Will the Deacons ever wake back up?

Program of Duncan and CP3 has fallen on hard times -- and the fans aren't happy

Originally Published: June 14, 2013
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

On Sept. 9, 1989, a large glob of low-pressure air hovering above Africa moved west, out over the continent's jutting coastline, where it momentarily came to rest above the Atlantic Ocean.

On May 16, 2013, a North Carolina man named Brian Stratton explained to a local news station why Wake Forest fans invested $4,500 of their hard-earned money on a highway billboard with the explicit hopes that two other men would lose their jobs.

These two incidents are directly connected. Allow me to explain.

[+] EnlargeDave Odom
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonWith Tim Duncan around, Wake won back-to-back ACC titles and played in the Elite Eight.

That innocent tropical wave was only beginning its journey. Soon, as it gobbled moisture from the storm-juicing waters of Cape Verde, its winds gained devastating speed. Within 24 hours, it had a name: Hugo.

Fifteen days later, Hurricane Hugo finally spun itself apart over Canada. In the meantime, it traveled thousands of miles, destroyed more property ($17.2 billion worth, converted for inflation) than any storm before it, killed an estimated 107 people and earned one distinction no other hurricane can claim: It forever changed the destiny of the greatest power forward of all time.

True story: Before 1989, when Hugo's Category 4 winds wiped out the only Olympic-size swimming pool on the tiny U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix, Tim Duncan was the best U.S. freestyler in his age range, a prospective Olympian taking dead aim at the 1992 Barcelona Games. Without the pool, the only place to swim was the ocean. The ocean has sharks. Duncan, being a rational human being, is deathly afraid of sharks. It was only then, in ninth grade, that Duncan turned to basketball.

Batman's parents were killed. Spiderman was bitten by a radioactive spider. Tim Duncan's athletic gifts were rerouted by a devastating storm.

Duncan's wasn't the only destiny changed that September. Before he became a legend for the San Antonio Spurs, he would eventually come to rewrite the modern conception of Wake Forest basketball -- and widen the massive perception gap among fans. On one side is the program that ranks an impressive ninth in our modern NBA draft pedigree list. On the other is a school who hasn't been to the Final Four in 51 years.

The relationship between the Wake Forest athletics department and the Wake Forest fan base has never been quite so acrimonious. The U.S. Route 52 billboard that called for the firings of both athletic director Ron Wellman and coach Jeff Bzdelik earned a lot of attention when it was unveiled this spring, but that was just the latest salvo. In December, when callers to Bzdelik's weekly radio show grew increasingly critical, the show stopped taking direct questions for the first time in host Stan Cotten's 17-year career.

At the time, Wellman told longtime Winston-Salem Journal beat reporter Dan Collins he agreed with the change because "callers tend to get on and, rather than asking a question, they preach." In the following weeks, Deacons fans felt newly insulted by Wellman's insistence that smaller crowds at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum were the norm, because the program had "never drawn well in December." Now fans seem as eager to be rid of Wellman -- the longest-tenured athletic director in the ACC (he began in 1992) -- as they are Bzdelik.

[+] EnlargeWake Forest Fans
Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY SportsWake students stormed the court against NC State and Miami this past season, something that would've been unthinkable before the last few years.

How did the atmosphere get so toxic?

For his part, Wellman refuses to accept the premise.

"There are some disgruntlements in the fan base," Wellman told ESPN.com. "But there is a lot of support, too. I hear alums, a lot of people, making supportive statements. They're probably not going on the boards or in chat rooms, but I hear from them, and they are very excited about our future."

Wellman cited an 11 percent increase in attendance among students and general ticket holders as signs that angry folks on the Internet are the vocal minority.

"Those are some of the metrics we carefully watch in our evaluation of the direction of the fan base, and based on attendance and other things, we believe the majority of the fan base remains solidly behind our program and our coaching staff," Wellman said.

Unscientific polls say otherwise: When Wellman announced his decision to retain Bzdelik for a fourth season, 88.5 percent of Winston-Salem Journal readers asked about the decision said they disagreed.

This ongoing drama has made it easy to forget the tragedy WFU's program suddenly encountered just six years ago -- the key inflection point in any accurate recent history of Wake Forest basketball.

On July 26, 2007, popular head coach Skip Prosser suffered a massive fatal heart attack in his office after he returned from a routine jog. The tragedy engulfed Wake's program on a very personal level, while also turning what had thus far been a relative established pursuit of success -- Prosser, who recruited Chris Paul to campus, went to the NCAA tournament in four of his first six seasons -- into chaos.

As they dealt with the loss in the difficult weeks that followed, the school's athletics brass considered a variety of hiring approaches -- from an interim coach, to the promotion of a Prosser assistant, to a totally freshman external hire. Dino Gaudio, whose career under Prosser began in 1981 at Central Catholic High School (Wheeling, W.Va.) and included six years in Winston-Salem, was the choice.

"Skip was such a friend to everyone, meant so much to our program, was such a fun-loving guy," Wellman said. "You try to recover from that as quickly as you can on a personal level, but of course you don't recover very quickly at all. It set the program back, for sure."

[+] EnlargeWellman/Bzdelik
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonAD Ron Wellman (left) has known Jeff Bzdelik for decades.

Three years later, Wellman fired Dino Gaudio after back-to-back tournament appearances. The move left many in the coaching community scratching their heads. Some wondered whether Gaudio was Wellman's first choice in the first place.

Whatever Wake fans thought about Gaudio's ouster, they were immediately unimpressed by the man hired to replace him. The 57-year-old Bzdelik, a former Denver Nuggets and Air Force coach, was hired away from Colorado after three sub-.500 seasons in which CU went 10-38 in the Big 12. In a different context, Wellman's long-standing friendship with Bzdelik might have been a nice bonus; instead, it created the appearance, whether fair or not, that Wellman was using the most visible position in Wake Forest athletics to do his friend a favor.

When Bzdelik kept Gaudio's staff and touted incoming recruiting class intact, optimism followed, but it was quickly lost during his first campaign, an 8-24 season that may well go down as the worst in ACC history. Transfers and turnover have forced Bzdelik to foist young, unproven players alongside veterans like C.J. Harris (now graduated) and Travis McKie (a rising senior). In 2012-13, five WFU newcomers each played at least 40 percent of available minutes.

There have been other grievances. Both Wellman and Bzdelik have spoken frequently about building the program's "culture," which fans have interpreted as an unfair indictment of Gaudio's tenure at best and, at worst, a blame-reflecting smoke screen. On the Wake Forest men's basketball Wikipedia entry, next to Bzdelik's job description, an anonymous user sarcastically appended "Head of Culture."

John Mundy, a 41-year-old Winston-Salem Journal correspondent and editor of Wake Forest site Blogger So Dear, has lived in Winston-Salem, N.C., since childhood, when he casually adopted the local team as his own. He remembers the pre-Duncan days, when expectations weren't psychologically associated with one of the greatest players in the history of sport.

"My high school years coincided with the Bob Staak era, which scarred a lot of us for a long time," Mundy said. "However, in hindsight, it tempered any expectation I've ever had for Wake Forest basketball. … I went to a lot of basketball games as a fan of the game first, and hoping the underdog would win was a bonus.

"The problem with what I consider to be a huge PR blunder by Wellman is that you have a group of 20-somethings that have never known Wake Forest to be noncompetitive in basketball. They never watched guys like Ralph Kitley and Stan King -- they know about Randolph Childress and Tim Duncan. And they are not happy."

[+] EnlargeJeff Bzdelik
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesIn three seasons at Wake, Bzdelik is 10-39 in the ACC (33-59 overall). In three seasons at CU, he was 10-38 in the Big 12 (36-58 overall).

There is also the matter of trust. Despite widespread outcry and poor results on the floor, Wellman's outlook remains relentlessly positive, and understandably so. But Mundy believes a messaging failure has convinced Wake fans their agonized wails aren't being heard.

They may have a point. Wellman said he and his staff rarely dwell on public opinion, focusing instead on what they can do to make the program better.

"I don't read the Internet," Wellman said. "I don't read a lot of the things that are going on. Other people do that in our department and they certainly monitor things, but that's not something that has had much effect on me because we're determined to do what is right to do for this university."

For all of the disconnects at work here -- between the longer history and institutional limitations of Wake Forest basketball and the expectations of a post-Duncan world; between a fan base and an athletic department; between what fans see on the court and what Wellman sees -- there is at least one maxim everyone can agree to: Winning fixes everything.

"Revisionist history is running rampant," Mundy said. "I fear that perspective has been lost by some of the disgruntled faithful, but I still blame poor messaging at the catalyst. Wake Forest needs to win, and in a hurry, to keep this from getting worse."

"At the end of the day, the fans who are involved in negativity want the same thing we want," Wellman said. "They're just expressing it a little bit differently. But if our program were going the way we want it to be going right now, they'd be thrilled. And they're going to be thrilled in the future, I'm absolutely convinced."