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What Will Wake Forest Do Now?

The Demon Deacons have some issues but also a real opportunity

Georgia Tech v Wake Forest
WINSTON-SALEM, NORTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 19: A detailed view of the mascot of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during their game against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at LJVM Coliseum Complex on February 19, 2020 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

As the news of Wake’s parting ways with Danny Manning settles in across the ACC, the reactions have been interesting.

Other than saying he’s a good man, no one has defended Manning. There’s a universal consensus that Wake had to make a change, even if the timing of the change is a bit unusual.

Well what’s not unusual right now? Wake may have to do a remote introduction. The coach may not be able to meet his new players in person for a while. He won’t be able to recruit until the NCAA gives the go-ahead to restart it after the pandemic brought everything to a standstill.

Even so, Wake Forest decided that it was time for a change, that in fact that despite Manning’s huge buyout (reportedly $15 million), that, as Currie put it, “the economics support the decision.”

In other words, the empty seats and fleeing donors were costing more than the buyout would.

For the second time in his career, A.D. John Currie faces a very challenging hire (the first time was at Tennessee when a fan revolt forced the university to dump Currie’s football hire, Greg Schiano, and then Currie himself).

Needless to say, these are very different schools and situations.

Tennessee is an SEC football school and as former LSU and Duke AD Joe Alleva learned recently, despite appearances, athletic directors at those schools only have so much power.

At Wake Forest, Currie is just one year into his tenure and the pressures are not nearly the same as they were in Knoxville. Nonetheless, this is no standard hire.

Wake fans, and donors, and probably players and everyone concerned, are just fed up with stinking. Skip Prosser was a great hire and Dino Gaudio was at least competent, although he had no post-season success. You can look it up if you want to, but he only won one post-season game, and that was by one point. The rest of them were not even close and some were humiliating losses.

Nonetheless, he managed to win enough that people wondered why he was fired and the decision looks worse in retrospect.

Since then it’s been awful. Jeff Bzdelik bombed. His offense was boring and he had no desire to talk to the media or supporters, which really killed any support he might have had. UT’s fan revolt was fairly spontaneous and happened before Schiano could get established. The Bzdelik revolt was long, ugly and destructive.

And Manning, while always a gentleman, has always been a very quiet fellow. He was reluctant to assert himself in college until late in his career and he wasn’t any different as a coach.

So Currie has a lot to think about and a painful previous failure to inform his ultimate decision. What are his options and limitations?

Limitations first, real and perceived.

First, yes, Wake Forest is the smallest school in a power conference and it has struggled for a decade, blah, blah, blah. We think that’s oversold.

Second, the buyout and the economy, not to mention the fleeing donors, make it harder to hire a big name. We think that may be somewhat oversold as well.

Third, the pandemic makes interviews very difficult. Anyone would want to meet someone in person before making a critical hire and that’s bound to be doubly true for Currie after the Schiano disaster. That one is definitely not oversold.

The whole thing about Wake being such a small school? Okay, fine. It’s very small.

So what? It’s still in the ACC and a basketball program is very small by nature. We’ll come back to this in a minute.

Like anything else, what we call the coaching carousel is a market and right now, Wake is the only significant school marketing an opportunity. There are a lot of coaches out there who want to make a move for whatever reason, and the only real option is Wake Forest.

So if John Beilein for instance wants back in, where’s he going to go? And if getting a job in a major conference is his goal, this is his only current option. He’ll have to accept less money than he’s worth if he wants a job for next season. And the overall economy limits how much most schools can pay. Everyone is busy furloughing employees or cutting salaries. Next season could be worse.

As you may have heard, Wake decided to use a search firm. Most of you already know how this works but if you don’t know, here’s the deal.

The search firm contacts agents to gauge interest, so they don’t have to talk directly to the coaches. Other coaches (or their agents) may contact the firm and try to get considered. The firm gets a list together and then shares it with the A.D. or search committee and they decide who the best candidates are.

Then they just work through the various issues until they find the best candidate who will take the job.

Okay, on to options.

The general consensus is that with the buyout and the economic situation, Wake Forest is pretty limited. And this may turn out to be true. However, it may not.

First, as we suggested above, there are a lot of guys every year who would like to make a move. They may be under some pressure or just ready to go. And as we said, right now, Wake Forest is the only open job that matters.

Most of us have no idea who would be receptive to an offer. Wichita’s Gregg Marshall? Anthony Grant at Dayton? Seton Hall’s Kevin Willard? Wojo?

We have no way of knowing who is discreetly enquiring but you can be sure they are. ACC jobs don’t come along very often.

We do know the names that have been mentioned a lot: Wes Miller, Steve Forbes, Pat Kelsey (Winthrop), Lane Odom (UMBC), Bob Richey (Furman) and LeVelle Moton (NCCU).

We’ll just put our standard plug in for Northwest Missouri State coach Ben McCollum. The guy’s record speaks for itself. He’s done an insane job. He’s on one of the great runs in NCAA history and he’s just 39. Don’t let the D-II thing fool you. He’s the real deal and proved it in Cameron last fall, giving Duke a hell of a game.

Many of the usual suspects, as listed above, have ties to Wake Forest. Wes Miller went to UNC but his father is a major Wake donor. Think about this: what if he offered to pay the buyout if his son gets the job? We’re not saying he did, but how often does something like that happen?

Forbes, currently killing it at ETSU, worked for Billy Gillispie at Texas A&M and Bruce Pearl at Tennessee. He and Currie overlapped there from 2005-2009 so they’re bound to know each other reasonably well (note: there’s been a quiet undercurrent of people discreetly suggesting that maybe hiring a guy who worked for Gillispie and Pearl might not be such a great idea for Wake Forest, hint hint)

Kelsey is a former Skip Prosser assistant so he knows Wake Forest very well and of course Odom is the son of Dave Odom, who had a tremendous run at Wake Forest.

He’s also the least proven on this list and we don’t know if Wake Forest wants to take a risk on a guy whose only real accomplishment is the legendary 16 vs. 1 upset of Virginia. As great as that was, it’s not sustained success.

Wake’s options are a lot better than people think and this whole gloomy gus idea that the program is too run down for a good coach to take it on?

We say bunk.

Look first to Durham and Duke football. David Cutcliffe was the perfect fit. He loves Duke, he’s done everything right and it would take dynamite to split school and coach.

People often point to Tom Butters’ hire of Coach K as brilliant, which it was, but that was 1980. Duke had made the Final Four in ‘78 and the Elite Eight in ‘80. The talent cratered out after K’s first year but there wasn’t much doubt Duke could do it because it already had.

There was plenty of doubt when Bill Foster was hired in 1974. He was the right hire at the right time.

When Jeff Capel got to Pitt, he immediately felt at home and happy. He and his wife fell in love with the city and university.

Roy Williams was an assistant when Kansas boldly hired him. He was the perfect fit for a long time.

The point?

It doesn’t matter if Wake Forest can’t hire John Beilein or Anthony Grant. What matters, and the only thing that matters, is that the Deacons find the right coach and a guy who wants the job and wants to stay there.

That’s what this search is about. Whoever they hire will have a tough year or two as he rebuilds, but the right guy will stick with it. He’ll get the fans to buy in, and the donors. People will appreciate that his team plays hard and will recognize that it’s a process. More importantly, it’s an adventure because as much fun as sustained winning is, and it really is, building something that lasts is an incredible thing to experience.

If Currie does this well, Wake Forest will have a guy who can build sustained success and who can bring a shattered and unhappy Deacon nation back together.

Oh wait - we forgot one name that no one that we’ve seen has thought about and he should be mentioned. He’s already shown he can beat Duke and sustain a program under difficult circumstances.

We refer, naturally, to Stephen F. Austin’s Kyle Keller. He’s been there for four years and has had two 28-win seasons including 28-3 this past year and the big win at Cameron.

If you can win in Nacogdoches, you can probably win in Winston-Salem too.