In the two decades between 1990 and 2010, only an elite few basketball programs enjoyed more consistent success than the Wake Forest Demon Deacons. During that span, Wake Forest compiled a 415-215 record, won multiple ACC regular season and tournament titles, featured seven All-Americans and eight first round NBA draft picks (including perennial NBA All-Stars Tim Duncan and Chris Paul). The Deacons played in post-season tourneys 18 out of those 20 years, including a run of 16 consecutive seasons (unmatched by any ACC team over the same span). Since 2010 Wake’s overall record is 25-47 (5-27 conference record), the Deacs have two consecutive ACC cellar finishes and prospects are similarly bleak this season. Fans have called it the demise of Wake Forest basketball.
On July 26, 2007, everything changed for the Wake Forest basketball program. Around noon that day, Skip Prosser collapsed in his office after jogging, and later that afternoon the beloved coach was pronounced dead of an apparent massive heart attack.
Prosser had been hired in 2001 to replace Dave Odom as head coach at Wake. Odom was respected and successful at Wake, having led the Deacons to an overall record of 240-132, back-to-back ACC titles in 1995 and 1996 and 11 consecutive post-season appearances. Odom was named ACC coach of the year three times, a feat topped only by Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski. He coached some of the greatest players in ACC history, including Rodney Rogers, Randolph Childress and Tim Duncan.
When Prosser arrived in Winston-Salem, he inherited a fan base appreciative of Odom’s accomplishments but hungry for a coach to take Wake to “the next level.” Odom had basically accomplished everything except deliver Final Four appearances and a national championship. Needless to say, Prosser’s work was cut out for him.
Prosser hit the ground running, taking his first four Deacon teams to the NCAA tournament and winning 100 games faster than all but two coaches in ACC history. In his second season, Wake won the ACC regular season race, and by his fourth season he had Wake ranked #1 in the nation for the first time in school history. That edition of the Deacons featured sophomore superstar Chris Paul and a seasoned supporting cast of Justin Gray, Eric Williams and Taron Downey. Wake appeared destined for a Final Four appearance, but the national title aspirations were derailed by a red-hot West Virginia team. That game saw CP3 foul out and the Deacons fell to the Mountaineers in double overtime, 111-105.
Besides his teams’ achievements, the charismatic Prosser was known for generating enthusiasm among the fan base, especially the students. Home basketball game tickets at Lawrence Joel Memorial Coliseum sold out for the first time, and “The Joel” earned a reputation as one of the toughest environments for visiting teams during Prosser’s tenure.
Wake fans loved that Prosser wasn’t afraid to go head to head with the traditional powers in recruiting battles. Chris Paul and Eric Williams had both chosen to play for Prosser at Wake over offers from UNC and most everyone else. The Deacs struggled in the two seasons following Paul’s early NBA entry, but in the weeks before Prosser’s death, Wake had gained commitments from a trio of five-star frontcourt recruits: Al-Farouq Aminu, Tony Woods and Ty Walker.
Everything seemed in place for another run to the top of the rankings, but his sudden death devastated the Wake Forest community and left the program facing a difficult situation in filling the coaching vacancy.
Athletic Director Ron Wellman’s decision was made more problematic by the timing of Prosser’s death. It was the middle of the summer, the music had already stopped in the annual game of coaching musical chairs. Top coaches across the country were in the midst of preparations for the upcoming season.
Rather than trying to find a candidate with a more impressive resume, Wellman chose to elevate longtime Prosser assistant Dino Gaudio to head coach.
The move ensured continuity within the coaching staff, and it was reassuring to the Wake players who were traumatized by tragedy. Gaudio’s promotion also helped the program retain commitments from the heralded Aminu-Woods-Walker recruiting class.
Gaudio lasted three years as head coach at Wake, and his firing was controversial among not just Wake fans but with the national media as well. On paper, it didn’t make sense. He took over a difficult situation following Prosser’s death, and by his second season he had Wake off to a 16-0 start, victories over top 5 ranked Duke and UNC, ranked #1 in the nation and playing like a national championship caliber team. The Deacons played an exciting brand of basketball and touted a roster stocked with future NBA players Aminu, Jeff Teague, James Johnson and Ishmael Smith. The team peaked in January which unfortunately had become a hallmark during Gaudio’s brief tenure at Wake.
After early losses in the 2009 and 2010 NCAA tourneys, Gaudio was fired despite his impressive 61-31 overall record. In public comments immediately following the Gaudio firing, AD Ron Wellman pointed to annual postseason tourney underachievement as the reason for the axe. However, in subsequent months, Wellman repeatedly stated how important it was that the basketball program adhere to the “values” and “culture” of Wake Forest, leading to rampant speculation among Wake fans over the true reasons for Gaudio’s firing.
At the time, Ron Wellman enjoyed a sterling reputation among most of the Wake faithful. Winner of several regional and national awards for excellence as an athletic director over the years, he also engendered good will from Wake supporters by turning down overtures from major programs, including Tennessee, Michigan and Arizona State. When Wellman fired Gaudio, Deacon fans assumed he had a plan to replace Dino with a “big name” hire.
Wellman was rumored to have targeted Butler’s Brad Stevens as Gaudio’s successor. However, just after Gaudio was fired, Butler made its unlikely run to the NCAA tourney title game. If Wellman expected to pluck Stevens from Horizon League obscurity, that plan was foiled when Stevens unexpectedly became an overnight coaching sensation and Butler quickly wrapped him up with a long term contract, or so the story goes.
Ron Wellman is known for conducting his coaching searches close to the vest. He doesn’t retain consulting search firms like many AD’s do these days. He doesn’t use a committee for vetting candidates. As a result, we really don’t know how far down Wellman had to go on his wish list to arrive at Jeff Bzdelik. However, Gaudio was fired on April 7, 2010, Bzdelik was rumored to be Wellman’s choice two days later on April 9, and was officially hired as head coach on April 13. This timeline suggests that Bzdelik was either Wellman’s top choice or very close to it.
It’s an understatement that Bzdelik was not the big name hire Wake fans were expecting. If firing Gaudio seemed to make little sense on paper, then hiring Bzdelik took the situation to a whole new level of bizarreness. When the Bzdelik rumors surfaced, most Wake fans assumed it was a classic Wellman smoke screen while he clandestinely pursued his “real” candidate. Wellman had just fired Dino with a 61-31 record, while during the same time span Bzdelik’s record at Colorado was 36-58. Wellman cited Dino’s lack of postseason success as a primary reason for making the change, yet Bzdelik’s coaching resume included zero NCAA tournament victories.
For his part, Bzdelik expected a more stable situation in Winston-Salem than what he encountered. Outside of Duke and UNC, Wake Forest had arguably been the ACC’s most consistent high level program over the previous two decades. Only fifteen months previous, the Deacons had been ranked number one in the nation. The roster featured a top 10-ranked, five-player recruiting class. It appeared Gaudio had left the program in solid shape. However, weeks after Bzdelik’s hiring, projected starting center and former five star recruit Tony Woods was charged and pled guilty to assault on his girlfriend, and he left the program before the season. This was a sign of things to come, as over the next year or so as Ari Stewart, JT Terrell, Melvin Tabb and Ty Walker became disciplinary casualties to suspension and/or transfer.
On the court, the Bzdelik era began just as ominously. Stetson was the opener, scheduled as a tasty morsel to be devoured by a typical Wake team. Stetson cruised to a ten point win. This set the tone, as other opponents normally of the cupcake variety chalked up wins over Wake, including Winthrop, UNC-Wilmington and Presbyterian. Twenty point blowout losses became routine. The team went 8-24 overall, and finished last in the ACC with a 1-15 conference record. Fans who were disgruntled by the Bzdelik hire became vocal in calling for an immediate coaching change.
Many fans who had taken a wait-and-see approach before the season were converted to the “Buzz-Out” segment who believed the hire had been a drastic mistake by Ron Wellman. Yet, still many fans were willing to withhold judgment, recognizing that Bzdelik had inherited problems out of his control.
The 2011-12 season was better, but still far below the standards set in prior coaching regimes. Wake finished 13-18, and tied for last in the ACC with a 4-12 conference record. There were still too many embarrassing losses, and a lack of quality wins (the only conference victories were over teams tied with Wake at 4-12). After the season, three more players transferred out of the program, including starters Tony Chennault and Carson Desrosiers. After two season, only Travis McKie remained from the five-player top ten ranked recruiting class. Combined with the previous defections, this left the team with only one scholarship senior, one junior and two sophomores on the roster. Adding seven freshmen to the mix was not a recommended recipe for success in the ACC going into the current season.
Wake is picked to finish at or near the ACC cellar again this season, and so far that prediction looks to be on the mark. Wake is currently 4-5 against what should be the mildest part of the schedule (no ranked opponents yet). The losses include a 94-68 blowout at the hands of Iona and a 79-63 home loss to Big Ten weakling Nebraska in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge (Wake’s record had been 10-2 in the Challenge). The Nebraska loss was broadcast to a national TV audience that saw an embarrassingly small home crowd, which has become the norm as of late at Joel Coliseum. Wake followed up the Nebraska loss by losing to Richmond. The program has fallen to such depths that losing to Richmond by only two points actually raised Wake’s RPI rating, because Richmond’s power rating is so much higher than the Demon Deacons.
Among Wake fans debating the cause of the program’s struggles, the two most blamed culprits are Bzdelik for presiding over the debacle, and Wellman for hiring Bzdelik. In fairness to Bzdelik, there were things working against him from the start. While on paper Gaudio left the cupboard stocked, in hindsight there were latent character issues that resulted in the drastic roster purging.
Deacon fans never embraced Bzdelik. Many of them became vocal critics immediately after he lost his first game and the negative sentiment has snowballed from there. On the other hand, Bzdelik’s teams have underperformed, even relative to their low expectations. He has displayed an unfortunate knack for giving the media quotes that come across as condescending, arrogant and/or blaming his players. He has not recruited at the level of his predecessors, and the heavy roster attrition has resulted in his teams being short on experience every season.
For Wake fans, the prevailing themes of this season are whether the seven-player freshman class will show enough promise to provide hope that better seasons lie ahead, and whether Bzdelik will win enough games to remain in place to coach those players going forward.
None of the freshmen were considered five-star, “can’t miss” recruits. Codi Miller-McIntyre was the most highly regarded, ranked in the top 50 by some scouting services. In the first few games of the season, he has shown flashes of potential and he certainly has ACC level athleticism. More lightly regarded freshmen Madison Jones and Aaron Rountree III have played at a high energy level and have exceeded expectations thus far. Overall, the freshman class looks like it could be a good foundation, but will probably need supplementing with some elite level players to get Wake back to competing for titles.
As for Bzdelik, fans will continue to debate the degree of blame attributable to him for the program’s recent demise. However, there’s no debating that it’s extremely rare for coaches to start out a tenure with such a poor won-loss record and still remain as head coach for the long term. It would take a remarkable turnaround for that to happen with Bzdelik at Wake Forest, especially given the current disenchantment of the fan base. It’s more likely that after the current season ends, Ron Wellman will be flipping through his Rolodex again and hoping to have better success with his next coaching search.