This Is How You Lose Them: Wake Forest Basketball Fans In Revolt

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?

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.