DeCock

Wake Forest coach needs more time to fix basketball program

Staff WriterMarch 7, 2012 

When Jeff Bzdelik walked into the media room at the RBC Center after an 11-point loss to N.C. State last month and went on a nearly incomprehensible soliloquy about how in the NBA, "you give respect by showing no respect," it barely registered amid the catalogue of bizarre Bzdelik moments, bad losses and lost hope during his two-year tenure at Wake Forest.

Because of Wake Forest's struggles under Bzdelik, he doesn't get much respect around the ACC. He's prone to taking timeouts when he would have gotten a television timeout anyway, and he even had to apologize for swearing at a fan at Miami. Look a little deeper, though, and the more sympathetic a character he becomes.

When Wake Forest athletics director Ron Wellman fired Dino Gaudio despite a win against Texas during the 2010 NCAA tournament, the narrative at the time had Wellman handing Bzdelik, his old friend from the hallways at Northwestern, a plum ACC job.

Events since have underlined the apparent folly of that decision. The alumni aren't happy and the building is empty. Wellman has steadfastly supported Bzdelik, but he's a lone voice.

Maybe we have it all wrong.

Maybe Bzdelik bailed Wellman out. He's the one who left an NCAA tournament-caliber team and a potential NBA lottery pick behind in Colorado, to preside over a flaming mess no one else wanted to touch. Maybe he's the one doing the friend a favor.

Gaudio wasn't fired because he didn't win basketball games. He was fired because the program was out of control. The public might not have known at the time about the alleged sexual assault at the team hotel during the 2009 NCAA tournament implosion, but it became the latest in a series of brushes, if not outright collisions, with the law.

A few Wake Forest basketball players were spending more time defending themselves against criminal charges than defending opponents. Somewhere along the line, standards slipped.

That's unacceptable anywhere, but particularly at Wake Forest, where the charm of players like Tim Duncan, Rodney Rogers and Chris Paul - and coaches like Dave Odom and Skip Prosser - always has been integral to the charm of the program.

It's a small school, with a relatively small fan base, but the bond between Wake Forest fans and their basketball team would pump Joel Coliseum full of passion and energy. (Whereas now the Deacon's silly Harley pumps an empty arena full of toxic exhaust.)

That's the bond Bzdelik was hired to rebuild. His work is far from finished.

While cleaning house of talented but troubled players - Tony Woods, Melvin Tabb, J.T. Terrell, Ari Stewart and, just last week, Ty Walker - Bzdelik has yet to coach a single player he recruited as a high school underclassmen. While Travis McKie and C.J. Harris are quality players, Bzdelik has been stuck with a bunch of Gaudio leftovers for two years ... and a top-20 recruiting class of his own is on the way next fall.

Bzdelik isn't, by nature, a sympathetic character. He doesn't appear to be getting the most out of a limited team the way Steve Donahue is at Boston College, and he exudes all the bonhomie of a funeral director at work. He's more stat geek than salesman. He's no Odom, no Prosser and no Gaudio. There's no TV job awaiting his exit.

Bzdelik wasn't hired to win games, not immediately, anyway.

He was hired to fix a broken program. Despite the obvious lack of positive reinforcement, it's still way too soon to judge the success of that project.

luke.decock@newsobserver.com, twitter.com/LukeDeCock or 919-829-8947

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