Sometimes you seek opportunity, and sometimes opportunity finds you. When you’re a coach and opportunity calls, chances are good there will be strings attached, special circumstances that created the job opening in the first place.
Certainly Jim Grobe, the former Wake Forest coach, wasn’t looking for work, or complications, as he and his spouse of 46 years parked at a Publix supermarket near his retirement home at Greensboro, Ga., in late May. Nor had he given a thought to taking over a Baylor football program subject to intense scrutiny, its reputation rightly savaged, its roster depleted.
“There’s really no roadmap for this,” Grobe said in a phone interview earlier this month from Waco, Texas. “You just jump in the fire and then figure it out.”
Grobe, 64, and wife Holly were poised to enjoy life together in a new house in a golf community on the shore of Lake Oconee. Starting next month, they planned a half-year of intermittent travel, with two trips to Hawaii and cruises in Europe and the Caribbean.
Grobe was the most successful coach in Wake’s exceedingly modest ACC football history, marked by 10 winning seasons in 48 years prior to his arrival. His teams went 77-82 over 13 seasons (2001-13), with a combined .750 winning percentage (33-11) against Duke, North Carolina and N.C. State; notched a school-record 11 wins and an ACC championship in 2006; and made five bowl appearances. But instead of being allowed to finish his career directing the Demon Deacons, after five straight losing seasons he was forced out in 2013.
The former University of Virginia linebacker and middle guard was an analyst on ACC football telecasts his first season away from the sidelines, when Grobe admits, “I was still a little bit in shock, and a little bit out of sorts.” His second year “I really wanted to get back in,” but no coaching possibilities worked out. “That’s when Holly and I figured it’s really, really over now,” Grobe says.
Then the cellphone rang in his car. An old friend, Grant Teaff, was calling. Grobe had served for years as chair of the ethics committee while Teaff was executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. The former Baylor coach was helping to pick up the pieces after the Big 12 school was wracked by scandal over its unsympathetic, dilatory responses to female victims of sexual assaults and domestic violence, most prominently involving Bears football players.
Head coach Art Briles was fired for allegedly mishandling sexual assault complaints, as was the athletic director. University president Kenneth Starr, famous as the special prosecutor whose sexual inquisition fueled the ultimately unsuccessful impeachment of President Bill Clinton, was demoted.
“We were horrified by the extent of these acts of sexual violence on our campus,” Richard Willis, chair of the Baylor Board of Regents, said in response to findings by a legal firm the school engaged. “This investigation revealed the University’s mishandling of reports in what should have been a supportive, responsive and caring environment for students.”
Grobe hadn’t paid attention to the mess at the 16,787-student institution, the largest Baptist university in the world. The holder of a master’s degree from UVa in guidance and counseling, he did resonate to Teaff’s disappointment and sadness on the phone.
“We got ready to hang up, and the last thing he said was, ‘Will you come and help?’ ” The conversation was on speakerphone, which quickly forced the issue. “I wish you could have seen the look that Holly gave me,” Grobe says, his laughter tinged with discomfort. “It wasn’t good.”
A day later a joint family decision was made. Grobe accepted the job as interim coach at Baylor through the 2016 season. The length of the term offered by the school (at a reported $1.25 million) matched Holly Grobe’s expectations no matter what, the coach pledged to complete their trip to Hawaii in January, a live recruiting period. “She gave me a season, that’s all she’s given me,” he says, although clearly Grobe can envision a longer tenure.
“I know how much he loves coaching, so I was thrilled for him,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe says. “The reason he was chosen was the quality of the person, and the quality of the job he has done in tough circumstances. That separates a lot of coaches. There are a lot of people who can do it well when it’s pretty easy. Jim Grobe’s done it where it wasn’t so easy.”
There is no tolerance for bad behavior. There’s going to be a response.
Interim Baylor football coach Jim Grobe
To restore order at Baylor, Grobe immediately pledged the same unwavering discipline that governed at Wake. “There is no tolerance for bad behavior. There’s going to be a response,” says Grobe, the son of a West Virginia police officer. “We’re going to do it the right way, we’re not going to put our heads in the sand when we have problems.”
Grobe speaks well of the individual character of members of a Baylor roster decimated by dismissals, defections, injuries and academic stumbles. To ease the transition for the 70 remaining scholarship players Grobe, a longtime believer in staff stability, took the unusual step of keeping virtually intact the corps of assistants – individually untainted by the scandal – who served under Briles. “These guys are still heartbroken over Art not being here,” Grobe says. “But I think they get it, like the players, that I’m not here to turn things upside down.”
All of which takes estimable personal confidence, a quality Grobe doesn’t wear on his sleeve in Trumpian fashion.
Back in his Wake days, even as Grobe reportedly turned aside inquiries from the likes of Arkansas and Nebraska, he admitted daydreaming about getting a chance to direct a resource-rich program that could reload annually with top talent. The defense-oriented coach was acutely aware, too, that in an era of spread offenses, “Fans want 50 points a game, fans want wide open.”
Now he’s been handed the reins of a program that won 50 games and two Big 12 titles over the past five seasons, that led the FBS in 2015 with 48.1 points and 616.2 yards per outing. In their last game under Briles, the gifted Bears thrashed North Carolina 49-38 in the Russell Athletic Bowl, setting a record for any bowl by rushing for 645 yards despite the absence of their top two quarterbacks and No. 1 running back.
Keeping intact the staff that produced those results is not only reassuring for players, but apt to keep Baylor competitive despite scant depth. Easing the way, the Bears, ranked No. 21 in the preseason coaches poll, return a top quarterback in senior Seth Russell. They also play four of their first six games at $226 million McLane Stadium, which opened three years ago.
Grobe will do some subtle tinkering. He emphasized winning the turnover battle at Wake; last year Baylor committed as many turnovers as it forced. Still, the 2006 AP National Coach of the Year has no illusions about how his instant rehab job will be judged.
“This has been the sentiment from a lot of areas: that the record doesn’t matter this year, that it’s more about Grobe coming in and trying to help stabilize the program, get all the players headed in the right direction, and the wins don’t really matter,” says the 40-year coach. “But you know better than that. The wins matter. The wins matter. If I wasn’t of the mindset that we’re going to try to win every game that we play, I need to go back to Georgia.”