Wake Forest Sports Under Ron Wellman: Part I - Football

This is going to be the first of an extremely comprehensive review of Wake Forest on-field performance since the 1993-94 school year. Why 1993-94? Wellman took over as AD in October 1992, so 1993-94 is the first season in which it can rightfully be said that Wellman has presided over "his" department, particularly as it pertains to athletic results. The student-athletes participating during the 1992-93 season were already enrolled and in classes when Wellman took over; his impact on that season is minimal.

Anyway, here's how I plan on evaluating performance: on-field results (generally winning percentage, or stats derived therefrom; I would obviously prefer to use advanced metrics, but it opens up about 12 different gigantic cans of worms that I don't want to deal with) from each varsity team from every sport will eventually be evaluated. I plan on releasing one sport a week, probably sometime over the weekend; the plan is to go through the fall sports, then winter sports, and hopefully have the spring sports finishing by the time I get to them.

Now, some sports have traditionally been stronger than others. For that reason, every program will be judged against the condition in which Wellman found it, which I'm interpreting as results from the 1983-84 through 1992-93 seasons. These ten seasons (where applicable) will provide a picture of the condition of the program in question prior to Wellman's tenure which can then be compared to the results from 1993-94 onward.

The goal of all this is to figure out if Ron Wellman is worth his reputation as a stellar AD, or whether it is fair for disgruntled Wake fans to use his athletic results as grounds to call for his dismissal in the near future. There is obviously more to the AD position than consistently fielding successful sports teams, but I don't think anyone will disagree when I say that the most visible and important part of the position is Demon Deacon success in athletics.

***** Brief Program Overview *****

I will also try to provide a brief program overview, to recap the time the preceding ten seasons as well as Wellman's tenure. For football, it's important to establish one overarching fact before anything else...

Wake Forest, historically, has been absolutely god awful at football. Of "traditional" Div-I teams, Wake has the third worst winning percentage, narrowly edging Kent State and UTEP for that most dubious of honors. Kansas State without Bill Snyder may have been worse, but Bill Snyder is a wizard, and Kansas State's program now has a winning percentage of .446, whereas Wake is at .410.

When establishing the benchmarks for the football program, the hurdles are so low that it's almost laughable. Four seasons of Al Groh and six of Bill Dooley combined for one of Wake's better decades: a .441 overall winning percentage (.304 in conference) and four winning seasons, including one of Wake's three pre-Wellman bowls - the 1992 Independence Bowl (a win over Oregon). Groh resigned to take an assistant coaching job (with the Atlanta Falcons) and Dooley retired for the second time after the bowl victory.

With his first hire, Wellman hired Jim Caldwell, a well-regarded assistant under Joe Paterno at Penn State. Caldwell managed to successfully limbo (well) under the low standards to which Wake fans were accustomed, although he did have one winning season (of eight) in 1999, when he led the Deacs to an Aloha Bowl victory over Arizona State. However, Caldwell could not repeat the magic, and was released following a disappointing 2000 season. He was replaced by Jim Grobe, who Wellman lured from Ohio.

One of the things you'll see in the analysis below is that Grobe's teams, though not particularly pleasing aesthetically speaking, were actually pretty darn good. For Wake Forest teams, they were historically good, even outside the 2006 ACC Championship season. Even in the latter part of his tenure, when his teams were viewed as disappointments, Grobe routinely surpassed the levels set by Groh and Dooley. As recently as 2011, Grobe was 2 minutes away from leading Wake to a second ACC Championship game. The man, however distasteful you found his selection/loyalty to assistant coaches, was a spectacular find for Wake Forest, and if I run this analysis again in 10 years' time, Dave Clawson's hurdles should prove to be higher because of him.


Let's start the program analysis by looking at a chart of year-to-year results for the Wake program.


The horizontal yellow line indicates the 10-year average win percentage. The silver vertical line represents the beginning of Wellman's tenure for the purposes of this evaluation.

As you can see, the Wellman era has seen some massive fluctuation. It's pretty easy to pinpoint the Riley Skinner-led 2006-2008 squads, which rank as the most successful 3-year period in Wake football history. Aside from that, however, you can see that it's generally been a struggle for Wake teams to hit that .441 mark (8 times in the 21 years since 1993-94). Now let's look at conference results for the same period:


Here's how bad Wake has been in conference play traditionally: a .304 winning percentage means that a 3-5 conference record is viewed as improvement. All told, the numbers are pretty grim: one 0 win season and SIX 1 win seasons account for a full third of the seasons under Wellman's tenure. Cripes. I need to look at something pretty.



This - if you know what you're looking for - qualifies as pretty. I tend to prefer 4-year rolling averages as assessments of coaching - it basically measures what the graduating senior class for each year did. However, I decided to separate these averages based on coaches (as you can see), as a means of understanding how coaches fared during their tenures. As a note, I reset each average for each coach, so Grobe's first year would count as the only input for his rolling average (for example).

So what do we see? Caldwell, for all the fact that it took him awhile to get going, actually comes off looking like a program-building head coach. After inheriting a pretty dire situation from Dooley (who, again, had come out of retirement for the Wake position before re-retiring after 1992-93), Caldwell took a few years to get going, but then had the program moving upwards. It's telling I think that Grobe was able to take Caldwell's players to bowls in his first two seasons; specifically, it tells me that Caldwell left the program in better shape than he found it, even if he never won a lot as a coach.

One thing to note: there appear to consistently be dips in a coach's second or third season for whatever reason. If Clawson gets off to a poor start, it would be good to remember this and afford him some patience.


Let's see the cumulative stats on how Wellman's fared:


Hrm... thanks to Caldwell's poor start, Grobe was never able to quite pull Wellman's cumulative winning percentage to that .441 mark. The closest he got was .428 after 2008. What about conference play?


Now that's more like it! The cumulative winning percentage for conference play checks in at .321... which is still pretty bad, but is actually above Wake's historical standard. Hooray (or something).

Here's how those graphs look if Grobe is freed from the Caldwell anchor:



Just a reminder, one of these coaches has a cushy head coaching gig lined up for next season. The other is Jim Grobe. The world works in mysterious ways.

Lastly, here are visual representations of the accumulated performance against the historical standard during Wellman's tenure. By now, you should be understanding the generic arc of Wake football under Wellman - misery during the first few Caldwell years, a gradual building, early success under Grobe before a lull, the massive success from 2006-08, and then the inability of Grobe to replicate that success (or indeed, his success from before that period).


All in all, Wake has fairly significantly underachieved in football under Wellman. Despite that big push from 2006-08, the Deacs still finish 6.4 wins below what the historical precedent said they should have, which is almost one win every three seasons. The weird thing about this...


... is that the Deacs actually overperformed in conference, mainly thanks to Jim Grobe being something of a wizard himself. This would seem to indicate that Wake has played hard non-conference schedules. Maybe the Vanderbilt series is to blame?

And real fast, here's proof of Grobe's conference wizardry:



Grobe finished his Wake career at +10.4 conference wins against expected, so he improved Wake's historical benchmark by almost a conference win per season. Pretty heady stuff.

Here's this, if you want it:


Projected: 39.2-49.8 (19.5-44.5)

Actual: 26-63 (12-52)

Net: -13.2 (-7.5)


Projected: 70.1-88.9 (31.6-72.4)

Actual: 77-82 (42-62)

Net: +6.9 (+10.4)


Projected: 109.4-138.6 (51.1-116.9)

Actual: 103-145 (54-114)

Net: -6.4 (+2.9)

***** Conclusions *****

Not really a ton to say in conclusion. Wake had a decent decade prior to Wellman's hiring, and the football team definitely hasn't made great strides, 2006 notwithstanding. If you consider 2006-08 something of a fluke based on Grobe's track record in his other seasons being fairly consistent (and that the players during that period were overperforming compared to other Wake players before and since), then the picture gets significantly grimmer - it would be fair to say that Wake football overall has regressed somewhat in the past 21 years. If someone wants to volunteer to run regression on some of this, I think you'll find that those seasons - inasmuch as nearly 25% of data can - would fall well outside the usual correlation.

The other takeaway I took from this is that the complaints about Grobe - for all the good he's done - do appear to be justified. His overall rolling 4-year average this past season was nearly identical to Caldwell's during the latter's last season ( .367 for Grobe, .378 for Caldwell). There's been notable decline in the Wake program even from the pre-2006 portion of Grobe's tenure, and even though Grobe continues to win more conference games than he's been expected to, there's a noticeable downturn there as well.

We'll see about Clawson moving forward - the standards have definitely been raised from the pre-Wellman years, but whether that's due to program upgrades or a fluke-ish three season run that has drastically altered Wake fans' collective expectations remains to be seen.

Overall, as great as 2006 was, it hasn't been a stellar 21 years for Wake football, even by its relatively low standards.


Next week: Volleyball!

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