- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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I feel a great disturbance in the Force — as if thousands of Wake Forest fans cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.
Actually, scrap that last part. There will be nothing silent about it. For now, anyway.
After a season of protests, a radio show fiasco, brutal public relations, a highly active Internet campaign, thousands of dollars in local media ad buys and more earnestly written email than my inbox has seen since *I* was in college, Wake fans didn't get what they wanted from athletic director Ron Wellman Tuesday -- which was, to put it bluntly, third-year coach Jeff Bzdelik's job. Instead, Wellman reaffirmed his support for his old friend, telling the Winston Salem-Journal Bzdelik has "laid the foundation that we think is important for future success."
This is a profoundly strange decision.
There are the simple facts of the matter: In three years, Bzdelik is 34-60 at Wake with an 11-42 record in the ACC. He is 2-47 on the road in conference play at Wake Forest and Colorado combined. Bzdelik's Wake teams have finished ranked No. 251, No. 210, and No. 128 in the KenPom efficiency rankings, respectively, since he took over in 2011. This season, even as it was beset by scores of fans calling for his firing, was by far his best at the school, featured a few young players that could take on larger roles down the line, and included a home win over Miami. The Demon Deacons still finished 6-12 in the ACC.
And then there are the extenuating circumstances of the matter, which remain as baffling now as when Bzdelik was installed. In 2011, Wellman fired coach Dino Gaudio -- whose ties to beloved and suddenly deceased former coach Skip Prosser stretched back to high school coaching in West Virginia -- after two straight NCAA tournament appearances and a 61-31 record. Why? Because his teams weren't performing well down the stretch. Which is a valid concern for an athletic director to have, provided he knows he can do better; it's the only way you can pull the plug on the guy who had your team program No. 1 in the country 14 months prior.
But Wellman didn't have a slam-dunk replacement. He had Bzdelik, his buddy going back to the early 80s, who had made exactly one NCAA tournament appearance in his career to date, and whose record in his three previous years at Colorado was 36-58. Bzdelik was 57, had no ties to the ACC, ran a Princeton style that the current players had no idea how to play. Even at the time, the hire seemed remarkable.
With each passing year, the hire has looked worse, and Wellman and Bzdelik's ability to address it less grounded in reality, than ever. Bzdelik once told our own Andy Katz that he studied Indiana's turnaround under Tom Crean as a model for Wake Forest, the vast differences between the two situations (NCAA sanctions and recruiting probation vs. neither; a coach who had revitalize a program at Marquette vs. one with two .500-or-better seasons in his career) going casually unmentioned. Wake's decision to close down the coach's show to avoid call-in criticism made Wellman sound disinterested in his fans' feedback; his telling a reporter that Wake Forest had always had empty seats in November and December felt like an insult. This is a shame. Wellman is a 22-year veteran, the athletic director of the year in 2008, the same athletic director who hired Prosser in the first place, who created the expectations for a consistently competitive Wake hoops program. Now many Wake fans want him gone, too.
That's why the decision to keep Bzdelik for a fourth year is either a) incredibly brassy, b) incredibly dumb, or c) all of the above. If he cut ties this season, and went out and found a replacement, Wellman may have been able to calm folks down: Jeff's my guy, I thought it would work, it didn't work, my bad. Let's just all move on.
Now Wellman has knotted himself even tighter to the big Acme-emblazoned anchor that is his head coach. Fans are staying away from the Joel. Boosters are deflated. Wake Fans' anguished voices won't be silenced. That small but proud fan base will grow louder and angrier and more widespread, right up until that magical breaking point when they decide they're done fighting, done screaming, done being consumed by an entertainment that no longer gives them pleasure.
It hasn't happened yet, but it could, and it's the outcome to be feared above all else. If people are screaming, at least they still care. It's when the voices disappear that the problem truly begins.