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Does Wake Forest have time to fix its basketball problem before ACC expansion?

As Wake Forest men's basketball slogs into another bleak February in Jeff Bzdelik's third year, John Mundy takes a broad view of Deacon athletics and the opportunities presented by the current state of affairs.

Rick Pitino shouts instructions to his charges (and possibly, officials), at the Yum! Center.
Rick Pitino shouts instructions to his charges (and possibly, officials), at the Yum! Center.

It's morning in North Carolina, and it's a Chamber of Commerce type of day. The sun is shining, frost is quickly melting and the promise of a productive day beckons. The good citizens of Winston-Salem scurry about, checking off lists and fulfilling daily obligations. This is a good little city, still in the midst of transforming from a tobacco and textiles town to whatever industry will pay the bills for its people. Far from becoming a ghost town, a revitalized downtown, sports and a thriving arts community present a myriad of meeting places for folks of all backgrounds to eat, drink and be merry.

Winston-Salem's ongoing identity crisis (Is it a tobacco town? Is it a technology town? A medical town?) has long extended to its collegiate sports identity. Unlike the city of Charlotte, which boasts professional franchises (kind of) for the community to claim as their own, Winston-Salem should be Wake Forest's city. After all, the Demon Deacons are the highest profile team in the Triad. However, much of its populace hangs degrees from schools located in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill on their office walls.

In other words, Winston-Salem is a house divided.

That's why it's so important, in the area of entertainment by sport, for Wake Forest to keep its jewels polished. Long a cellar-dweller in the longed-for days of the Big Four and the Dixie Classic, Deacon athletics began to experience a renaissance of sorts with the arrival of Rodney Rogers and Dave Odom. As Odom and company began to re-brand Wake Forest basketball as an entity with a national profile, new athletic director Ron Wellman set about the arduous task of reshaping the rest of Wake Forest athletics.

Wellman's work paid numerous dividends in both revenue and non-revenue sports. During Wellman's tenure, Wake Forest boasted competitive-to-dominant programs in soccer, tennis, golf, men's basketball and football. The Deacon trophy case displays three national titles won by Jennifer Averill's field hockey program, the 2007 national title won by men's soccer, 2007 men's doubles national championship, 2006 ACC football championship trophy and two ACC men's basketball trophies.

Considering Wake Forest's size and rigorous academic curriculum, Wellman's overall record of success over two decades is difficult, if not impossible to disparage.

However, the gleam has begun to erode from what was once a shining emblem of athletic success. What's more confounding is that, unlike many ruts like this, the origin of the erosion is easy to pinpoint and is seemingly relatively simple to resolve.

Let me be clear.

Wake Forest athletics does not need a complete overhaul. Non-revenue sports continue to enjoy success, and the football program is going through what I consider to be normal growing pains when an organization faces a change in expectations. After all, the football team was a win away from a bowl game, despite a season rife with suspensions, dissent, attitude problems, coaching staff upheaval and a rash of injuries. The women's basketball team is undergoing a regime change, and the future is bright for a program coming off its first 20-win season in many, many years. Long considered a "diamond in the rough," Wake Forest and its supporters should be proud of these accomplishments.

The men's basketball team is a different story. Very different. And it makes no sense.

The timeline has been rehashed so many times: Wake Forest fired head coach Dino Gaudio following a 2009-10 season in which the Deacons finished 20-11 and made the second round of the NCAA tournament. The season before, the Deacs finished second in the ACC, only to inexplicably get blown out by Cleveland State in the first round of the NCAAs. Regardless, the basketball program was competitive. More than competitive.

What followed is what can't be explained. At least, has yet to be explained well.

Forget the reasons given for Gaudio's ouster. Forget the reasons given for Jeff Bzdelik's sudden, unexpected hiring. Forget the attrition rate during the current coach's tenure. Finally, forget the constant reminders of how young the team is, and instead remember this:

When any organization's initial messaging following an event causes alienation among its stakeholders, not refining (or outright changing) the message is going to destroy any existing trust and goodwill towards said organization. In short, this has been a disaster since the beginning. How bad is it? Instead of my inbox and Twitter timeline being replete with optimism and praise following the Deacs' upset of North Carolina State, more than half of the feedback I read was negative.

That may be a sign of the society we live in today, but it's a sign nonetheless. The goodwill is gone. As a matter of fact, if this basketball team won the rest of its games, won the ACC Tournament and the head coach was retained, a large percentage of the base would STILL be upset.

Right or wrong, that's a result of how this whole thing has been handled.

That's why I prefer to look at this situation as a business event. In my career outside of writing, I have been involved with organizations who made a habit of poor messaging, only to result in disaster. I was a (small, minuscule) part of the mid-Nineties banking boom in Charlotte which today is in a post-TARP recovery effort. Winston-Salem itself was affected by such, when Wachovia bank was absorbed by First Union Corporation in a "merger of equals."

That didn't go well, and neither did this basketball debacle.

If only First Union had backtracked and said, "We're just buying the Wachovia name because our mismanagement has made our ticker a curse word on Wall Street," maybe it would have better received. Maybe not. However, if Wake Forest would have re-messaged similarly after the initial backlash, perhaps the Deacon fan base would be more understanding of the current state of affairs.

And what a state it is.

The Deacons are now oh-fer since that glorious night against the Wolfpack, including three road losses. Those road losses were by 20, 26 and 25 points, respectively, and are on the coattails of a 16-point loss at Clemson that still boggles the mind. Regardless of youth, my admittedly untrained eye sees a team that plays its road games in a semi-listless state devoid of any sustained group fire. There are individual flashes of fight or a competitive mean streak (read: Devin Thomas), but this particular squad and the teams of the prior two years have not displayed the all-for-one attitude so dearly needed by rebuilding programs.

I always think back to Rick Pitino's first days at Kentucky, where he inherited multiple NCAA sanctions and a two-year postseason ban. Four players remained loyal to that thoroughly depleted program, despite knowing there were two straight years (at least) of hard times ahead. Instead of going through the motions, these unheralded (save for Sean Woods) players played every game as if it were their last, earning Big Blue Nation's empathy and respect in the process. So much so that, following their senior season (which ended on Christian Laettner's historic shot), their jerseys were immediately hung in the rafters of Rupp Arena. That group of players, now known as the "Unforgettables," emulated the passion, fire and energy projected by their young head coach and ultimately found success.

I mention Rick Pitino also because, if you haven't heard, he and his Louisville Cardinals are a-comin'. So are Jim Boeheim, Mike Brey and Jamie Dixon. Soon. A league that is admittedly down save for Duke, N.C. State and Miami with UNC not far behind is about to get infinitely tougher in a hurry for those feeding at the bottom. An inability to cope at McCamish Pavilion does not translate well to success at the Yum! Center or Carrier Dome.

Wake Forest has, in the past, demonstrated an ability to adjust and adapt well to a changing landscape, both academically and athletically. It would seem the current quandary surrounding the men's basketball program presents the University with an opportunity to polish the Crown Jewel of its athletic offerings and once again put Wake on the national stage. A failure to do so will only further alienate a disgruntled donor base and tarnish what is – and what should always be – a premium brand that so many, including Ron Wellman, helped create.