Can the Wake Forest Football Program Remain Competitive?

Is the College Football Landscape Making it Impossible for Schools Like Wake to Compete?

Is the College Football Landscape Making it Impossible for Schools Like Wake to Compete?

While assembling the daily links for Wednesday, I happened upon an interesting story from Rant Sports, “Can the Wake Forest Demon Deacons Stay Competitive in ACC Football?” On a top-level, author M. Shannon Smallwood, takes a quick look at how Wake Forest and head coach Jim Grobe have continued to compete despite lesser resources and prestige than many of their counterparts, both locally and nationally. But I wanted to dig a bit deeper into that discussion, and really talk about the factors the school’s up against in the evolving college football environment. So rather than just chat about it by myself, I decided to bring in the author himself. What follows is our email conversation from yesterday:

John Cassillo: Can Wake Forest hope to compete in football in the future? With the conference’s smallest athletic budget and an influx of “richer” teams (Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Louisville, and “sort of” Notre Dame) coming in the ACC door, how are they going to play catch-up? Or better question: Can they play catch-up with the conference’s 14 other schools?

M. Shannon Smallwood: I am the eternal optimist so I have to believe the leadership in the Athletic Department and the President of the University are capable and smart enough to realize what decisions need to be made in order to keep the school afloat. But the reality is the landscape just got a lot more challenging for Wake Forest on every level.

I am working on my first ACC Football Power Rankings for Rant Sports (posting on Saturday) and I have Wake in the bottom three in the new-look ACC. I just don’t think the Demon Deacons will be able to put the depth of talent on the field to compete for four quarters in every game. I do think they can recruit and put 25 or so top level athletes on offense and defense, but its the athletes from 26 to 85, I am worried about.

I will say this is not a game of “catch up”. I think if you are a school looking at the landscape and, as an AD or President, you say “we need to catch up with the other members of the ACC,” you are setting yourself and your school up for disaster. Case-in-point: Maryland. The Terps made some terrible decisions and were/are bankrupt until the Big 10 bailed them out. Could Wake, Boston College or Duke ever be in a situation like Maryland? I don’t think so. I think there are some deep pockets and smarter folks at these three schools. But to be successful, you have to win. You have to create a buzz around campus, the town and the nation.

I can remember the days of Ralph Kitley when Wake was basically a glorified high school when it came to athletic prowess. The basketball team was tough to watch at times, but it was the signature program on campus. No one knew or cared if they even had a football team. And the golf team could have won 25 National Titles in a row and no one would have cared. There is no doubt the 1990s and the 2000s have been the golden age for Wake in all of it’s athletic programs. But it takes a player like Tim Duncan in basketball to open up the recruiting doors. Jim Grobe was able to win an ACC title, which opened up a ton of doors and allowed Wake to build the facilities it needed to continue to compete.

But it’s a great question on what is Wake’s next move. Could the “Golden Era” of the Demon Deacons be coming to an end with the addition of Pittsburgh and Syracuse? Sure. But I’m still not ready to call the time of death for Wake Forest just yet.

So what is your biggest concern with the pending lack of competitive balance with Wake?

JC: I think it’s a mix of issues that kind of steamroll into the situation I’ve hinted at (Wake falling well behind its ACC counterparts). A lack of money spent on the football and basketball programs usually results in less wins. Less wins mean less facility upgrades. Less facility upgrades usually means less success on the recruiting trail. Wake’s already at a disadvantage in terms of recruiting — effectively functioning as the fourth option in their own state for both major sports — so anything else that exacerbates that issue is certainly not a good omen. At least in football, Syracuse (another of the conference’s private schools) is still dealing with the after-effects of an extended downturn in on-field quality. The lack of wins during the Greg Robinson era saw less money invested in the program and less fan interest overall (locally and nationally). Between that and the Big East‘s paltry media deal, the school’s facilities were largely ignored (many considered them on the lower-end of most MAC schools in terms of quality), and it did a lot of damage when it came to attracting recruits to its smaller, urban location in Upstate New York.

But I think this also hints at a larger issue for private schools in general: Beyond Notre Dame, and the hotbeds of California, Texas and Florida, have private schools lost the ability to compete at a championship level for football? Without enormous alumni bases, stadiums that fit 80,000-plus, and burdened with a miniscule local recruiting pipeline, is the environment becoming far too difficult for these schools to keep up?

MSS: I do believe the private universities have a lot of decisions to make as four superconferences and a playoff system become a reality over the next 10 years.

As college football has boomed over the past 10-15 years, it has left behind some of the great private institutional teams of the game. It has taken Notre Dame about almost 20 years to get its academic and athletic balance right on the football field. Miami is still trying to figure it out and desperately needs an on-campus stadium but has no land or money to build it. And that’s just two big names from an era gone by that has deep pockets who lost the ability to win and compete for a time.

Vanderbilt has this same issue and has a much greater obstacle to overcome in the SEC. So far they have accomplished their goal of being a viable member of the greatest conference in college football history. They even beat the pants off one of the better ACC football programs in NC State (who for the record is an enigma for the conference, but that is a discussion for another day) this bowl season.

If I were Wake, I would be living on the Vandy campus for the next three months and attempt to do everything that Vandy has done. Wake is in the same boat as Vandy was. No use in reinventing the wheel if you ask me. If Wake can figure out what Vandy has done to be competitive in the SEC, there is no doubt the Demon Deacons could become a top-five team year-in and year-out in the ACC. But Vandy’s situation may have more to do with their head coach and his ability to recruit than anything else. And that is the golden egg…

If Miami, Notre Dame and Vandy are all “back” and viable powers, they are going to get the cream of the crop when it comes to those athletes who can survive the academic requirements and still play elite football. The jury is still out on Syracuse in my book. Can they continue to build on what was a great 2012? I think so. And a school like Syracuse will benefit tremendously from the shared revenues of the ACC. I think David Cutcliffe at Duke has also figured out how to recruit the players to keep the Blue Devils interesting and bowl eligible every few years. But I don’t know if Grobe has a plan of action like that in place. If not, he better.

But I think the real discussion here needs to be on the recruiting parity in the game today and the revenue that is generated with the new-look ACC.

JC: The revenue in this new-look ACC will obviously have a huge impact for Syracuse, Pitt and Louisville, as they were all starved to death on the Big East’s lesser TV returns. Louisville and Syracuse are among the most profitable basketball programs in the country, but a lot of that is due to their status as the “only game in town” and continued success on the court over a very long period of time.

But with the uptick being marginal for Wake Forest, which has spent years enjoying the ACC’s revenues, I’m not sure if a couple million more in their pockets will be enough; not for facilities, recruits or their overall competitiveness. To get the program to this point, Grobe has largely relied on overlooked recruits in Florida, selling them on the chance to play right away for a BCS-conference team. However, that pitch only goes so far. What we’re seeing now is an increasing disparity (rather than parity) in recruiting that could certainly spell disaster for Wake and several other privates schools in the ACC.

Take a look at the 2013 recruiting rankings according to Rivals right now. Just three private schools in the top 20, and of those, two (Notre Dame, USC) are predictable and the third (Vanderbilt) is in the SEC. It’s crazy how much that acronym “SEC” means to recruits nowadays, too. As we saw with one recruit, former Clemson commit Robert Nkemdiche, a lot of players now believe they’re better off playing for ANY SEC school than one of the top-two ACC schools. There are 10 SEC schools among the top 25 recruiting classes right now, and Arkansas‘s the only school to appear outside the top 60 from that conference. This is a disparity that’s not going away, and more than anything else, could be what hurts the ACC and private schools the most going forward. At one point, Tulane was a power player in college football. Now? They’re a mockery of an addition in the Big East. I’d hate to see Wake, Duke, Syracuse and BC head down that path, too.

Final question: Is Grobe on the hot seat? If so, what does he have to do to get off of it? And if not, what lands him there? As some additional food for thought, since the 2006 conference title, the program’s 36-39 and has missed the postseason in three of the last four seasons.

MSS: There is no doubt Grobe is being watched closely. I like The “Wake Way” promo idea and I think it can resonate with some parents and kids in the recruiting battle. But do I think Wake has what it takes currently to win or be competitive in college football in 2013? Nope, nowhere close. I’m not even sure they can be competitive in its non-conference schedule. Teams like Wake, NC State, Virginia and Maryland are the main reasons why the BCS computers and coach’s hated the ACC this year. Wake will have a lot to evaluate in 2013.

Can they keep a great group of coaches and leaders together at Wake and win? Or will they have to sell their identity to take the next step along with its brothers n the ACC? Something will have to give and I think Wake is the case study from the standpoint of what the game used to be to the game that will be in the next five years. If they don’t do something, it’s assured they will not survive.

JC: And that wraps it up. Thanks again to Rant Sports’ M. Shannon Smallwood, and be sure to follow him on Twitter, too (@woodysmalls).

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5 thoughts on “Can the Wake Forest Football Program Remain Competitive?

  1. Is Wake Forest its own separate case, the model to which most private schools should strive to emulate, or the model which each private school is also doomed to follow as well? Honestly curious, here.

    • I don’t think Wake Forest is totally doomed, but Grobe has to be on the hot seat…..I’m a Deacon fan and live here in W-S, NC, so I’m pretty up to date on the opinions and thoughts of local fans…..a lot of people think Grobe has this year to show a turnaround or he’s gone…..now obviously I don’t expect a BCS bowl every year or even a mid tier bowl, but Wake could be good enough to make the post season every year, a constant/regular record of 7-5 is not unreasonable…….Grobe has proven he can recruit, but I think his main fault is his loyalty to his assistants……his offensive coordinator Steed Lobotzke has to go and go now!…..he’s too predictable, if you watch one Wake game and then another, the offensive play calls are all the same and never change…..and Ron Wellman is not the best AD a school could have either….a lot of local fans and alumni want Ron Wellman gone…..and as for Grobe, let’s give him one more season to show progress……as for a replacement for Grobe, I’ve thought of a few candidates…..Bill Blankenship from Tulsa, Sonny Dykes from La. Tech, Frank Solich from Ohio,…..just a few names I thought of…….my only real concern for Wake is all of this realignment crap……while I recognize that it’s the unfortunate norm now, I never wanted the ACC to extend beyond 10 teams…..after we got Fla. St., I think we should have taken Pitt then as our 10th school and stopped there……more than 10 teams dilutes a conferences stature…..with 10 teams in football, everybody plays each other once with a clear winner of the conference…in a conf. championship game, team a may have a record of 10-2 while team b has a record of 6-6..if team b wins and represents the conf., it makes the conf. on a whole look bad and a laughingstock…..in bball, having 10 teams allows everybody to play each other twice, once at home and once away…….that’s old school for us long standing ACC fans and after we went to 12 teams, we lost that!….it sucks……but I will always pull for the ACC and I begrudgingly accept the fact that realignment has to happen, I just hope it doesn’t end up hurting the Deacs…..sorry about the rant and getting off topic…..I really like the posts and stories here on ACC Convos…..keep up the great work……..

      • Hey, no worries, and thanks for the feedback. I’m more sold on the idea of a 12-team conference. personally, but I understand the impetus behind 10. If they’d have stopped there, VaTech would’ve been my call.

        As far as Grobe, I do agree. I think he has to make a bowl game this year to stick around. I know this program hasn’t been successful historically, but he set a new standard when he got to Wake, and now he also have to live up to it. Maybe it’s the loyalty to his assistants that’s the problem. Maybe it’s the lack of money coming in (can’t afford to replace them). If he’s replaced, those are good candidates (though Dykes was hired by Cal already), but I think they’ll be looking at current assistants rather than rising head coaches. Those other names are in demand, and it’ll be tough to fend off B1G and SEC schools if they’re also in contention.

    • I wonder if Jim Grobe has entered his own version of Glenn Mason territory. Flirting with bowl eligibility every year is more than Wake Forest has done for most of its history, but his time there (especially 2006) has raised expectations just enough that he’s having trouble meeting them. In his first five years the Demon Deacons only made a bowl game once, but now that it’s clear Wake can win on a big level, 5-7 isn’t cutting it. My gut reaction is to ask who the school could get that would be any better, but after a year when Stanford, Northwestern, and Vanderbilt all finished in the top 25, it’s obvious that small academic-focused schools like Wake are perfectly able to compete on a big-time level. I don’t know what would make Wake unique, except for the fact that it’s so close to another small academic school in Duke and a larger school with just as good a reputation in Carolina. I want to say that Wake should be happy with winning on the Grobe level; Duke fans certainly would be. But, holy crap, Stanford just played in three BCS games in a row!

      • Wake is unique for a few reasons, in my opinion:

        - Location in North Carolina would not be a hindrance (there are plenty of recruits there), but they’re the fourth most appealing option for in-state recruits. Slim pickins’ are left, so that’s why they end up in Florida, where everyone else already is anyway.

        - The fact that they’re the fourth-best option in their state puts them on par with Cal, TCU or USF. They already have a leg up on USF being in a Power 5 league, but the other two earn more and carry more prestige from their conference affiliation.

        - Duke falls victim to a lot of Wake’s factors, but avoids some due to its superior academic standing. BC and Syracuse fall victim to a lot of what Wake does, and without a true Florida option. Both are the top in-state options in recruiting-poor states that show little interest in collegiate sports. Definite disadvantage for those schools.

        - Stanford, like Vandy, Northwestern, Miami, Notre Dame and USC get their own category of “private school.” Either they’ve always been a football power-player, or they’re in a power conference, but all have the means to consistently compete. Stanford is in a recruiting-rich state and in a financial position that shames most other schools. Northwestern’s B1G affiliation is a huge boost; same with Vandy and the SEC.

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