By David Glenn
September 26, 2006
ACC Sports Journal editor David Glenn recently conducted an in-depth, one-on-one interview with Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman. With only minor editing, this is a transcript of their conversation.
DG: Let me take you back to your first year at Wake Forest. If you were at a meeting of ACC athletic directors in 1992, and now you attend one of those AD meetings in 2006, every face in the room has changed except yours. How does that feel, and how has your role in this league grown or changed since you are now the longest-tenured AD in the conference?
Wellman: Well, Dave, believe it or not -- and this may be a sad state of affairs -- I was the longest-tenured athletic director six years ago. In my eighth year at Wake Forest, I became the longest-tenured athletic director in the ACC. To tell you the truth, that was a little frightening, to see the change annually at one school or another.
But as I reflect upon my first few years in the conference, when we had Bob Goin at Florida State and Homer Rice at Georgia Tech and Tom Butters at Duke and of course John Swofford at UNC and Todd Turner at N.C. State and Jim Copeland at Virginia and Andy Geiger at Maryland, that was just a great group. I think we have a great group today, too. There's just different people sitting in those chairs, but we are blessed in our conference with some strong leadership at the athletic director level.
DG: Have you seen your role change within the ACC? Most people in a new job probably speak up a little bit less at the beginning and a little bit more as they gain experience. Has that been the case for you?
Wellman: Well, I still find that I gain a lot more knowledge when I listen. I don't gain any knowledge when I speak. (Laughs.) I try to listen as much as I possibly can.
That's a good thing about the athletic directors in our conference. We have a bunch of people who are very good listeners, and they only weigh in when they feel that they have something to contribute. In so many groups, as I'm sure you're well aware of, everybody seems to feel the necessity to weigh in on each and every issue, and not necessarily make a contribution to that conversation. Fortunately, that is not the case with the ACC athletic directors. It's a strong group, a bunch of good people, and we thoroughly enjoy that.
DG: As accessible as you and everyone else at Wake Forest are with the media, and as many times as we've talked, I recently realized that I've never asked you -- and I've never seen anyone else ask you -- about your influences in the world of college athletics. Who were some of your biggest influences as you've evolved from being a college baseball coach, through a variety of other steps, and now as the athletic director at a major Division I university?
Wellman: I can say, David, that a lot of people have been (major influences). I've tried to learn as much as I can from everybody.
The people on our staff here at Wake Forest have taught me an awful lot. Tom Hearn, our former president, was a mentor and a very strong individual and a dear friend. Our new president, Nathan Hatch, we're developing a great relationship. I've been blessed with good presidents, first and foremost.
I think of people like (former ACC commissioner) Gene Corrigan and the athletic directors when I first came into the conference. I remember a call from Gene Corrigan, welcoming me to the conference. He was actually on the interview team when I visited Wake Forest to interview for this job. He was so honest and open and gracious to me at that point that I was so appreciative. Then, when I came to the conference, Tom Butters was the first one to call me. Homer Rice called me immediately after that, just to welcome me to the conference and to tell me a little bit about the conference. They were always mentors to me, throughout their tenures as athletic directors at their institutions. There have been many, many people.
In the coaching world, it was a different group of people. A person who was probably as big of a mentor as anyone was Jack Horenberger. He probably is not a name that anyone would recognize, but he was the athletic director and baseball coach at Illinois Wesleyan University. I was the baseball coach at Elmhurst College (in Illinois) in 1972. I was 23 years old, and Jack was 60-some years old at that time, and we used to go to conventions together and room together. He just was someone who kinda took me under his wing and taught me an awful lot -- not only about baseball and administration, but about life as well.
So there have been many, many people who have had a major influence on me throughout my career.
DG: Speaking of conventions ... earlier this year, at the Division I-A athletic directors convention in New Orleans, your fellow athletic directors voted you the AD who "makes the most of his resources." It's always great to hear good news, from the fans or the media or anybody else, but is there something special about being honored by your colleagues?
Wellman: Well, I don't know what that means, exactly. (Laughs.) "Making the most of our resources." (Laughs.) I don't know if that means I'm really tight, or we don't have any resources, or what the perception is. (Laughs.) But, yes, it's always particularly nice to be recognized by your colleagues.
DG: Goofy question. As a baseball pitcher, at Bowling Green, were you more of a Greg Maddux type or a Nolan Ryan?
Wellman: I was the pitcher that the hitters loved. They always ran to the bat rack when they saw me going to the mound. I wore our outfielders out. I remember one time our coach came to the mound and said, "Ron, I'm going to have to take you out of the game." And I said, "Coach, I'm not tired. I'm ready to go." And he said, "Well, you may not be tired, but your outfielders are awfully tired, so hit the bench."
DG: One of the things we've asked you in the past is worth asking again. During your time at Wake Forest, you've been approached by Arizona State, Tennessee, Michigan and probably others we don't know about. In some cases, these are among the most prominent athletic programs in the nation, with some of the largest athletic budgets in the nation. What is it about Wake that makes you turn down these opportunities from athletic programs that are bigger -- and, in some eyes, better -- elsewhere in the college sports world?
Wellman: It really is very simple, Dave. I love Wake Forest.
I found a school that reflects my values and ideals and standards. (I respect) the approach the school has with its student-athletes and students. We've had two daughters graduate from here, so I think that gives you an indication of how our family feels about Wake Forest. I've been very fortunate to have two presidents to work with who I have total respect for, and I have developed great relationships with them.
So (it's) the combination of the philosophy and the approach of the school, as well as the people at the school. People are always the most important factor in any work environment. I've been very blessed with two presidents who are just wonderful people and very supportive of the athletic program, a Board of Trustees who recognize the value of athletics and are very supportive of the athletic program, and a faculty who most generally is extremely supportive of the athletic program and recognizes its value to the university.
And the staff in the athletic department. I often say that I enjoy seeing everyone in our department when I run into them in the hallway. I think we've all been in work situations in the past where you kind of dread walking down the hall because you might run into somebody that you really don't want to see. That isn't the case here. I just enjoy seeing everyone.
So it's a combination of the university and what it stands for, but more importantly the people at Wake Forest.
DG: You're in your late 50s. Do you see yourself retiring at Wake Forest, or might there be another challenge on the horizon?
Wellman: Well, I'll probably retire or get fired at Wake Forest, one or the other. (Laughs.) I have no desire at this point to go anywhere else. I think our commitment to Wake Forest has been demonstrated. If Wake Forest is happy with me, I'm certainly desirous of remaining here.
DG: One of your most important jobs as an AD is finding the right guys for your two highest-profile programs, and it seems that almost everyone agrees that Skip Prosser and Jim Grobe are great fits for Wake Forest. You gave both coaches 10-year contracts, which is a very long term in college athletics. What made you go that extreme route for your two highest-profile coaches?
Wellman: Very simple. I think they're great matches for Wake Forest.
They are, first of all, great coaches. I think everyone recognizes that. Jim Grobe has done a superb job with our football program, in building the program to be an annual contender in a very competitive conference. So we're excited about that. Skip made an initial impact upon our basketball program that was incredible. I know we had a little bit of a down year last year, but there were reasons for that.
I just think both of those guys are not only great coaches, but they are perfect matches for Wake Forest. They understand the importance of academics here. They understand that the recruiting pool that they might have is not going to be as large as it might be at some other institutions. But they (also) understand that our uniqueness is a strength. The size of the university, the academic programs, etc., etc., those are strengths of the university. They use those factors as positives in the recruitment of student-athletes, whereas some people may view those as negatives. If a coach views those factors as negatives, then he or she will not be successful at Wake Forest.
But we have coaches, not only Skip and Jim but throughout our program, who really do buy into Wake Forest and what it stands for and the academic program and the size of the university and the relationships that can be developed. All of the factors that some coaches may not view as positives, we view as extreme positives and benefits of this university.
DG: Earlier, I told you the long list of reasons why it's usually fun for us in the media to deal with Wake Forest. Here's why it can drive us crazy, too. As a private university, Wake does not have to share a lot of contract details and other interesting information that public universities must provide under state or federal law. Also, during coaching searches and other interesting dramas, there are very few people at Wake who know what's happening behind the scenes, and of course you're not at liberty to share much at those times.
If we begged and pleaded, is there anything about Baylor or Colorado inquiring about Jim Grobe in recent years, or about Pittsburgh and Cincinnati inquiring about Skip Prosser, that you could share now that those situations are a thing of the past?
Wellman: No. (Laughs.) You can be on your knees and on hot coals and broken glass, and the answer is going to be the same. (Laughs.) That's part of the beauty of being a private institution.
DG: Is it fair to say that you're in daily contact with your head coaches at times like that, or do you wait for them to come to you?
Wellman: We're in daily contact with them during those times, and they obviously do a great job of keeping me informed as to what's going on. We have certain agreements with them about process when those times come, and they've abided by those agreements, and I think I have as well.
We have the type of relationships that communication is extremely important, and those two guys in particular -- Skip and Jim -- are great communicators. They are very honest and open with me, and I'm extremely appreciative of that, as you can well imagine.
DG: Are you one of those athletic directors who, just in case something happens, you have one of those secret lists in your drawer of five coaches around the country who have impressed you? Or are you one of those who claims that you don't really think much about that process until you are forced to do so?
Wellman: No, I think about it. I don't think you can be caught unaware or unprepared, so I think any athletic director today -- whether he or she wants to admit it or not -- is going to be prepared for that situation.
Heavens, I would imagine and I would hope that our president is prepared so that, if something were to happen to me, he has a pretty good idea of which direction he might want to move and have people in his mind who might be my replacement as well. That's just natural, when you're in a business of personnel, like we are in the athletic department, to be as prepared as you possibly can for any eventuality. That's not just with coaches, but other people in the department as well.
DG: Another unique thing about Wake Forest is that your high-profile teams are covered on a full-time, home-and-away basis, as far as I can tell, by only two daily newspapers, those in Greensboro and Winston-Salem. Is it fair to say that this unique combination of market forces has both positive and negative repercussions?
Wellman: Well, the unique combination of market forces, obviously, is that we have, what, five Division I-A institutions in the state, and those media outlets are spread pretty thin. Fortunately, we have good coverage from the Greensboro paper and the Winston-Salem paper.
We're always desirous of more coverage, of course, when times are good. We would like a little bit less coverage when times are bad. (Laughs.) So, you're right. It just depends upon the situation. When times are good, I'm wondering: Why don't we have more coverage? Where are all of the media people when things are going well? Then, when times are going bad, I'm saying: Where'd all of these media people come from? Why are they around here?
We try to be as open as we possibly can with them. As you said earlier, our coaches do a superb job of opening their practices up and being available and giving the media the access that they really want. I saw an article, and I forget which paper it was in over the last month or so, about the (ACC) football coaches and their policies about open practices. I think we were the only team in the ACC that has completely open practices to the media and the public. That makes a statement about how we feel about the importance of including as many different constituencies in our program, including the media, as we possibly can.
DG: A lot of people were surprised by Wake Forest's positive vote during the most recent round of ACC expansion. At that time, speaking about football, you said: "The better the conference, the more outstanding teams you have, that will improve all of the programs in the conference." Do you still feel that way?
Wellman: Oh, I think so. I think our program is going to improve as a result of the expansion. When Florida State came into the conference a number of years ago, in the early 1990s, the football product in the ACC improved as a result of that. (It was) because people wanted to be as good as Florida State. Now we have Miami and Boston College and Virginia Tech, all of whom are very good in football, and that is going to improve our football product as well.
We're all looking for ways to improve in that particular sport, and in all of our sports. It has led to facility improvements across the conference, and different ways of recruiting, and just generally all of us doing whatever we can to improve. We are, for instance, embarking upon a (Groves Stadium) renovation, and we're awfully excited about that. That is going to help our program quite a bit. Every institution in this conference is looking to improve its product, in large part -- or in some part, anyway -- as a result of the more competitive conference that we currently have.
DG: You mentioned the facilities improvements. Wake isn't a great target for this argument, because it's been almost 40 years since there were major changes to Groves Stadium, but how do you respond to critics of college athletics who claim that the money from many of these big-money projects -- the arms race, trying to "keep up with the Joneses," etc. -- would be better spent in other ways?
Wellman: I don't think it is an arms race, and I don't think it is "keeping up with the Joneses." You certainly want to be competitive.
It's interesting to me that, when businesses expand and try to improve, that's just good business sense. But when college athletic departments try to do the same, it's an arms race or "keeping up with the Joneses." Regardless of what walk of life we are in, we're all trying to improve, we're trying to get better. Part of that in our particular world and profession is facilities. We try to improve our facilities whenever we can.
It's important for our athletic facilities to be reflective of the university's facilities. And I don't think anyone would suggest that Groves Stadium -- the current status of Groves Stadium -- reflects the outstanding academic facilities that we have as a university. Groves Stadium was opened in 1968 and has not been renovated, in any way, since 1968. Well, that's 38 years that that stadium has not been touched, essentially. Now, we've put in the Bridger Field House at the end of the stadium, but the stadium itself -- where the people sit, and the amenities available at that stadium -- has not improved since 1968.
The fans today have a different expectation (when) coming to a college football game, in terms of amenities, than they did in 1968. Whether it be restrooms or concessions or seating opportunities, there are different expectations today. We want to meet the fans' expectations. We want our fans to be anxious to come to Groves Stadium and have a "wow" factor when they get there, to see a great game competitively, and when they leave, we want them to say, "I can't wait to come back."
Right now, with our facility, I don't know that that attitude exists. But with the new facility, and the renovations that we're going to make at the football stadium, I'm convinced that it will be as good a stadium as there is. It's not going to be as big as most of the other stadiums, but the stadium's size is perfect for us. We believe that Groves Stadium can be the Wrigley Field of college football, if you will.
DG: Now for a few questions I've been asking all of the athletic directors, just for fun. You're at home. There's an ACC basketball game on TV, but in your case it does not involve the Demon Deacons. What are the odds that you'll watch that basketball game?
Wellman: About 90 percent.
DG: Same question for football.
Wellman: About 90 percent.
DG: In those ACC versus ACC games, when the outcome of the game has no repercussions -- in the standings or otherwise -- for Wake Forest, do you find yourself pulling for one side or the other?
Wellman: I try to watch for fun, but relationships (with various coaches and ADs) certainly play a part in who you are pulling for inwardly. Or it may be just a story you know about one of the players that has tugged at your emotions a little bit. That may be a reason that you pull for one team or another. Sometimes, there are games where I end up pulling for one team for a while, then the other team for a while, depending upon how the game is going. I'm probably no different from most fans in that regard.
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