When Danny Manning is officially introduced publicly as the Wake Forest head basketball coach on Tuesday night, he will instantly become the face of Demon Deacon athletics alongside new football coach Dave Clawson. Manning will be met with arguably the biggest task of his young coaching career as he takes the reins of a basketball program that is coming off of the worst four-year stretch in their hundred year history. The struggles on the hardwood for Wake have been well chronicled on not only this website or the Wake Forest message boards, but have also been a talking point for any ardent fans of ACC basketball. The question on every Deacon fan's mind is simple: does Manning have what it takes to get Wake Forest back to the NCAA Tournament?
Nearly every time a new coach is brought in, whether it be at the high school, collegiate, or professional level, fans and media alike want an immediate answer on how good the hire was. In Manning's case the fan base was not only eager for a change from the previous regime but also had extremely high expectations that Ron Wellman would be able to land a big fish and instantly bring Wake back to basketball relevance. When rumors began flying about an offer being extended to Shaka Smart, alongside rampant speculation of the contract amount, many Wake fans bought in and instantly placed this as the expected hire. These rumors were only further fueled by reports of Wake "going for the home run hire" and President Hatch making off-the-cuff remarks about going for a big dog.
When the Deacs were inevitably turned down by Smart, as several other schools before them over the previous few years including UCLA, Illinois, N.C. State and most recently, Marquette, panic began to set in. Ultimately Manning's name was leaked last Monday morning to a couple of well-placed sources, the news began trickling out that Wake was interested in the second-year Tulsa head coach that afternoon, and by Friday the Demon Deacons had a new coach - and a big name coach at that.
While Manning is no Shaka Smart, the 6'10" former Kansas star and number one overall NBA Draft pick, brought interest from every corner of college basketball and was almost instantly considered a very solid hire. While some Wake fans remained on the fence about it, particularly given the Shaka angle from early in the search, the general consensus is that Manning is a good fit for the Demon Deacons. But how do we judge this hire?
Head coach searches, and the ensuing hire, always present a bit of an enigma in that there are a variety of ways to gauge how successful the hire was. Particular to the Wake Forest hire was the interesting confluence of factors spanning from the unsuccessful previous four years, what was likely Ron Wellman's final hire, how well the new coach would be able to assimilate with the current cast of players - many of which are rising juniors, and ultimately whether or not the new coach would win, and win often.
Perhaps propelled by the minute-by-minute attention that the 24/7 news cycle brings to sports of any kind in 2014, fans want instant answers to each of these questions. The "wait-and-see" approach for new coaches in this era of instant gratification appears to be rooted in an age-old mindset, but in the case of a new hire it often makes sense to delay judgment for a few years before casting judgment. Wake fans are chomping at the bit to see the new-look Deacons and I personally am no different, but it is likely to be one or two years before any progress one way or the other is seen.
Unlike he-who-shall-not-be-named, who was hired four years ago by Ron Wellman, Manning does not bring with him a lengthy resume. In the case of he-who-shall-not-be-named he had a track record, and it was not a good one. This blog, among other vocal portions of the fan base, had many members who instantly criticized the hire and I believe that this was correct to do so. The Deacs did not need a rebuild, did not need to tear the program down only to then claim that a foundation was being laid, and certainly did not need to willingly embark on a four-year pilgrimage to mediocrity (and beyond). However, the underlying scenario in 2014 is substantially different than it was in 2010, and Manning deserves time to establish himself. While he is largely an unknown, we simply have no idea if he has what it takes to compete at the ACC level or not - for better or worse.
Many fans will look at this aspect of inexperience as a head coach, and maintain that Wake should not be hiring a guy with two years under his belt at the helm of a mid-to-high major program. This certainly is not an absurd view by any stretch, but at the same time Manning's name recognition provides a benefit to a lesser-known coach that many other mid-major guys would have brought to Winston-Salem. By almost all accounts Manning is fantastic at developing inside talent, and with his past as a big man this should come as no surprise. While at Kansas under Bill Self, Manning undoubtedly learned the underlying practice techniques, drills, and mindset required to create and maintain a successful program. The major question will remain whether or not he will be able to replicate and sustain that success at Wake Forest.
It is difficult to gauge Manning's recruiting talent as he only spent two years at his last stop, and prior to that was at one of the bluebloods of college basketball. If you can recruit successfully at Kansas, that's not necessarily indicative of how you will fare at a school which does not in effect recruit for itself. Manning did recruit Perry Ellis for the Jayhawks and had Mitchell Wilbekin, Scottie's brother, committed to Tulsa for this upcoming season (note: Wilbekin announced that he will request to be let out of his LOI from the Golden Hurricane). It is presumed that Manning's own success will only be a positive on the recruiting trail, but reports of his introverted style of communication left some fans at Kansas unimpressed with his recruiting prowess.
To win in the ACC, it is first and foremost important to recruit and recruit well. Bad coaches can skimp by with top-class talent, but even the best tactical minds in college basketball will struggle to compete in one of college basketball's top conferences if they can't lure some of the top high school talent. While Manning's recruiting prowess remains to be seen, there is almost certainly optimism surrounding his ability to get on the recruiting trail once he assembles his assistant coaches.
At the end of the day, Wake needed a hire to bring excitement back to Winston-Salem. It was just over five years ago that the Deacs upended Clemson and UNC in back-to-back games to secure the top national ranking and there is no reason that Manning can't get Wake back to that position. Wake Forest does not require one of the best coaches of all-time to consistently compete in the NCAA Tournament, but it does need an individual who the players and fans alike can relate to and most importantly a coach who can maximize the talent on the floor.
It is too early to tell if Manning will take Wake to unprecedented heights, but I do not believe that it would take much to return Wake to the national scene. I expect that with the incoming freshmen, the returning junior class, and a new head coach on campus that the Deacs are only a year or two away from postseason play. Most importantly though, after four years Wake finally has something that has been sparse recently: hope. For a university almost constantly in the shadows of Duke and North Carolina, hope goes an incredibly long way and during the previous coach's tenure everyone who paid any attention got to see the fallout when a passionate fan base lost hope.
Regardless of process surrounding the hire, regardless of the past four years, and regardless of the contempt towards the athletic department as a result of these past four years, it is time for Wake fans to move on. Manning is a coach the fan base should be happy to coalesce behind and support. If Manning proves not to be the right coach for the job over the next three or four years, then it will be time to cross that bridge yet again but we are not yet at that juncture and he deserves time to prove that he can return Wake to the pre-he-who-shall-not-be-named era.
It's time to #MannUp and I, for one, am excited for the future. Maybe in a few years we will all be sitting in an oversized football arena watching Wake compete for a national title as Danny Manning paces the sidelines blocking everyone who sits floor-level behind the Wake Forest bench. He has the name-recognition, he has the opportunity, and he has brought the excitement. The time is now. As always, go Deacs!