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Riches to Rags: The Demise of Wake Forest Basketball

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.

What happened?

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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.

CretinJones

21 Comments

  1. Thank you for writing this article. Deacon faithful are fed up with the current state of the program. This is the first time since 1999 that I haven’t had season tickets and I have some family friends that do not have season tickets for the first time since Bones McKinney’s second year (1960). It seems like this issue does not get enough national press.

  2. It’s a pretty big stretch to assert that it is even “arguable” that Wake Forest was the most consistent ACC program behind Duke and UNC from 1990-2010. Maryland is ahead of Wake by a comfortable margin. MD won a national title in that span, went to another Final Four, had more Sweet 16s than Wake, and had the same number of overall NCAA appearances. In ACC play the two were similarly successful, so Maryland’s obvious edge on the biggest stage in college basketball sets them apart in that comparison.

    • You make a great point, and that’s why I used “arguable” as a qualifier. Over that two decade span, Wake had a slightly better overall record than Maryland, won more ACC tournaments and had more players drafted in the NBA’s first round. However, the postseason accomplishments of Maryland far exceed Wake’s. The Deacons consistently underachieved in the postseason during that time span, while Gary Williams was a master of getting the most out of his talent in those tournaments. On balance, while one could “argue” for Wake in this debate, I agree with you that the stronger case is with Maryland based on superior NCAA tourney results.

      Coincidentally, Coach Williams was rumored to have almost taken the Wake job in 1989 when Bob Staak was fired, but instead he left Ohio State to rebuild the Terps’ program (his alma mater) after Bob Wade left it in a shambles. Wake hired Dave Odom after Williams turned down the gig.

      Thanks for commenting, and stay tuned as my next article in the hopper is all about Maryland…

  3. Great article as to why Wellman and Bzdelik both need to resign or be fired. However, the article omits Wellman’s tie to Bzdelik/Colorado State…which seem to be part of the unstated motivation that led to the poor decision by Wellman to hire Bzzz

  4. Great recap of this disaster – created by Ron Wellman. This situation is a text book example of the corruption in college athletics. Ron Wellman, given the power and autonomy, hires his friend, pays him $1MM-ish, and defends him to the bitter end – at the peril of Wake Forest University and its fans. If Ron W just simply made a huge hiring mistake, and he (Ron W) was willing to look at the current situation objectively, that would be understandable (not justifiable… but understandable). However, Ron W continues to “look the other way” and actually defend this hire and defend Bzdelik’s performance. As Cretin Jones so eloquently recaps the downward spiral, it is really becoming next to impossible to continue to defend Bzdelik’s performance. To do so, one is not being objective (or rational). Ron W has certainly not looked at this situation objectively (for some time) and one could (now) conclude that Ron W has “crossed the line” of corruption. Personally, I came to the conclusion a long time ago that Ron W was morally and ethically corrupt. Now, after all of the events and mounting losses of WFU basketball, I do not know how an objective reader could not agree.

    • Thanks for the comment. Wellman seems to be in a tricky spot here. He was criticized for firing Gaudio despite Dino’s gaudy (sorry, couldn’t resist) record. Now his new coach has compiled an atrocious record, but it’s incredibly rare for any coach to be fired before getting at least three seasons to turn things around. If Wellman had fired Bzdelik after last season (Bzdelik’s second season at Wake), would that hurt Wellman’s chances of finding a good replacement, would he be criticized for being too quick with the axe? As for Wellman looking the other way and/or defending Bzdelik’s performance, it’s typicalfor ADs to do that publicly regardless of what’s happening on the court/field, as they don’t want to be seen as undermining their coaches. So despite Wellman’s public comments, do we know how he really views the situation and what his plans are? Surely he’s hearing from Wake supporters and is feeling the heat. If things don’t turn around this season and Wake finishes in the cellar again, and Wellman still doesn’t make a coaching change, then it would get a lot more difficult to objectively defend his inaction.

      You also mention Wellman being friends with Bzdelik before the hire, and a previous comment by Ace references this. My understanding is that Wellman and Bzdelik were both in the athletic department (in different sports) at Northwestern for a short time, decades ago, but that they weren’t really buddies socially after that. Is there more to it than that? That would be another twist if so, as the decision to hire Bzdelik did seem to come out of left field at the time.

      • Several sources at the time of the hiring (see below) cited the fact that Wellman and Bzdelik were “longtime friends”. This is what made the fan base suspicious of the hire at the time… it is one thing to pick a coach whose numbers don’t necessarily support the idea that he is an improvement, but another to be partially blinded by psuedo-nepotism. Unfortunately, our suspicions have been confirmed by the performance of Bzdelik and unwillingness of Wellman to distance himself from his mistake.

        http://sports.espn.go.com/ncb/news/story?id=5075291
        http://www.denverpost.com/sports/ci_14860979

  5. Ron Wellman made strong coaching decisions up to his hiring of Buzz, which is what makes this such a disappointment. Coaches Prosser and Grobe have done spectacular work with Wake’s talent and recruiting, in my opinion, given the size and resources Wake has (much smaller than our Tobacco Road counterparts). This is a shame that continues to drag Wake down after the loss of CP3, Skip, and our values. Aside, the players who became “disciplinary casualties” broke my heart; Wake Forest should not ever be a Thug U. Let’s leave that to Miami.

  6. Hard to be a fan when you are losing in any circumstance, does not permit the lackluster student support

  7. Great summary of how Wake hoops got to the sorry current state of affairs. If this year is no better than last year the Buzz has to go!

  8. Good article, thank you for writing it. As a Deacon alum from the early part of the 2000s and a devoted fan ever since, there has always been something in common about many Demon Deacon coaches, be it Jim Grobe, Skip Prosser, Jennifer Averill (field hockey), Jerry Haas (golf), Jay Vidovich (m soccer), Tony da Luz (w soccer), etc. When you meet them or run into them on campus (which is not uncommon at Wake being that it is such a small and tight knit campus), there is a spark about them. You talk to them and you feel this winning attitude coming from them. Sure, they have all had their up and down seasons, but you always feel like they are fighting for their school and take pride in the success of their program. In that regard, Wellman has assembled a well respected and faithful athetlic coaching staff – all of the aforementioned coaches have been at Wake for at least a decade.

    That feeling just doesn’t resonate when you meet Coach Bzdelik as it stands. He doesn’t seem to “fit” the Wake Forest coaching mold that Wellman has spent decades assembling. Is it because of the various x factors he came into the program facing? Perhaps. Is it because he was brought in as somewhat of a surprise hire? Maybe. Nevertheless, if Bzdelik wants to earn the respect and support of the Wake fans, he will need to undoubtedly win games, but I believe he should also take some plays out of the playbooks of the well-respected and successful coaches that Wake has been fortunate to have for many years.

  9. Really well written article recounting the Deacs History over the last roughly 6 years. A sad one but true. I doubt we’ll see a reclamation of the glory of producing maybe the best poward forward to ever play and, with time to tell us, perhaps the best pure point guard to ever play. I only wish the author could have confirmed stories rumored about players eating NY strips with their bare hands. That certainly would have explained Gaudio’s need to exit. I appreciate and support a team of college students who happen to be great athletes in lieu of a team of hired assassins which is what Wake had become. It seems the tear down to build up will be, at best, a 6 year plan. BZZZZ isn’t going anywhere folks. He’s only about 1/2 the way through what he’ll be allowed. AND, while a national championship and final four do outshine many things they don’t equal the Deacs consistency during that time frame and they surely can’t say they won 9 straight over the rat and his offspring. Three of those on their own floor.

    • Thanks for the comment, and for pointing out the remarkable nine-game winning streak over Duke. If my research is correct, that streak included an amazing five consecutive victories at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium. I don’t think any other team has accomplished streaks like that against Duke in the Coach K era.

  10. [email protected]

    couldn’t be said any better. I’m a deacon alum, live and work in Winston. The whole situation is depressing. It will take years for us to recover, but we’ll be back in the ACC mix one day. I just hope I have the chance to see it while I’m still a local.

  11. As stated above the successful coaches at WFU have a spark! It takes something special, a little charisma and selling of yourself and the program to win at a small school like Wake Forest. It also takes the personality to endear yourself to the WFU community, and that hasn’t happened since Prosser. Gaudio had personality but he wasn’t a traditional WFU type coach and I’m sure there is more to the story than most know. As Football Coach Jim Grobe stated earlier this season after taking disciplinary measures winning is very important, but not at the expense of integrity. Randolph Childress is the only person on the basketball staff now who has the charisma and visible passion to lead a team to victory as he did as a player. However, he may or may not be ready to be a head coach and with an experienced assistant on staff like Jeff Battle it would be hard to skip over the pecking order. The deal is turnarounds can happen quickly in college basketball with the right coach and talent. Wake just offers a huge challenge in trying to maintain integrity and the players it takes to win even in a weaker ACC.

    • You’re right that turnarounds can happen quickly in college basketball. Wake’s a good example, as Bob Staak coached Wake to three straight last place ACC finishes (including two straight 0-14 conference records). Wake had a three year ACC record of 3-39. A couple of years later, Rodney Rogers and Randolph Childress arrived and Wake began its run of sixteen consecutive postseason tourney seasons, which at the time was the longest active streak in the nation. The Bzdelik era is starting to resemble the Staak era. Is there another Dave Odom/Rodney Rogers combo out there to turn things around for Wake?

  12. Wellman has to go. He has been at Wake too long. We need new blood in the AD job. Corrupt is the right word to describe him. The hire of Buzz was a fraud and a resulting failure. Wake basketball is a total embarrassment.

    • An extremely true statement all around. As a former student-athlete at Wake, I am saddened and angry at the decisions Ron Wellman has made in the recent years – his glaring error comes in the form of Jeff Bzdelik. He is too tied to and caught up in the personal and politics of his role as the Wake AD. Many of the Wake athletic programs are on the decline, not just basketball…we need a new AD to revitalize the entire department and especially the basketball program. Wake has had too much success in the past to let it all fall by the wayside just because of 2 men who are clearly wrong for the job – Wellman & the Buzzkill. Wish this issue would get a lot more national attention so it can demand an explanation and a change for Wake basketball and, hopefully, the Wake athletic department…

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