players who fit their system, but that's a difficult formula to make succeed consistently against top athletes.
  • Grobe may have a now-or-never feeling. He probably realizes, when analyzing next year's roster, that the odds are in favor of a slump. If so, that would give him three straight seasons without a bowl and without a winning conference record — again, in an underwhelming football conference. Those numbers aren't particularly attractive to potential suitors, who may appreciate Grobe's abilities but also realize they must sell him to their constituency. Then it would take him at least another year or two with his own recruits to re-establish his image. That would put him in his mid-50s.

In the final analysis, only two things seem certain.

First, Wake fans better get used to this. Even if Grobe stays, no matter what kind of contract he signs or what he says, the perception always will remain that a big school can steal him away from little old Wake Forest. As long as he keeps winning, this talk will happen every offseason.

Second, losing Grobe would be a whole bunch of nails in the coffin of a Wake Forest football program that's been deathly ill many times. It's difficult to believe that there could be someone more perfect for Wake than Grobe, whether one measures his integrity, his personality, his system or anything else.

Losing Grobe would set Wake back temporarily in recruiting and in building any momentum, but it also would reinforce the perception that the Deacons are either a coaching graveyard or, at best, a quick stopping place on the way to something better.