I see it in the stands of venerable BB&T Field (nee’ Groves Stadium), hear it in the radio postgame shows and read it in the comments sections of blog posts here, there and everywhere. It is a single thread that permeates the very soul of the serious Demon Deacon fan. It can only be described as what happens when equal parts hope, success and gut-wrenching despair are thrown into a blender. A blender filled with the detritus of a history forged in defeat. I call it "Deacon Delusion."
I used to think that the worst thing that ever happened to our long-tortured fan base was Tim Duncan. For up until that point, including the lone Final Four appearance and a couple of bowl appearances, it was easy to be a Demon Deacon fan. We, as a fan base had settled into a comfortable routine. There were certain things that we came to expect every year with every contest. Fans understood that our beloved team was going to lose, and probably lose a lot. But it was still college football and basketball (figuratively speaking), and even if the Deacs lacked even one all-conference player their opponents were sure to have a little bit of star power. Even if the best Wake had to offer were Lee Garber, Jay Venuto or Cal Boyd we still got to see Natrone Means, Len Bias and Danny Ferry. And, if we were lucky, we got to see the professional teams that Dean Smith brought to Greensboro for our "home" games with carolina.
Note to Ed. Don’t you dare capitalize "carolina." Thanks. GTHC.
Additionally, we could also count on the fact that if Wake Forest took a lead or kept a contest close against one of the Big Two the boys in Old Gold would get screwed ( If you’ve ever spent a basketball season cursing a guy named Lenny Wirtz, please raise your hand. Thanks). But when "Timmy" got here, all of that changed. Yes, I know the basketball transformation began before that, but Wake Forest didn’t become one of the "It Girls" of college basketball until his arrival. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that it didn’t hurt young Duncan to have Randolph ChiIdress as a teammate (Back-to-back champs, suckers. Enjoy this video).
It was finally cool to be a Deacon fan. The press loved us. Coach Dave Odom used to invite "Guest Coaches" to sit with the team on the bench. Does anyone remember Ric Flair in the Deacon huddle? I do. Dick Vitale was there, too. They actually wrestled and the Deacon counted the 1-2-3 on the Nature Boy to the delight of a packed crowd at the LJVM. It was a great night. They were playing Minnesota, I think. They won. They won a ton of games. They didn’t win the National Championship, though. Heck, they didn’t even go to the Final Four. Tony Rutland got hurt, Oklahoma State got hot, and there it went.
And remarkably, people in Tie Dye Nation were ticked. Fans and boosters alike were horrified and outraged at this debacle. Seven hundred or so years of losing basketball had been swept to the curb over the course of a few seasons, but it didn’t matter. The basketball team was an abomination. Our coach stunk. Yours truly used to boo every time the Joel PA announcer introduced him during starting lineups. Why? Because he was the reason for the Deacons’ failure. They were winning more than they were losing every season, yet were deemed a failure.
For all of my twenty-something years at the time, I had spent most of it yearning for the Deacons to be ANYTHING other than a doormat. Now they were more than respectable most years and I was still unhappy. Why? I had it. I had Deacon Delusion.
I mentioned that I "used" to think that Tim Duncan was the worst thing to ever happen to Deacon athletics. That changed in 2006, when the (gasp!) football Deacons captured the ACC Football Championship. The Demon Deacons had done the unthinkable. The football program that used to play its home games against Florida State in Orlando were now trying to make beating the ‘Noles an annual tradition. It was, to be frank, the most amazing transformation I had ever seen in sports. Thankfully, I had transformed as well. The Deacon Delusion that permeated my being in the mid-nineties had been replaced by a profound appreciation for the present. I don’t know if it was getting older or wiser, but something was different. For instance, my most prized possession is my Orange Bowl ticket stub. If you recall, they lost that game. I didn’t care. I still don’t care. It was a glorious time.
That’s why I tend to chuckle when I hear folks calling for the heads of our coaching staff. Ever since that magical championship year, the expectations of our fan base have grown to ridiculous levels. Two bowl victories followed that Orange Bowl year, and during both seasons I heard the incessant calls for wholesale changes to the program. Really? Now, there are some things that I understand griping about. Do I take issue with play calling at times? Sure. Do I wish our defensive strategy included NOT playing ten yards off opposing receivers? Yep. However, I never played a down of football that didn’t involve a detachable flag or video game controller. I also have game programs from the bowl games that some of these same coaches worked in and won. No matter the quality of our team, I’m quite confident that the Deacons are one of the best-coached teams in the country. Every year.
My point is this: as a Deacon fan what are your expectations? I’m 41 now, married with a young son. I’ve been following Deacon football since the Mackovic era. These days, I would be happy and satisfied every year if the best Wake did was get bowl-eligible. Folks, they are not going to win a national title. They can compete in the ACC most years because, let’s face it, our conference sucks at football as a whole. All I’m saying is that Wake Forest could win out the rest of this season, win the conference and go to the Orange Bowl. They would still lose by 18 touchdowns to Alabama, LSU or Florida. Now, the common argument is that there is enough booster money out there to finance a big-time football team. However, that would have to be coupled with a relaxation in admission standards in order to get the athletes required to make that leap. I’m not an alumnus, but I would prefer Wake Forest’s players be able to engage in coherent discourse with Stan Cotten and company.
I say all of this to drive home this point: Every time Wake Forest football wins and wins a lot it is NOT SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN. That’s why as a longtime member of the fan base I would rather applaud our success and shrug off the losses. I invest less than $200 every year for my season football tickets. The team does not owe me a thing. Two hundred dollars buys me six Fall Saturdays at my Happy Place, which has no cash value. Time is my most precious commodity, and I wouldn’t trade my Saturdays for anything.
Except maybe a .500 record in basketball. That’s just a travesty.