WINSTON-SALEM — The giant video board at BB&T Field on Wednesday morning welcomed a new basketball coach - Jeff Bzdelik - who was hardly a household name when Wake Forest fired Dino Gaudio last week.
Nonetheless, Bzdelik, 57, knows Wake Forest well, and he said if he could pick one school where he wanted to coach, this would be it. His daughter, Courtney, is a student at Wake Forest. He vacations nearby in Sunset Beach. He has coached at other schools, such as Air Force, Northwestern and Davidson, with high academic profiles similar to Wake Forest's.
"I believe in everything it stands for," he said Wednesday at his introductory news conference in Deacon Tower at the school's football stadium. "Great academics. Great integrity. Great people. It's in the ACC on top of that."
Although the sign was welcoming, Bzdelik and Wake Forest athletics director Ron Wellman both acknowledged that reaction to the hire has been mixed. Gaudio was 61-31 in three seasons and reached the second round of the NCAA tournament by defeating Texas last month.
Bzdelik's record at Colorado over the last three seasons was 36-58, without a postseason appearance. Wellman said fans criticizing the hire are merely expressing their passion for the program.
He said that despite concerns that he'd hired Bzdelik because of familiarity (Wellman coached baseball at Northwestern when Bzdelik was an assistant there in the 1980s), the two weren't friends and hadn't had any contact for years at one point.
Wellman said it's not right to compare the situations at Wake Forest and Colorado, where Bzdelik inherited a 7-20 team and improved it to 15-16 by this third season.
"You have to dig deeper than the numbers," Wellman said. "You have to look at where Colorado was three years ago. . . .He really had to start over. Their situation was very, very challenging."
Before he was hired at Colorado, Bzdelik was 50-16 in two seasons at Air Force. He also was 25-31 from 1986 to 1988 at Maryland-Baltimore County as the team made the transition from Division II to Division I.
He spent 15 seasons as a scout and a coach in the NBA, including two and a half seasons with the Denver Nuggets. He's worked under Pat Riley with the New York Knicks and Miami Heat, and under Wes Unseld with the old Washington Bullets.
"I've been around the greatest players in the game," Bzdelik said. "I can't say I've been at X amount of Final Fours, but there is nobody [in the ACC] that can say they've been to the NBA playoffs nine times as an assistant and as a head coach. I separate myself in a positive way from a lot of people in that regard."
Bzdelik revealed that he plans to keep former Gaudio staff members Jeff Battle, Rusty LaRue and Walt Corbean on the Wake Forest staff. He plans to play aggressively on defense, and rejected the identification of his offense is a "Princeton" system - whose combination of backdoors and 3-point shooting has been unpopular with fans at places as nearby as N.C. State.
He said he wants attack the rim quickly in transition, and mentioned margins of 30 points or more in defeats of Georgia, Stanford and even Wake Forest by his teams at Air Force.
"Princeton is in New Jersey," he said. "We're in North Carolina here, and I think if you investigate my background, my teams have always shot well and scored a lot of points."
Wellman said what stood out most about Bzdelik was his dedication to and relationship with his players. During the interview process, Bzdelik excused himself to take a call. He looked concerned afterward.
Bzdelik explained to Wellman that he'd just been speaking to a former Air Force player who was an hour away from being deployed to Afghanistan.
"He is a person of integrity, a person of values," Wellman said. "If you talk with his former players, they have a deep appreciation for what this man stands for and how he has treated them not only as a player, but as a person. He develops a relationship with his players that very few coaches have the ability to do."
Now Bzdelik will get a chance to build that kind of relationship with a new group of players - and the fans that he hopes will warm up after the lukewarm reaction to his hire.