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These are difficult days for Wake Forest basketball. Can Danny Manning turn things around?

Watch Wake Forest’s Danny Manning’s comments after their victory over NC State

Listen to Wake Forest head basketball coach Danny Manning's comments after the Demon Deacons' 77-74 victory over the NC State Wolfpack at Lawrence Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem, N.C., Sunday, January 10, 2016.
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Listen to Wake Forest head basketball coach Danny Manning's comments after the Demon Deacons' 77-74 victory over the NC State Wolfpack at Lawrence Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem, N.C., Sunday, January 10, 2016.

The absence is immediately apparent, especially if you’ve attended a Wake Forest home basketball game before. The empty seats at Joel Coliseum are only the clearest manifestation, the voiceless expression of a cumulative condition. To put a name to it, what’s lacking is excitement, simple and spontaneous, the tension sparked by the possibility, if not the anticipation, of victory.

What endures is the rote, oncourt roar of a Demon Deacon-driven motorcycle during pregame introductions, a tired, fume-filled echo of an era when Skip Prosser introduced the gimmick and directed the program to four NCAA berths and winning records in five of his six seasons (2002-07).

These days the Deacons, stuck in neutral, are considerably less formidable. Under coach Danny Manning they’ve proven susceptible to losing at home to the likes of Delaware State (2015), Georgia Southern (2018) and Houston Baptist (this season prior to Thanksgiving). Even the most devoted rooters are conditioned to competitive irrelevance in the ACC; the last time Wake finished higher than tied for ninth in the league was 2010.

Manning’s four teams prior to this one were 16-20 at home in ACC play, 4-32 away. The road record included 20 consecutive defeats from 2015 through mid-January of 2017. Meanwhile, in-state ACC compatriots Duke and North Carolina were winning ACC tournaments and national championships. N.C. State flushed one coach and found another, each taking a squad to the NCAA tournament.

This lack of front-rank competitiveness surely helps explain why Wake filled a mere 36.6 percent of the seats at Joel through the 2019 season’s first five home games. Only Pitt, coming off an 8-24 season devoid of an ACC victory, attracted fewer home fans as a percent of capacity through the end of December.

Basketball lags

Meanwhile, other competitive horizons are brighter at Wake, where teams at the small, private university ranked sixth nationally as autumn ended in the Learfield Director’s Cup, a limited but useful measure of an athletic program’s overall success (soccer, field hockey, cross country running, volleyball). Wake’s rating was highest in the ACC to that point. A Jan. 10 update will include football and bowl results; the Demon Deacons should fare well there too after beating Memphis 37-34 in the Birmingham Bowl.

But basketball, once a leading source of athletic pride, with 22 finishes among the top three in the conference’s first 52 years, has become a laggard. Six of the last eight squads finished with losing overall records, three of four under Manning.

Low-key and physically imposing at 6-10, Manning has recruited fairly well and demonstrated an especial ability to develop big men such as John Collins and Doral Moore. He also continues to endure an abnormal amount of roster turnover, with eight players transferring or going pro during the 2018 calendar year. That unpredictability caused Wake to dip into the graduate-student free-agent pool for four players over the past three years, a difficult way to build a program.

Jeff Bzdelik, now a coveted defensive assistant coach in the NBA, won only in his fourth and final year at Winston-Salem and was fired. Manning, his comparably subdued successor, won in his third year, making the NCAA’s First Four, and got his contract extended and reportedly guaranteed through the 2025 season.

Contract extension

Therein lies the double-edged nature of contemporary coaching contracts. Long-term deals enforce mutually-assured fealty at a stiff price. Whether Manning had sufficiently proved himself at the ACC level to command such assurance is debatable – Wake fell to 11-20 in 2018 after his employment was secured.

“We evaluate every program at the end of the year,” says athletic director Ron Wellman, who hired Manning and negotiated his contract extension. “We evaluate everybody, every person in our department.” Wellman would not discuss the reported length of the agreement or other specifics.

This year’s squad started 7-5, paced by slender, fluid forward Jaylen Hoard, among the league’s highest-rated freshmen, and point guard Brandon Childress. “I guess you could say Coach Manning gave me the keys to the Porsche,” Childress, previously a reserve, says optimistically.

Should the vehicle break down in 2019, historical precedent indicates Manning’s job would be in considerable jeopardy.

Since the early 1960s the ACC had a single coach who endured four losing seasons in his first five and held on to his job. That was N.C. State’s gregarious Les Robinson, fired after a fifth straight losing effort in 1996.

Robinson had the advantage of being an alumnus, earning special consideration for taking over amidst a scandal-induced tightening of academic standards. Another Robinson, Steve, was jettisoned after winning in his first season at Florida State, then losing four times in four years from 1999-2002.

Boston College coach Jim Christian is in a fix similar to Manning’s. Last season Christian’s Eagles posted the only winning record (19-16) in his first four years. His overall ACC mark entering this season is substantially worse than Manning’s, his teams never finished higher than 13th, his 2016 squad went winless in conference play, his league road record is execrable, and he hasn’t taken a squad to postseason. Christian’s program is so low-profile his job status draws scant comment nationally, unlike Manning.

Both schools have similar recent traditions, although the Demon Deacons earned more NCAA trips and AP top-25 spots than did BC in the roughly two decades following the 1989-90 opening of Joel Coliseum. During those years Wake’s fans grew accustomed to prominence and success. What’s yet to be demonstrated is whether Manning can restore that prosperity.

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