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Couldn't Be Happier: Bye Week

In his weekly article, Bart Johnston articulates his beliefs on why a large portion of the fan base is frustrated with Ron Wellman and Wake Forest athletics in general.

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

The Deacs managed to fend off the vaunted bye this week and maintain a 3-3 overall record on the season. With no game to break down in the weekly article, there were a variety of topics to talk about regarding Wake Forest football and athletics in general. Something I stayed away from last week and never really chimed in about at all was the alleged banner which was going to appear above the N.C. State tailgate calling for Athletic Director Ron Wellman's firing. The banner never came to fruition as the company backed out at the last minute due to a pilot cancellation, but the news of the banner reached several local media outlets as well as all the Wake Forest message boards. There have been a plethora of articles, both on Blogger So Dear and across the North Carolina market, about Ron Wellman and Jeff Bzdelik throughout the last couple of years taking a look at the situation from nearly every angle. Despite all these discussions, I've found that the writers on here still field a large number of questions as to why a subset of Wake fans are as frustrated and angry as they are. These are intriguing questions and a topic I think this article can potentially shine some light on.

The recent frustration and downright apathy towards the program from a contingency of Wake fans is an interesting phenomenon. Wake fans, for the most part, are ardent supporters of the team but have generally just accepted whatever has come their way. This has been labeled by some fans as a "Little Old Wake Forest" mindset. This mindset is exemplified by believing that Wake has a ceiling which it cannot break through as a sports program and that we as fans should be happy with any success which comes our way. For a large amount of time, this appeared to suit a lot of fans indeed until the 2006 Orange Bowl season came. It was a magical ride filled with excitement, hope, but most importantly a tangible accomplishment: an ACC Championship in football. Whether or not this was ever sustainable is a debate for another time, but for Wake Forest to be playing in an Orange Bowl seemed to convert a good portion of the fan base from a LOWF mindset to a "Wake can do anything" mindset. Prior to the Orange Bowl appearance in 2006 Wake Forest fans always had basketball season to look forward to. Many a two or three win football season were comforted by the knowledge that the basketball team was going to be a national contender come November. I personally have multiple memories of season ticket holders for both football and basketball shouting across the stands at each other "37 days until basketball season" in jest as Wake took their weekly pounding on the gridiron. But after the Orange Bowl and perhaps for the first time in school history, Wake Forest fans believed that the athletic program could be more than just a very good basketball school - it could be an excellent school at all athletics.

So how exactly did Wake Forest fans move from idolizing Ron Wellman in 2006 and 2007 to some portions of the fan base wanting to fly a banner over a tailgate calling for Wellman's firing in a most public way? There is only one legitimate answer: Jeff Bzdelik. It takes a lot to upset a group of Wake fans. If you were a Wake fan growing up in North Carolina you were constantly hearing about the successes of UNC, Duke, and even State from your public school cohorts. There was one more constant though - it was always about basketball. North Carolina cares about college football as long as it exists as a placeholder for college sports until the real sport, college basketball, enters in November to again be crowned king of sports in state. College football success can make you a household name for a week, college basketball success can place you in the pantheon of gods. UNC fans still talk about Michael Jordan, Duke fans still talk about Grant Hill, State fans still talk about Jimmy V running around looking for somebody to hug after the '83 title. Having a competitive basketball program as a North Carolina ACC school is not a luxury, it is a necessity for a supermajority of the fan bases. Until Skip Prosser's untimely death, Wake Forest was competitive year in and year out for nearly a fifteen year period which was almost certainly the school's most successful run ever. Depending on who you ask within the fan base, the cracks in the foundation of program started when Dino Gaudio took over or over the last couple years of Prosser's reign, but it is almost indisputable that the majority of the on-court struggles have occurred since Jeff Bzdelik was hired as head coach.

This article is not meant to be a discussion of Jeff Bzdelik and what he has or has not accomplished as the head coach at Wake Forest, but is instead focusing on why some Wake fans are so angry with the state of the program. This is my opinion on why people believe what they do. I endorse some of the views, and I do not agree with some of the views, but the following points are solely my observations on how others are acting and what they believe.

The answer to why people are angry, is Jeff Bzdelik. If the Wake basketball program had floundered in mediocrity over the past few years and at least flirted with some success, people wouldn't be calling for Wellman's head. Instead, the program hasn't even sniffed respectability and it has infuriated the fan base. People believe that it is just blatantly obvious why the program is struggling and that the problem is Bzdelik. Bzdelik was public enemy number one from almost the day he was hired. While a lot of fans were willing to see what he could do, there were some who never gave him a shot. These people were biased against him based on his lack of success at the college level, as well as the coaching names which people believed Wake could or should be hiring to fill in after Gaudio's firing.

Bzdelik remained public enemy number one for a year or so as Wake had one of the worst years in school history at 8-24. Wellman threw himself into the crossfire about this time period when he came out with an impassioned defense of Bzdelik, doubling down that Bzdelik was the guy for the job. This made a large portion of the fan base relatively upset, especially on the heels of the quotes solicited, collected, and put up on endorsing the Bzdelik hire, coupled with the appearance of impropriety between Bzdelik and Wellman dating back to the two coaches working together at Northwestern. Fans were mad that the basketball team had fallen from their number one ranking in the country to ACC bottom feeder in just over two years. They did not want the AD to say that he believed in the hire he just made because in their eyes Bzdelik had already flopped - he went 8-24 in his first season. There was nothing on the court to backup any of the information being fed to the fans from the Wake media department, and certainly nothing to warrant an enthusiastic "couldn't be happier" from Wellman about how he felt about Bzdelik as head coach.

Wellman still had a lot of good will built up with the fan base due to his long tenure and general success at hiring coaches at the school - Jim Grobe and Jay Vidovich typically being touted as the two big successes. After another losing year under Bzdelik though, fans began to turn on Wellman for a couple of reasons. First and foremost he continued to stand by Bzdelik and even appeared on radio post-games to explain why he felt sticking with Bzdelik was the right decision. Second though, the football team had not elevated itself to a level above historical competitiveness (for a Wake football team) based upon the Orange Bowl run as was expected. Suddenly people started questioning Grobe a little bit and thus took away one of the defenses of Wellman: that he hired extremely successful coaches. Grobe will always have a special place in the hearts of Wake fans, but the theory is that you can't keep a coach forever based on a couple years of success even if they're the best years in school history. The 2012 football team did not meet expectations and in 2013, the football team sat at 2-3 entering the State game while playing one of the easier FBS schedules in the country. Grobe failed to fire Lobo yet again and people were steaming mad. They wanted to blame somebody for these failures.

The basketball team in 2012 didn't come anywhere close to reaching even an NIT level of competitiveness and fans were outraged. According to a message board poll after the season, over 95% of respondents replied that they wanted Jeff Bzdelik fired. Yet Wellman persisted, and still persists, that Bzdelik is the right coach for the job. Fans have found this unacceptable and at this point they believe that Bzdelik is so bad at his job that it is a fireable offense that Ron Wellman hasn't fired him yet. People truly believe that Bzdelik has been so awful that Wellman must go with him for keeping him around. That's the rationale. I personally think the whole football thing is background noise. Wake fans like football, but they love basketball. Hell, on OGBoards a month ago half the respondents to the poll said they would move the football team to an FCS level if it meant the basketball team consistently made the NCAA tournament. Wake fans could never get mad enough over the football team being good or bad to want to fire Ron Wellman, it is all about basketball.

Beyond this, fans have been looking for things to nitpick Ron Wellman over. The Athletic Department hired Randy Casstevens to become the associate athletic director for finance, the same Casstevens who was with Krispy Kreme in a chief governance role until five months prior to the company missing their first earnings report. The result of all this with Krispy Kreme of course cost the company millions due to cooking the books. Another sore spot for Wake fans has been the way that they perceive media relations has treated the fans and the program during the past few years. Many fans think that media relations is just churning up stats and data to back up Wellman's every claim and thought. Again, I think this is all background noise. These are things people turn to for more evidence that Wellman has failed at his job when the initial claim, that he hired Jeff Bzdelik and failed to fire him in at timely manner while acting relatively smug about the whole ordeal, fails to move the listener. I am not passing judgment on the importance of these details, just commenting that I don't truly think they're very important in the scheme of fans being upset with Wellman's performance.

Where do Wake fans turn at this point and can there be any reconciliation between Wellman, the Athletic Department and a large portion of the fan base which Eamonn Brennan (sportswriter for ESPN) said has been exposed to a "seminar in mass alienation" by Ron Wellman? I don't truly have the answer to this. I believe that the reason most people are upset with the athletics department and Wellman though is the unwillingness to even entertain the notion that it may have been a bad decision. I truly believe that if Wellman came out today, fired Bzdelik, and made a complete mea culpa (I was wrong it was my fault, etc.) most fans would forgive him. As is though Wellman has consistently stuck his head in the ground and dug in deeper claiming Bzdelik will in fact turn things around. There is literally no evidence to support this position according to a sizable portion of the fan base.

The anger is almost entirely due to the Bzdelik situation and now people are merely picking things out that fits the Wellman-Out paradigm. It's unfortunate in some regards but in their eyes Wellman went to bed with dogs and woke up with fleas and now says it wasn't from the dog. Most Wake fans are so meh about football in general that the Grobe thing wouldn't be an issue if it weren't for Bzdelik. Lobo's performance has been very poor, but he's been here so long Wake fans just accept that nothing will change. Most Wake fans probably just view the athletic department as a conservative entity who refuses to change in any regard, a damning statement, but one which has supple evidence.

This article has already gone on for way too long, but in an attempt to sum things up I'll just say that this is an awkward situation that Wake currently finds itself in. A large portion, if not a majority, of the fan base adamantly wants Ron Wellman removed from his position. An even larger majority, probably a very high supermajority, believes that Jeff Bzdelik should be fired, and some portion of the fan base even feels strongly that Jim Grobe should be removed if he doesn't take steps in the offseason to improve the staff, starting with the firing of Steed Lobotzke. Is there a feasible solution to all this where everybody ends up happy? Absolutely not, but this article was intended to show why I believe people are so mad with Ron Wellman. It's not about Jim Grobe, it's not about Steed Lobotzke, and to some extent it's not even really about Ron Wellman - it's all about Jeff Bzdelik and the basketball program. At Wake it's always been about basketball, and it will almost certainly always be all about basketball. If the basketball problem isn't fixed soon, the anger will reach an even larger tipping point whatever that may be.