- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Dave Clawson needed just a few weeks to earn his next promotion, at 26 years old. His responsibilities were growing, his pay was increasing and, with a master's degree in hand, he was on the fast track to success, just like the rest of his college buddies.
"I was waiting tables in Columbus, Ohio, at the Cooker Bar and Grill," Clawson said. "I was four-table rated, by the way. That was a big moment, now, because when you go from three tables to four tables your tips increase by a third."
Clawson's roommate from his undergraduate days was a manager at the restaurant and offered Clawson a place to crash and a path to cash while he bided his time after he lost his job at Buffalo, where he was coaching defensive backs, quarterbacks and running backs.
If there were a time to push the restart button, this was it.
"I would take as many shifts as I could for the two weeks, and then go try to go to clinics or go visit other schools or try to interview for jobs," Clawson said. "And the only job I ended up getting was Lehigh University, $3,000 a year to be their running backs coach.”
Twenty-one years later, his decision to jump on with Hank Small's staff at Lehigh has paid off. Clawson is undertaking his biggest reclamation project yet at Wake Forest, where he’s replacing Jim Grobe, who stepped down after the Demon Deacons' fifth straight losing season. It is the latest program Clawson aims to rebuild, after lifting Fordham, Richmond and Bowling Green to heights not seen in recent memory.
The 46-year-old Clawson has, in many ways, come full-circle. The product of Williams College, a private, academic-minded Division III program, is now in charge of the football team at the smallest Power Five school.
When Clawson was asked how he salvaged most of Wake Forest's 2014 recruits on short notice, his line befitted his every-man background: "Thank God for donors and private planes."
The quip underscored just how far he has climbed up the coaching ranks, from the less-than-glamorous lifestyle of a graduate assistant to becoming the public face of an ACC program.
From Lehigh, Clawson moved on to become offensive coordinator at Villanova before taking over Fordham’s program at age 31, making him the nation's youngest Division I head coach. Tasked with reviving a program that had not seen much success since the Vince Lombardi days, he was, in some ways, in a CEO role, having to round up donors.
"I was very lucky at Fordham that I made mistakes and I was able to do that in an environment that wasn't so public and with some people that understood that I was young and I was going to be aggressive," Clawson said. "Any mistake I made was 100 miles per hour, but I always wasn't driving the car in the right direction."
Clawson's Fordham teams went 3-19 in his first two years before finishing 26-10 the last three, with a Patriot League title in 2002. The Youngstown, New York, native drew on his connections in recruiting, tapping inner-city Catholic school players to run a flashier, pro-style offense, all while driving fundraising efforts that nearly doubled the program's budget during his five years there.
"What he did at Fordham was just incredible," said Small, now Charleston Southern’s athletic director. "I think at that point you could really tell he could do a lot of different things."
The prevailing theme of Clawson's career has been adaptation to his personnel. When he left Fordham for Richmond in 2004, he shifted the focus of his recruiting efforts to the South, selling meaty, cerebral linemen on a ground-and-pound path to glory comparable to what the Boston Colleges of the world accomplished at the next level.
The situation Clawson enters in Winston Salem, North Carolina, is similar to the one he inherited 10 years ago. When Clawson took over Richmond, Wake Forest was among the programs he planned to model his after.
"At Richmond we were the smallest and arguably the most academic of all the schools in that conference," he said. "We didn't play Florida State and Clemson, but at the time Delaware and James Madison and programs like that were powers, so we had to figure out a way: How do we take this small private academic school and compete with schools that didn't have the same academic standards we had, that maybe facility-wise had bigger stadiums than us?"
Clawson parlayed a 3-8 debut season at Richmond into a 26-12 finish with two league titles over his final three years, laying the foundation for a Spiders team that won the FCS national title in 2008. By then, Clawson was Tennessee's offensive coordinator, with the possibility of perhaps succeeding Phillip Fulmer down the road.
A 5-7 2008 season and Fulmer's firing proved otherwise.
"I guess the Bowling Green people were the benefactors of that because he did speak to me shortly after that that and I thought he was going to get enough of a buyout where he could go play golf or vacation or live a normal life," cracked Dick Farley, Clawson's coach at Williams College. "At the time he said he thought he was young and that he continued to want to coach and he didn't want to sit out and take the easy money and do something else."
In a stark contrast from his past, Clawson implemented a defense-first approach at Bowling Green, taking a two-win team in 2010 and improving its win total by at least two games the next three years. The 2013 Falcons were the top defensive team in the MAC, finishing 10-3 and routing undefeated Northern Illinois in the league title game.
The reality of the situation Clawson enters at Wake Forest is similarly grim. The Demon Deacons were picked by the media to finish last in the Atlantic Division. They lose a four-year starting quarterback (Tanner Price), the top pass-catcher in school history (Michael Campanaro) and the runner-up in ACC defensive player of the year voting (Nikita Whitlock). With them, this team won four games last season.
On the second day of fall camp, starting nose tackle Johnny Garcia tore his ACL, compounding matters. The cupboard is seemingly bare, but Clawson has been here before.
"He has obviously been successful wherever he's been, and all of us knew that going in, so we kind of trusted him and the system that he's trying to instill," fullback Jordan Garside said. "In the first meeting, the perception was he was somebody who really cared about us. And he was very professional yet very personable, so it really made it easy for us to buy in."
The truth is Clawson has coached every position group in his career except for defensive linemen and linebackers. Coaching so many groups at so many places, he said, allows him to hold people more accountable, and he cannot help but get involved.
Take, for instance, his restaurant background, which stays with him while out eating with his wife and two kids. Great service equals great tips, bad service equals bad tips, and he knows every excuse in the book.
"Sometimes the kitchen gets backed up and there's nothing they can do about it and you shouldn't penalize them," Clawson said. "But if they're in the corner texting and not coming back, you know they're blowing you off."
The former four-table-rated server can afford to dine a little fancier now, starting his fourth head-coaching job. But his appetite to succeed remains as big as ever.