Jacobs: Grobe and Wake Forest gain some breathing room

CorrespondentOctober 8, 2013 

Jim Grobe usually begins a post-game press conference by soliciting questions, not with editorial comments or game analysis. But after Wake Forest defeated N.C. State 28-13 on Saturday at Winston-Salem, the veteran Deacon coach opened with a heartfelt and perhaps strategic departure from custom, praising and thanking his “supportive” boss, athletics director Ron Wellman.

Displaying the lightheartedness that often accompanies victory, Grobe elicited laughter from his media audience by observing of the AD, “He was at nearly every practice this week, and he didn’t suggest one play.”

The decisive win did more than improve Wake’s season record to 3-3 on the heels of what Grobe called “an embarrassing” 56-7 demolition at Clemson. The immediate impact went beyond the extension of a home winning streak against the Wolfpack to six straight, or raising Grobe’s record against North Carolina schools to 32-10, 21-3 at BB&T Field.

For a moment, at least, the Wake Forest program earned a respite from the carping of those who’d apparently forgotten what life was like before Grobe’s arrival for the 2001 season.

“We’re in a business where the results are very important, and they’re very measurable too,” Wellman said in an interview just prior to kickoff against N.C. State. “You can’t get away from wins and losses in our profession. We all are measured by that. That’s a part of what we do.”

By that standard, until recently Grobe’s tenure at Wake – tied for seventh-longest among active FBS coaches – has been a thing of beauty. If Clemson is the most difficult place to win in ACC basketball, then Wake Forest presents perhaps the greatest mountain to climb in conference football.

In the 48 ACC seasons prior to Grobe’s arrival from Ohio University, the Deacons managed 10 winning records and a single league championship (1970) under 11 different coaches. The program was rarely relevant in conference competition; only Duke had fewer winning seasons since the mid-60s.

By contrast, the Deacons posted winning records in five of Grobe’s first eight seasons. That included three in a row, a first at the school since 1950-52. The 2006-08 run was capped by an ACC title in 2006 and an Orange Bowl berth, achieved despite the league’s addition of football-oriented Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech.

Wake’s championship was last matched by one of North Carolina’s other ACC schools when Steve Spurrier’s Blue Devils tied Virginia for first in 1989. The most recent Orange Bowl appearance by one of the state’s other ACC members was Duke’s at the conclusion of the 1957 season.

Even taking into account the modern game’s bloated bowl roster, it’s noteworthy that Wake Forest made five postseason appearances prior to Grobe’s arrival, and five since. His program’s cumulative bowl record is 3-2.

All this was accomplished at the third-smallest FBS school in the nation after Tulsa and Rice; at an academically rigorous university; with few top-level recruits but plenty of savvy and discipline; and during an era when the resources and attention commanded by college football have reached unprecedented levels.

No doubt Wake has stumbled recently. The Deacons finished higher than fourth in the Atlantic Division once in the past four seasons (2011), and don’t look to be in great shape this year, either. Last season’s injuries, off-field problems, and poor play led to four losses in the final five games.

Program slippage continued this September with the decisive defeat at third-ranked Clemson and a home loss to lowly Louisiana Monroe. Combined with the ongoing travails of Wake basketball under Jeff Bzdelik, the level of frustration with Wellman’s regime rumbles on the horizon like thunder, threatening to engulf all within the path of the gathering storm.

Conventional wisdom holds that boosters are less likely to bestow largesse upon a struggling program. No one can doubt, either, that big-time college athletics is a bottom-line business. And the average fan (or media member) need not worry about Grobe’s welfare when the personable, plain-spoken West Virginian reportedly makes $2.25 million annually and has three years left on a decade-long contract.

Yet the notion Grobe should be expected to maintain a level of success at Wake more appropriate to a traditional football school ought to give pause. As it is, the win over the Wolfpack left him one shy of tying “Peahead” Walker for the most victories (77) in Wake history.

Sure, coaches stay too long and have to be pried from the helm of a faltering program. The slow decline of Florida State under Bobby Bowden comes to mind. At some point, though, reformers seeking to lessen booster influence and reduce compromises in recruiting, admissions and ongoing player eligibility must ask whether a principled coach fielding competitive teams should command job security similar to that of a college professor.

The possibility of tenure left Grobe chuckling in the hallway outside the cozy press room at BB&T Field. “It’d be nice,” he said. “We could try it, I’d be happy to try it.”

Not that he took the notion seriously. “If you knew no matter what you did, other than do bad things with the kids, if you knew no matter how many games you won or lost you were always going to have a job, I think you’d lose your edge a little bit,” said the 61-year-old.

Instead he expressed satisfaction with his lot despite improved ACC competition, impatient fans and the realization he’s unlikely to have another chance to go to a power program such as Arkansas, which came calling in 2007.

“We want to go back to the Orange Bowl. We want to win an ACC championship again,” Grobe said, voice shifting to a staccato rhythm. “We want to go to bowl games. We want to win bowl games. We want to do all those kind of things. But Wake Forest is a place where there’s more to it than the X’s and O’s. That’s why I’ve been here for 13 years, because we’ve got the right people at Wake Forest that have their priorities straight.”

We’ll see.

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