Only four years ago, Wake Forest boasted one of the best college basketball teams in the country, reaching the number one ranking for only the second time in school history. Led by future NBA players Jeff Teague and Al-Farouq Aminu, and coached by Dino Gaudio, the Deacons played an energized brand of basketball reminiscent of the teams coached by the late Skip Prosser earlier in the decade. Tobacco Road’s littlest brother had, it seemed, finally grown up.
The positive vibes wouldn’t last. The 2009 Deacs flamed out of the NCAA Tournament in the first round that year, and after a second round exit the following year, Wellman fired Gaudio. Wellman then hired Bzdelik, a career journeyman who had only one NCAA Tournament appearance on his résumé. The hire raised some eyebrows in Winston-Salem, especially because Wellman and Bzdelik had known one another since the early 1980s when they both coached at Northwestern. But Wake fans are generally a patient lot, taking pride in not being reactionary, so the mantra “In Wellman We Trust” was repeated ad nauseam.
That all seems like a long time ago now.
““There were a variety of rationales for hoping Bzdelik would be successful, ranging from ‘he has NBA experience’ to ‘he’s an Xs and Os guru.’ Stats are stats, though,” Rickman said. “To hire a guy who had trouble with Wyoming in the Mountain West and had never won an NCAA Tournament game, you have a lot to prove on Day 1.”
Beyond wins and losses, Bzdelik has earned a prickly reputation in media interviews, and for maintaining a somewhat distant relationship with the campus. At Wake, a small, tight-knit community whose “Pro Humanitate” motto is taken quite seriously by its alumni and students, these things matter. Unbecoming stories dogging Bzdelik from his stops at Air Force and Colorado, from allegedly intentionally misleading his team of Air Force cadets before jumping to Colorado to running off players that he recruited to free up scholarships, like Colorado’s Xavier Silas, haven’t helped, either.
Further, while the stated reasoning for the Gaudio firing was initially for his teams’ postseason failures, talk of “culture change” has since filtered out from the Wake athletic department, whispers of a lack of institutional control that are always unsourced but would be damning, if true. And while it is true that some of the Deacon players Bzdelik inherited from Gaudio had legal dustups, many fans took the culture language to be both a cover for the mistake of the Bzdelik hire and a passive-aggressive swipe at the past – a past Deacon fans remember fondly, because it involved winning games that mattered, with friends and classmates playing in those games.
“If the culture was so bad under Dino, then why was his final recruiting class kept and then marketed as a success for Bzdelik that it was kept?” Paul Kennedy wrote in an email. Kennedy graduated from Wake in 2003 and has helped organize some of the home game protests. “If the culture was so bad under Dino, then why were two of his assistants retained on the staff? None of this adds up.”
To their credit, Bzdelik, Wellman and the public relations wing of Wake’s athletic department have started to respond to the culture-speak backlash, albeit belatedly. Prompted by a young alum’s question regarding this divide at the Harvard Club, Wellman said it was about talking about the future than it was “anything that’s happened in the past.”
“That’s all revisionist history,” Kennedy argued. “This is about one man’s ego – Wellman’s.”
While Bzdelik may be the figurative monster in the closet for many Deacon fans, Wellman remains the person that let the monster into the house and gave it a million-dollar contract. He’s been Wake Forest’s athletic director since 1992, is a member of the NCAA men’s basketball championship committee, and has earned a reputation as an excellent visionary and fundraiser – look no further than the $45 million Deacon Tower at the football stadium for proof of such. His track record with hires, though, is spotty. Of the 21 team championships (both conference and national) during Wellman’s tenure as athletic director, only four were won by actual Wellman hires. For every great hire like Prosser or men’s soccer coach Jay Vidovich, there are many more examples of hired coaches that floundered on the big stage of the ACC.
It’s been Wellman’s tin ear with the #BuzzOut movement though, and an Orwellian insistence on talking points, that has caused the “In Wellman We Trust” mantra to become so thoroughly mocked in the fan base. During Bzdelik’s first two years, perhaps in an effort to keep some heat off of his already embattled hire, Wellman moved into the foreground to conduct postgame interviews, an odd step for any athletic director and particularly this one. His favored phrase “Oh heavens, yes” and repeated pleas for patience and digs at the previous coaching regime have also become stuck in the craw of the Deacon faithful. ESPN’s Eamonn Brennan wrote about Wellman’s approach in December 2012, calling it “A seminar in mass alienation.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Wellman has largely stayed out of the public eye since.
At the Harvard Club event, Wellman presented a rosy view of the basketball program’s future, insisting that the foundation being laid with the current group of players and committed recruits will ensure in a stability that’s been lacking in recent years. When pressed on the long-term goals for this vision, Wellman said that “The Final Four is not out of the question,” no throwaway line for a program that hasn’t reached that Promised Land since 1962.
When asked why Bzdelik will be returning next season, despite so much fan pushback, the Board of Trustees member said, “Because Wellman’s hinging 20 years of reputation and built-up capital on this guy. Some of us see through the culture nonsense. It’s just a smokescreen for the big money. But some others have fallen for it. I just hope that when it’s all over, our program is able to recover. I just hope that we still have fans willing to come to games.”
This apprehension isn’t misplaced – even the most ardent Wake fans I knew as a student and alum have had enough. The turnout at the Harvard Club was far fewer than athletic department officials expected, and most in attendance were young alumni openly scoffing at the idea of giving back to their alma mater when their opinions about its flagship program are so openly being ignored.
“Seeing how far we’ve fallen in basketball is depressing,” Ashleigh Lawrence-Sanders said. A 2005 grad, Lawrence-Sanders has followed the team through thick and thin across the globe, but doesn’t believe she should invest her time, money and energy in them again until the school’s leadership does the same. “I watched a few Wake basketball games this year and almost all had ugly endings,” she continued. “I guess that makes me a bad fan, but everyone has their limits.”
For a once-proud basketball program, the only thing worse than the cries of anger is the quiet still of indifference.
Matt Gallagher grew up in Nevada and was educated at Wake Forest and Columbia. A former army officer, he is the author of the Iraq War memoir Kaboom, and a co-editor of and contributor to the short fiction collection Fire & Forget.