Wake Forest basketball coach Jeff Bzdelik has a fan problem.
They don’t like him.
The students don’t like him. The townies don’t like him. The Board of Trustees doesn’t like him. The alumni base especially doesn’t like him. And fair or not, the line between that dislike being personal or professional continues to blur in the aftermath of his third straight losing campaign heading the Demon Deacons.
“Jeff Bzdelik has never endeared himself to the fan base, and he also hasn’t won many games,” said Martin Rickman, who covers Wake Forest sports for the website SB Nation. “That’s a recipe for disaster.”
The good news for Bzdelik is that none of it matters. Not the 11-42 record in the ACC. Not the vehement outcry from a usually milquetoast fan base. Not the fact that the school is in the midst of a large fundraising effort for renovations to the basketball arena it’s purchasing from local government, something that would surely benefit from a fresh pitchman.
None of it matters because Bzdelik has the explicit support of athletic director Ron Wellman. Wellman has been at the helm of Wake sports for over two decades and has irrevocably tied his legacy to the ship that is Bzdelik, something he made clear at a recent Deacon Club alumni event in New York City. “Jeff is our man,” he said on April 15 at the Harvard Club. “It hasn’t been easy, but every decision he’s made has been for the long-term benefit of the program.”
Like many Wake grads, I’m forced to contend with the question of what happened to Deacon basketball routinely. The easy answer is to pin it all on Bzdelik, he of the perennial ACC cellar dwelling, the humiliating losses to teams like Stetson and Iona, and a series of pubic relations gaffes, like when he cursed at a heckling opposing fan or shouted down a caller to his radio show. (The Jeff Bzdelik Show stopped accepting live calls shortly thereafter.) The latest clip for his not so greatest hits was a listless effort against Maryland on the day of hometown hero Chris Paul’s jersey retirement.
“I acknowledge that we haven’t won,” Bzdelik said at the Harvard Club event. “But we will get better.” He went out to point out that this year’s seven freshmen will be sophomores next season – and with “better internal leadership” and “tougher, grittier effort,” wins will follow.
Various online polls conducted after the end of the season revealed that anywhere from 80% to 90% of Deacon fans wanted Bzdelik fired. According to one member of Wake’s Board of Trustees who spoke on the condition of anonymity, “Anyone paying attention knows by now that Bzdelik isn’t the right guy for the job. Well, anyone but Ron.”
But losing, even the amount of losing that Bzdelik has overseen, doesn’t fully explain the depths of the ire in the ranks of Deacon fans toward their coach and athletic director. There’s a “Fire Bz” website. There’s a popular Twitter hashtag that doubles as a rallying cry for beleaguered Deacs – #BuzzOut. There have been minor displays of protest during games, homemade signs and leaflets questioning Wellman’s leadership and demanding Bzdelik’s firing, an effort led by young alumni. During the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, North Carolina, a group of fans took out a series of advertisements in the local newspaper calling for the same. There’s talk of an anti-Bzdelik and anti-Wellman billboard being raised in Winston-Salem soon. And then there’s the evidence of post-ire apathy: home attendance has steadily declined since Bzdelik’s arrival, bottoming out with an average of 8,675 in 2011-2012.
What stoked this fire?