You can almost hear the discussions going on right now in some secret location. Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman is interviewing a candidate or candidates to be the next coach of the Demon Deacon’s men’s basketball team that has been maligned, beleaguered and embarrassed for the past several years. The program has hit a nadir.
Who is it going to be? I don’t have any inside information, but I do maintain consistent contact with several dialed-in Wake graduates and friends who have been emailing me non-stop since the school fired Jeff Bzdelik last week. I graduated from there so I know the culture of the campus, which boils down to uncommonly intense academic rigorousness that you could not understand unless you went there.
First I am going to rule out a few names that have been on the short list these past few frantic days. Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, who led his team to a 34-0 record before being ousted from in the March Madness tournament last weekend, will not be offered the job. As talented as he may be, he made a few disrespectful remarks (here, here) about Wake Forest in the recent past, basically saying they would have to offer him a bundle of money and that he doesn’t think Wake is good enough to put on the Wichita State schedule.
You don’t insult Wake Forest people and expect that they will embrace you and forgive. Brash talkers don’t sit too well there in Winston-Salem, North Carolina where the school is located. They treasure classy behavior. He’s out. It’s unfortunate because they need a guy with his fire to always win especially because they have lost so many games in the past few years.
The name Chris Mack, who currently coaches Xavier, has been tossed around as a potential candidate. Wake desperately needs to change their hiring pattern when it comes to a basketball coach. They have already had a former coach from Xavier, Skip Prosser, who tragically died while in the job several years ago. Another Xavier guy just wouldn’t jazz the student body, which may have set a record these past few years for disenchantment about their head basketball coach, and rightly so. They have been drowning in losses.
Dayton head coach Archie Miller, whose team plays in the Sweet 16 on Thursday, may be a rising star but I’m guessing the student body would not get too revved about a guy from Ohio that no one in North Carolina has heard of. This hire needs to rattle the campus cages, reverberate in the dorm rooms, or there will be more student resentment and frustration. Ron Wellman yearns for that to stop.
Former UCLA coach Ben Howland made it onto several short lists. If you read the article about the unraveling of his UCLA program when he coached there a few years ago – it’s really unlike any program implosion you have ever read – you would be sure Wake Forest would not dare take a chance on him. Reportedly, he was a rather disinterested and absentee coach who allowed bullying to go on at practices. Serious bullying. There is no way Wake will hire him. I feel sure they didn’t even interview him. After the hiring of Bzdelick, who was in his late 50s when he was hired, makes the consensus opinion that youth is the answer in Winston-Salem. Wake needs someone younger with a ton of energy who is highly competitive.
The final three are VCU coach Shaka Smart, Harvard’s Tommy Amaker and Duke assistant Jeff Capel. I believe – and it’s just my intuition – that one of these three will be hired. All three have that smart thing going on for them. As a student Smart got accepted to Harvard, Yale and Brown. Amaker and Capel graduated from Duke.
Wake holds in high regard intelligent people. Most people don’t know this but Wake Forest is one of the nation’s most challenging academic institutions. They are dead serious about students busting their tails to pass courses. I said pass courses, not get ‘A’ grades.
Amaker and Capel have significant familiarity with Wake’s program having played in the ACC against them. Schooled by Coach K, no doubt they can be trusted to be classy publicly and can deliver strong recruits. The Duke name itself would boost Wake’s basketball program. But there would some backlash among students that Wake had to cave to what they view as the great competitor that always whips up on Wake Forest.
How could a Wake student root for a Duke coach? From the jump you have an inherent problem. It just would not be a perfect fit, and they know they need a perfect fit. If Wellman messes this one up, he is not going to get another chance because he botched things when he hired Bzdelick, a perennial loser everywhere he has coached.
Which brings us to Shaka Smart. I’ve heard he’s saying he will stay put at VCU, but my guess is this is the guy Wake wants and is offering him a whole lot of money to coach Wake’s team, way beyond whatever VCU can offer. The program needs a big injection of adrenaline and Shaka has that in him for sure. He has a personality that can sway recruits to Wake Forest. He is different from what they’ve traditionally done.
If Shaka chooses the Deacons, Wake administrators will look inspired in their thinking, not so buttoned up and careful. Students will see that they are willing to dare to do something different, outside the box. They know they have to do this. Student won’t be bored by this hire. They will be intrigued and jazzed by Shaka. You can see Wake becoming Shaka Nation. Hiring Shaka will give them hope that Wake basketball will return to at least respectability. Hope is desperately called for. Shaka will make them respectable, more fun and more hip.
He will wake up Wake Forest’s basketball program.