Good Sport: The road to respectability at Wake

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by Jeff Laughlin

The road to success in ACC Basketball can be fraught with failure. As proof, Wake Forest Head Coach Jeff Bzdelik resigned during, in my opinion, the most competitive and best NCAA Tournament in decades. That he did so while the ACC struggled through the round of 64 more mightily than they have in a long time, only makes his futility less public.

Those who watch Wake’s struggles from the outside might point out that the team has improved every year under Bzdelik (as I did in Winston-Salem Monthly), but that stance ignores the very fabric of the team’s past. Over the years, they’ve hired some of the leagues most memorable coaches and highlighted its most intriguing players.

And to say Bzdelik’s has been around a long time is to forget what the ACC looked like last year in comparison to this year.

The old guard of the ACC have shown weakness. Duke’s recruiting classes have not produced NCAA results. UNC is nothing like the Tarheels of the past. Their coaches are aging out. Virginia and Florida State have made it clear that the ACC can be had.

Wake, right now, inherits a vacancy while the conference welcomes Louisville and loses Maryland. This immediately improves the RPI and strength of schedule, those oft-battered terms of approval from the NCAA Selection Committee.

Now, the ACC boasts three national champions amongst their coaches. Whichever coach takes the Wake job will have a supreme challenges ahead of him, but he will also have a competitive league that allows for more NCAA berths and more tough games.

Moreover, last year, NCAA coaching vacancies included bigger-name schools like UCLA and Minnesota. This year, mid-majors litter the landscape. The only real competition for the brightest names in the business are teams in much worse shape within the conference — Boston College and Virginia Tech. Wake’s new coach gets a veteran-laden team, provided all of them decide to stay with the program. Bzdelik’s continual bleeding of players to other programs marred his beginnings with the team, but being the most decorated horse on the coaching carousel provides a unique opportunity for the Demon Deacons.

As with every vacancy, the rumor mill kicked in immediately. Items on ACC forums and blogs identified VCU’s Chaka Smart as a leading candidate. Where most fans roll their eyes at Smart’s “availability,” Wake might actually stand a chance at landing him. UCLA made their run at Smart with a weak conference and a boatload of cash. Smart was said to have considered the job seriously. Given Wake’s passionate fan base — one that bought a billboard begging for Bzdelik’s ouster and toilet-papered the campus quad after Bzdelik left — and high-profile conference, Smart might jump ship.

That said, Smart often serves as a red herring these days. Throwing the press and fans off the scent, as it were. NC State, UCLA and a host of other big markets have wooed Smart and failed to varying degrees, according to numerous reports. Throwing Smart’s name into the fray almost feels like a distraction from the real hunt. Ben Howland, a former coach at UCLA with multiple Final Four appearances, serves the same purpose.

The collective NCAA sports world nodded its head in approval of Bzdelik’s retirement. Any coach will be an improvement over his abysmal performance. I am in a maligned minority that thinks hanging on to Bzdelik for one more year of torture and pain will benefit the school greatly in the long run. The underclassmen are all upperclassmen now — less willing to transfer and more indebted to their school for keeping their coach through a tough transitional period.

Wake, though, would be best served to go after their wish list with reckless abandon. Having met and dealt with furious Wake fans, I know they will be watching with snarls. Their proud tradition undercut by the recent past, the fans rightfully batter the internet and the streets with hatespeech for their alma mater. Bzdelik may have represented Athletic Director Ron Wellman’s interests, but he also signified everything uninteresting about the school’s recent run in sports.

Wake failed spectacularly this year, but they possess a very interesting future. If they squander this opportunity, most of the country will not notice. But if they succeed?

They could catapult to respectability quicker than one might think.