New football coach Dave Clawson has Wake fans feeling good again.
In the spring of 2009, Wake Forest football and basketball appeared to be in very good shape.
In the previous football season, Jim Grobe had just won eight games, including the Eaglebank Bowl, the third straight bowl appearance for the program. In basketball, Dino Gaudio had taken his team as high as No. 1 and was rolling into the postseason ranked No. 10 with a 24-5 record.
Little did Deacon fans know that they were about to start what would be a long, depressing slide in both major programs.
Gaudio’s basketball team suffered first-round exits in both the ACC and NCAA Tournaments that year. He would only last one more tumultuous year, and then athletic director Ron Wellman would hire Jeff Bzdelik. That disastrous saga has been well chronicled.
Grobe would not post another winning season before resigning after this season. Even the bowl season of 2011 was enough of a disappointment that Grobe said it was the time that he first started thinking about stepping aside.
So the story of Tuesday’s press conference to announce Dave Clawson as the new football coach was not really about his quotes or his on-field strategies. No, the real story was about all the smiles.
Finally, after almost five years, people were smiling about something long-term in one of the two programs. (It doesn’t hurt that Bzdelik has the basketball team at 8-2, at least temporarily calming the calls for his head.) The positive energy surrounding athletic personnel and fans was noticeable, perhaps because it had been absent for so long. It was almost as if the hope and enthusiasm was a surprise, something unrecognizable at first, to those who began to feel it.
Perhaps the happiest man was Wellman, although he’s not a big smiler. While Wellman has spent his career being lauded across the country for his work at one of Div. I’s smallest schools, he’s nearly torn apart his reputation with his own fanbase in the last few years.
When Bzdelik flopped and Grobe didn’t remove his offensive coordinator Steed Lobotzke, fans turned on Wellman for refusing to act. He’s been the subject of public attacks in newspapers and on billboards, as well as private threats and vandalism to his home.
But when Wellman announced the hiring of Clawson, he happened to be doing both what he thought was right for the program and what many fans, including his critics, wanted. Those two things haven’t synced up in a while at Wake Forest, and it was as if a dark cloud of negativity parted.
It certainly didn’t hurt Wellman that Clawson praised him vociferously, in what felt like sincere, not rehearsed, words.
“He is respected as one of the very best athletic directors in the country,” Clawson said. “The terms ‘trustworthy,’ ‘a straight shooter,’ ‘reliable,’ ‘dependable,’ all those things that create a great working relationship and allow you to build a championship culture just came up with Ron.
“That is one of the attractions to Wake Forest is the ability to learn and work with an athletic director that has the reputation of Ron Wellman. I know there’s a lot that he’ll be able to teach me not just about the institution, but about college athletics.”
One thing Clawson won’t have to learn is how to coach at a school like Wake Forest, and that’s exactly what Wellman wanted when he set his criteria. Clawson’s whole career reads like a resume for coaching at Wake Forest. Clawson even admitted that when he was at Richmond, he used Grobe as a model for tactics, such as redshirting freshmen.
He has a history of rebuilding programs at academic-oriented schools, and he’s won at least 10 games and a conference championship at every stop. He went to three bowls in five years at Bowling Green.
By all accounts, he’s a man of high standards, and he said all the right things at the press conference about demanding success in the classroom. He’s not naive, either: His coaching stops at Fordham and Richmond, combined with a playing career at Div. III Williams, ensures that Clawson understands the demands on a student-athlete at a school like Wake Forest.
He also tackled one of the big debates around Wake Forest football head-on: Can a great academic school play high-level football? Clawson didn’t back off, didn’t play into what some call the “Little Old Wake Forest” syndrome.
“Academics cannot be an excuse to not succeed,” he said, citing Stanford, Vanderbilt and others. “To me, it is a reason we will succeed. There is no reason that Wake Forest can’t reach great (football) heights as other great academic schools in this country have done.”
He may struggle to get to those heights immediately. The Deacons lose a lot: 12 starters, including their leading passer, rusher, receiver and tackler-for-loss. Clawson will have some talent at linebacker and in the secondary, but building two lines and grooming a quarterback will be quite a task.
Clawson Playing Catch-up In Recruiting
But on-the-field plans are not Clawson’s first concern. He must hit the recruiting trail immediately.
Because Wake Forest agreed to Clawson’s request to allow him to coach in the MAC championship game and then give him one more day before interviewing him, key recruiting time was lost. New rules limit contact from Dec. 16 to Jan. 15, and signing day is Feb. 5.
“We have another half a week that we can have face-to-face contact, and right now we don’t have a coaching staff,” Clawson said. “It’s not ideal.”
He didn’t seem overly worried, however, just ready to get to work. He also pitched a long-term approach over short-term panic.
“We’re going to work like crazy to put the best class we can together,” he said. “We’re not going to sign a player just for the sake of signing him. There’s got to be a standard that we’ve got to feel this player can help us win and win at a high level. And if we can’t find a player of that caliber, we can save the scholarship.”
That long-term view also plays into how he’ll make his coaching decisions. Clawson said he won’t rush his hires, and he won’t retain a coach simply because it might keep a recruit committed.
“Probably the most important decisions that I make as a head coach are over the next two to three weeks of who we hire -- who’s going to recruit these young men, who’s going to coach them, who’s going to mentor them,” he said. “I’d rather take my time and get it right than rush and make bad decisions.”
Clawson said that he’d like to bring offensive coordinator Warren Ruggiero and defensive coordinator Mike Elko from Bowling Green, then fill in around them. Interestingly, neither was named interim coach at Bowling Green, as that spot went to Adam Scheier, who coached special teams and tight ends. Clawson didn’t rule out keeping coaches from the current Wake Forest staff, and he said he would look outside as well.
Ruggiero could be a candidate to become a head coach at Bowling Green, Elon or other schools. If he comes to Wake, he’ll bring a pedigree for developing quarterbacks, including Josh Freeman at Kansas State. Elko has been with Clawson at Fordham and Richmond, and he’s also been the defensive coordinator at Hofstra. His most recent defenses have been turnover-creating machines, which harkens back to the best units of Grobe’s era.
Clawson knows that every minute Wake Forest is not recruiting is one that he risks losing one of Wake’s 10 verbal commitments.
“I’m sure they’re being recruited by other institutions right now, and that’s a battle we’re going to have to fight in the next six weeks,” he said.
Two previous commitments already reopened their recruiting before Grobe stepped down: running back Terence Ricks and cornerback DaiQuan Lawrence, both from Chesapeake, Va. Perhaps the best player in Wake’s class, linebacker Jaboree Williams, remains committed, but he’s been visiting other schools.
Would Clawson flip the script and bring anyone with him from Bowling Green’s class? It’s not likely that he would want to start out on that note, although someone like guard Jared Coker, who Wake showed interest in originally, might want to follow Clawson. More likely, some of Bowling Green’s remaining targets suddenly might become options for Wake Forest, such as running back Ron Johnson, guard Martesse Patterson or defensive end Verondtae Wilkinson.
For those who worry that Clawson won’t be able to make the recruiting jump to the ACC, there’s proof he can identify talent. Three players who were on his 2007 Richmond team are still active in the NFL, and another -- Tim Hightower -- made an impact for Arizona until a knee injury sidelined him in Washington in 2012.
During Clawson’s one season as offensive coordinator at Tennessee, he landed commitments from quarterbacks Tahj Boyd and Bryce Petty.The two never signed because Clawson and coach Philip Fulmer were let go, but they are two of the nation’s top quarterbacks this season.
Clawson said he learned a lot about recruiting during that short stint with the Vols: “Recruiting at this level is a lot different than recruiting at Richmond or even in the MAC -- the pace of it, the aggressiveness of it, the amount of schools that you have to beat on a good player, the ways you have to create an edge. You’ve got to have a plan.”
That plan will start with in-state prospects. Wake Forest has only recruited in North Carolina in small doses, averaging less than 20 percent of Grobe’s recruits. However, five of the commits in this class are in-state prospects.
“I can’t wait to get out and sell Wake Forest football to recruits,” said Clawson, who said that his extended family lives in the Charlotte area. “I’m really excited to reconnect with the coaches in this state. This was a very big recruiting area for us when I was at Richmond.”
“We want to do a great job in state. We’re going to go after the best players in the state, and we’re going to fight those battles. You need to create relationships in the backyard. You have to have high school coaches who trust you with their players.”
Beyond the North Carolina borders, Clawson has proven that he can recruit in one of Wake Forest’s favorite spots: Bowling Green’s roster currently features 15 players from Florida. Clawson and his staff’s ties to Ohio might open up that state, which hasn’t been fertile ground for Wake Forest, despite Grobe’s coaching tenure in the state.
One positive for Clawson on the recruiting trail is that he can’t be pigeon-holed by rivals. He has a reputation for forming his strategy on both sides of the ball around the talent of his roster. That approach also should serve him well as he looks over the mish-mash of playing styles on the current Wake Forest roster.
When you examine the hiring of Clawson, about the only negative question you could have is whether he’s going to be in it for the long haul. Is he the type of guy who likes to build, then move on? He’s been a head coach for three schools, and he hasn’t stayed more than five seasons at any of them.
Clawson is 46, meaning a similar rebuilding of Wake Forest would still leave him young enough for a bigger program to take a chance on him in his early 50s.
But for those around Wake Forest athletics, that’s a problem to worry about later. If you could promise them a winning program over the next five years, everyone would be plenty happy.
Right now, it’s just nice to feel the warmth of those sun rays shining as the black clouds disappear.