Grobe, Wake Forest eye another turnaround
This all happened so quickly.
It feels like just last week that Jim Grobe was “Coach Genius,” the target of every major program looking to rebuild.
He had pulled off the unthinkable, becoming a regular football version of Gene Hackman in Hoosiers. Grobe was the guy who figured out how to win big at little Wake Forest.
A blink or two later, though, Grobe’s table at a preseason gathering attracted perhaps eight reporters. Other ACC coaches at tables nearby drew five times that.
The worst part, though, was Grobe having to answer those questions again.
Is it fair that you were picked to finish last (nearly unanimously, by the way) in the Atlantic Division?
“That’s where we belong,” Grobe said. “After last year, being 3-9 and playing as many freshmen as we played … I don’t have a problem with that.
… “This is probably where we should start the season, but I’m hopeful this is not where we end up.”
But how exactly did Grobe end up here again? That seemed so unlikely four years ago, when he was the toast of college football. Perhaps the answers can be found in the past. Wake Forest simply has not been able to handle even rare moderate success. Ever.
ACC football began in 1953, and Wake was really bad. It wasn’t until the seventh season that the Demon Deacons finally finished in the upper half of the ACC standings; even then, it was a 4-3 mark and a tie for fourth place.
That fourth-place tie in 1959 stood as the program’s highlight until 1970, with the entire decade of the 1960s producing a 27-72-1 record.
The 1970 season brought the school its first ACC football title – but at 6-5 overall, the Deacons hardly drew a glance nationally. They went 1-4 outside their league, including beatdowns at the hands of Nebraska, Tennessee and Houston.
But, hey, it was progress.
Until, of course, 1971. Back to a losing league record. In 1972, back to being absolutely abysmal. And for more than three decades, that was the norm in Winston-Salem, with an occasional mediocre season being reason to celebrate.
Grobe became coach in 2001 – the Deacs not far removed from a 3-29 stretch in the ACC (1993-96) – and it took six years for him to make the impossible a reality.
A 5-0 start that included a thumping of Ole Miss on the road. A 30-0 romp at Florida State, a final score that will forever nauseate Tallahassee. A state championship with a perfect record against North Carolina, North Carolina State and Duke. An Atlantic Division title.
And on Dec. 2, 2006, for the first time in 36 years, the Demon Deacons won an ACC championship in football. Granted, the game (a 9-6 kicker’s paradise against Georgia Tech) didn’t exactly sell ACC football to the nation, but fans everywhere still applauded Wake’s awakening.
This was a perennial doormat winning a BCS conference. This was a school with high academic standards and an enrollment dwarfed by every other league school, with 33,000 fewer students than Florida State. This was Vandy winning the SEC, Baylor winning the Big 12, Indiana winning the Big Ten.
And this was only supposed to be the beginning for Grobe, named national coach of the year for the turnaround. Redshirt freshman quarterback Riley Skinner completed 66 percent of his passes for 2,051 yards, and he had three years remaining to lift the Deacs even higher. The defense was loaded with future NFL draft picks.
But instead of taking that next step, Wake Forest slowly returned to being Wake Forest:
• 2007: 9-4 overall, 5-3 in the ACC, with a Meineke Car Care Bowl win.
• 2008: 8-5 overall, 4-4 in the ACC, with an EagleBank Bowl win.
• 2009: 5-7 overall, 3-5 in the ACC, no bowl.
• 2010: 3-9 overall, 1-7 in the ACC, back to the basement.
“We just keep declining each year,” said Kyle Wilber, a senior linebacker. “It was a bad mindset we had [in 2010]. Too many individuals on the team. Our team needed better leaders after Aaron Curry and Alphonso Smith left. Now we’re trying to get back to better leaders on the defense.
“We’re trying to win again and let people know it wasn’t a fluke that Wake Forest won the ACC championship.”
That won’t be easy. The schedule features nine bowl teams from last season. And though Wake returns 17 starters, it’s a group that last season finished 11th in the ACC in total offense, total defense, passing offense, passing defense and scoring offense, and last in scoring defense.
“At Wake Forest, we proved we can do it,” Grobe said, “but the problem is, it’s not a guarantee. We won’t just reload every year and be competitive in this league. This year, we’re a much better football team than we were last year. I’ve got a feeling we’ll bounce back.”
Grobe offers an interesting take on the decline. He said the 2007 class already was locked up before Wake won the ACC title, so he didn’t see a big boost in recruiting until the classes of 2008 and ’09 (in 10 years of Rivals.com rankings, Wake’s best ACC recruiting finish was 10th).
“That’s one of the reasons we have the problems that we’ve got – we out-recruited the older players,” Grobe said. “We’ve always been a football program and staff that feels like the best players play. If you’re a freshman and you’re better than a senior, you’ll play. We don’t throw bones to the seniors because they are old guys. They’ve got to earn it. Last year, one of the reasons we played so many freshmen is that we had a weak senior class.”
Grobe sounds confident those freshmen will be talented and experienced sophomores this fall, and his program will swing back in the right direction.
Everyone else? Not so confident that’ll happen.
The proof was in front of Grobe, printed on a sheet of paper listing the ACC preseason predictions.
“You know, we’ve got to always keep in mind that the year we won the ACC, we were picked last,” Grobe said, “and nobody knew that Riley Skinner would be our quarterback. If we had known Riley Skinner would be our quarterback, we would have been picked seventh [out of six] in the division that year.”
The reporters gathered around Grobe roared with laughter.
All eight of them.