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Wellman Excelling In Unique Position

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

June 2, 2003 WINSTON-SALEM — If Ron Wellman doesn't take a trip to Las Vegas this summer, he could be missing out on some big money. Wellman, the Wake Forest athletic director, appears to have held all the cards close to his vest over the last five months, only showing to the public when he has a winner. He's won big at least three times just this offseason — first by holding onto his football and basketball coaches, then by solidifying his own job status and long-term future.

Whether he'll also be a winner in the biggest poker game of all — ACC expansion — remains to be seen.

Close to the vest is typical for Wellman, and it's rare among big-time athletic directors these days. He is allowed to operate his department without offering so much as a peek to the public, unless he wants to show something. He doesn't conduct public coaching searches, and the school doesn't form search committees. Wellman contacts people, makes his decisions and reports to Wake Forest president Thomas Hearn, a strong-minded leader who can't possibly be bullied but nevertheless regularly defers to his AD's judgment. Wellman doesn't publicly discuss candidates, personnel, money matters or anything else he doesn't want to talk about. He rarely even offers off-the-record insights to reporters.

In addition, Wellman has the full confidence of Hearn, the respect of his peers and near-absolute job security, and he's approaching living-legend status among Wake Forest supporters large and small. Overall, in this big-money era, it's an almost unheard-of arrangement.

“I have ultimate confidence in Ron's judgment and in the way in which the department is operated,” Hearn said, when announcing Wellman's new contract this spring. “I leave all the discussions and deliberations with coaches to him, and I'm brought in only when approval is needed at the end. But that's the way it's always been.”

Wellman can approach his job this way in part because Wake Forest is a private school, and as such it's not bound by the same disclosure rules as public universities. He can do it because Hearn trusts him completely and because his track record looks better every year. He can do it because his staff members don't feed their own egos by leaking information and because alumni and media attention are not nearly as fervent as at huge public schools.

Whatever the reasons, Wellman gradually has become a master at it. He rarely utters a word publicly when he doesn't want to. He stayed quiet while other schools pursued his football and basketball coaches (and aired their laundry in public while doing it), only to emerge the winner in both cases.

It was speculated by many that this unique situation helped keep Wellman at home when he was pursued by Tennessee this spring. To anyone following the pursuit, it was obvious that the president's public presence in athletic matters alone certainly didn't please Wellman, not to mention the powerful coaching staff and alumni base. Not only would Wellman be at the table with multiple players on every decision, he couldn't even guarantee he would be dealt a hand on some issues.

Small Budgets But Strong Results

So what exactly is happening with Wake Forest athletics? Overall, the picture is not spectacular but solid, from facilities to finishes.

For example, in the first seven years
(1994-2000) of the Sears Cup (a measure of overall athletic program strength), the Deacons' average finish was 53rd nationally and seventh in the ACC. In the last two years, that improved to 37th and fifth, including school bests of 33rd and fourth in 2001. This season, after the conclusion of winter sports but before the calculation of spring sports, the Deacons stood at 35th and fourth.

On the coaching roll call, only women's basketball coach Charlene Curtis appears on the hot seat. Some also mention baseball coach George Greer because of some recent on-field disappointments and off-field problems, but it's doubtful Wellman would fire such a successful coach. Greer has had only one losing season and several outstanding campaigns in 16 years with the Deacons.

The status of the two major sports — football and basketball — appears to be as rosy as it's ever been at the same time in Wake history. Both coaches, Jim Grobe and Skip Prosser, were signed to 10-year deals in the offseason. Grobe actually has some fans thinking about bowl games instead of basketball, which isn't easy for a program with the second-worst winning percentage in Division I-A history. Prosser has re-energized a hoops program that had started to slip under the radar in Dave Odom's final seasons.

Perhaps more importantly, though, Wellman and the two coaches must have heard all the right words from Hearn as they made their recent decisions to stay. All three were looking at situations where schools were pledging to spend much more money than Wake Forest — both in salaries and into the program.

“One of the things I looked at when I signed the long-term contract was how Ron and Dr. Hearn were committed over the long term to football and giving Wake Forest a chance to compete,” Grobe said. “I think one of the things Ron Wellman looked at when he was talking to Tennessee was if we had the commitment from Dr. Hearn and the trustees that we could continue to compete. When Ron stayed, that gave me the signal that we are committed to having a strong program at Wake Forest.”

Wellman knows that Wake operates alone at the bottom of the ACC athletic budget list. (In 2001-02, the last year for which exact numbers are available, Wake's $23.6 million in athletic expenditures ranked last in the conference, about $5 million behind No. 8 Florida State and about $14 million behind No. 1 North Carolina.) He also knows that another round of improvements already is necessary to keep up in the facilities race. Both coaches are well-aware of the financial constraints by now.

So Hearn must have been quite clear in pledging future support for athletics to get all three to stay in Winston-Salem. It will be interesting to see how the fallout from this period makes itself known over the next 10 years, such as in significant improvements to the football stadium. Wellman said Hearn had a plan but, in true Wake style, Wellman also refused to divulge any of it.

“He was very specific,” Wellman said, “as to how the program will be protected in the future and how we will continue to have the opportunity to excel.”

Expansion: Large Leap Of Faith

But how does expansion fit into all of this for Wake?

Again, Wellman held some high cards: With the vote so close, Wake's vote became very important. As usual, Wellman kept quiet, eventually going along with the pro-expansion vote. And again, that leads one to believe that Wellman heard what he wanted from his friend John Swofford, the ACC commissioner, just as he had with Hearn.

Without divisional structures in place, it's difficult to predict how expansion would change the football and basketball teams' fights for ACC success.

In football, it gives Wake three more solid programs to climb over as it tries to gain long-term respectability. (Strange but true: Boston College, Miami and Syracuse all spent significantly more on football in recent years than all nine ACC schools, so the Deacons' gridiron budget likely will remain in the bottom three in the new 12-team league.) Wake could have years where it plays Miami and Florida State, but it also could have seasons where it plays one or none, depending on the plan.

One key will be if the bowl tie-ins expand. Currently, the 12-team SEC has seven bowl tie-ins — including the BCS, which could take two of its teams in some years. The ACC recently lost the Seattle Bowl (financial problems) but added a two-year deal with the Humanitarian Bowl to remain at six tie-ins, but a 12-team league could mean even more postseason opportunities.

“If that doesn't happen, it will certainly make it tougher on us,” Grobe said. “I shouldn't assume anything, but I assume that if the league becomes stronger, it will become more attractive to the bowl games. If we bring in three teams and add three bowls, our chances will be about the same. We know that for the next few years we have to continue to play over our heads to get into those things.”

Basketball appears to be in good shape no matter who comes into the league, even Syracuse, the defending national champion. A deeper league also should get more teams into the NCAA Tournament, an area where the ACC has slipped in recent years.

Expansion also should help recognition and recruiting along the East Coast, bringing the Wake Forest name to more TV screens and newspapers. Perhaps fewer people will ask that familiar question: “Wake Forest, where is that?”

But the real key to expansion is money, and this is where Wellman must have heard the right words from Swofford.

Wellman knows he will lose money in some areas, such as travel costs and home gates. Depending on scheduling, losing one or two rival games a year in football and basketball can make a big difference on the bottom line for a school that cuts it as close as Wake does.

So Swofford must have made it clear that more money will flow Wake's way. More teams will make bowl games and the NCAA Tournament. TV contracts will be bigger, or at least they won't drop off as they might have under the status quo.

Perhaps even the stature of the bowls will improve, which would increase payouts. For example, the SEC has four major bowl tie-ins and two other solid ones beyond the BCS. The ACC really has only two major tie-ins, with the Gator and Peach. One problem there is that the natural place to steal bowls would be from the Big East, and two of their contracts (Gator, Continental Tire) are with bowls already aligned with the ACC.

No matter how the scenario shakes out, confidence remains high around Wake Forest with Wellman at the helm.

“I don't think he'd put us in a tougher situation,” Grobe said, “unless he has some things in mind to help us get better at Wake Forest.”