Wake Forest AD Ron Wellman sacrificed innovation for 'culture' with Jeff Bzdelik hire

Streeter Lecka

Ron Wellman seems afraid to admit mistakes and afraid to fail. And by hitching his wagon to the dying star that is Jeff Bzdelik, he has failed the fans of Wake Forest.

There's an old saying, "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." Now that wouldn't apply to everything, but with regards to the media, this rule tends to keep you out of trouble. Columnists and personalities come under fire for taking a negative stance with regards to an outlook or a player, and in today's 24-hour, non-stop news cycle that NBA writer Ethan Strauss referred to as "a web proportionality issue where mistakes cause such a criticism avalanche," there's nowhere to hide when things go bad.

With eyes and voices on everything a person in a position of power says or does, it is even more of critical importance to make decisions self-consciously. No longer can a quip or passing remark in an interview or broadcast go unnoticed. Rather, as was the case with Rob Parker's suspension from ESPN following his insensitive comments on RGIII, a few choice words could have a profound impact on your future. People have lost their jobs over rants on Twitter or Facebook.

And yet, with all this extra opportunity for soapboxing, people do have a voice if used effectively. Such is the rallying cry of the Wake Forest fan base.

It's no secret there's dissent among the Demon Deacon faithful. It's been growing; has shown its fervor in a number of isolated incidents since the high watermark of the 2008-2009 basketball season. And although the 21st century has brought a number of exciting initiatives and an unprecedented amount of access between fans and the teams of which they choose to be fans, at first the media lagged behind -- and plenty of programs have yet to make the connection between effective communication in today's society and what can best be identified as "damage control."

I don't know why there's such a reluctance to take the online era seriously. I don't understand why organizations opt instead to tune out negativity and constructive criticism. The old guard stands behind a misguided notion of how things "should be done" and how "winning (or in the case of companies, profitability) cures everything." But why isn't pragmatism more prevalent? Every company could someday get beat. Every sports program's success could run out.

You see from top to bottom in sports the teams with an edge tend to find a way to win. The Patriots aren't just dynastic because of a Hall of Fame quarterback; they have an organization committed to staying ahead of current trends. The NFL is a copycat league, and the team that does it first moves on to something new when everyone else is trying to perfect what was already done. The Memphis Grizzlies spent years mired in mediocrity, so in hopes of changing things, they hired analytics expert John Hollinger.

Sometimes these measures dont work, but the audacity in them shows a commitment to attempting success. When that fails, look for another way. This is called prototyping. It's a principle tenet of design thinking, something that used to be reserved for the creative fields, but has since been picked up and implemented in business schools.

If something isn't successful, you abandon it and start over. You never stop asking questions. You never sacrifice overall sustainability for shortcuts. You never place incremental success over fundamental innovation.

That's what has been so puzzling about the last few years of the Wake Forest athletic department. For almost two decades, Ron Wellman was looked upon as an innovator. He was a man who did more with less and looked for out-of-the-box answers to questions that seemed impossible to answer. For one of the smallest Division I programs, he injected excitement and radical changes to the money-making sports.

But all that went away. There's been an overall reluctance to evolve that is more than just alarming, it's destructive. There have been patterns of deterioration that have been noticeable to those outside the department for years that remain untouched and unaddressed. And when the flagship program had an opportunity to press the reset button and bring new life and vitality after a tumultuous few seasons that saw the loss of one of the most beloved coaches in all of basketball bring way to scandal and disappointment, Wellman opted to go with a retread, a game manager, a safe pick tethered to the 'good ole' days' of basketball.

That was the first mistake.

In the years and interviews since, Wellman had a chance to do what any good leader does: bridge the gap between his employees and those he represents (i.e. the fan base). Instead, he has chained himself to his iconoclastic notions, drawing a line in the sand between those he serves and those he hired. Rather than taking a look at the process itself and the manner in which the department is operating, he took the look of a CEO unwilling to notice his company hemorrhaging money while his company thinks cutting Christmas bonuses is the way to make the company look more profitable to shareholders.

In an interview with Dan Collins on Dec. 17, 2012, Wellman said:

Our fans will come back when the team wins. The fans who are disgruntled right now, I understand their disgruntlement. We're not winning as much as they want to win. And they want the same thing as I want. And they'll come back when our team wins. So we just have to win, and we will do that eventually.

A good leader constantly asks himself, "could things be better?" and looks at the opportunity for change. In their book Switch, Chip and Dan Heath examine why it is so hard for companies and organizations to make decisions that will positively impact the future. The reason often goes into a push and pull between the emotional and rational parts of one's brain. When discussing how to enact change, the Heaths point to providing clear direction, boosting motivation and determination -- or simply, shaping the path.

They write:

We are frequently blind to the power of situations. In a famous article, Stanford psychologist Lee Ross surveyed dozens of studies in psychology and noted that people have a systematic tendency to ignore the situational forces that shape other people's behavior. He called this deep-rooted tendency the "Fundamental Attribution Error." The error lies in our inclination to attribute people's behavior to the way they are rather than to the situation they are in.

Wellman merely believes fans are angry and upset because the team isn't winning. He has not picked up on the fact the fan base is angry and upset because the administration has made no effort to understand them or show a commitment to building a sustainable and healthy organization. The hiring of Jeff Bzdelik was not a fundamental change in culture; if anything it was an attempt to remain in stasis and ignore the bigger problems facing the program. The recruiting class was held in tact. The assistant coaches had direct ties to the previous regime. The basketball facilities largely remained the same.

Tim Brown, the CEO and president of IDEO, consistently rated one of the ten most innovative companies in the world, wrote a book called Change By Design, which investigates how ideas come to be and how to transform organizations. He writes:

A culture that believes that it is better to ask forgiveness afterward rather than before, that rewards people for success but gives them permission to fail, has removed one of the main obstacles to the formation of new ideas.

Ron Wellman seems afraid to admit mistakes and afraid to fail. And by hitching his wagon to the dying star that is Jeff Bzdelik, he has failed the fans of Wake Forest.

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