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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

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The BSD crew set out for Vegas for a change of scenery but did they find anything that would change their outlook on Wake Forest basketball?

Manning in his natural habitat? THE FINAL FOUR! Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

On Friday morning I woke up in Vegas at 6 a.m. with a dull headache, rolled over to get some water, and poked my phone to see what time it was. Groggily shocked by a notification alerting me to 92 unread text messages, I opened my eyes a little wider and began the task of scrolling up through my texts - fully expecting to find that Wake Forest Athletics Director Ron Wellman had come to his senses and finally announced that he had relieved basketball coach Danny Manning of any further obligations.

On the weekend trip with a group of close friends from Wake, including several Blogger So Dear contributors, we had obviously spent the previous 24 hours speculating about when Wake would publicize a decision on Manning’s future and what that specific decision would entail. Despite our healthy cynicism of the program and its decision making based upon the previous nine years, we were all cautiously optimistic that a second consecutive 11-20 season - Manning’s third such twenty loss season at the school in five years - provided an obvious escape route for Wellman.

Deep down, however, each of us also had a doubt lingering uncomfortably in the back of our heads (or perhaps it was the Bud Lights from the previous evening) as it had been all quiet on the Wake Forest basketball front since the season concluding loss to Miami in the first game of the ACC Tournament. Naturally, this well instilled discomfort from years as Wake Forest fans again proved correct as my eyes - now wide open - caught their first glimpse of a text that said “Manning back for another year.”

I slowly shook my head and chuckled to myself while quickly accelerating through the first four stages of grief (clinging the longest to anger) but to this moment I have been unable to burst through to the fifth and final stage - perhaps the most damning of them all - acceptance.

So to you, the reader, I offer this article by way of my own catharsis in hopes of obtaining the grief nirvana and accepting that which we cannot change. Perhaps this acceptance will manifest itself with the embrace of what Wake Forest has going for it with returning players and incoming recruits, or perhaps, with a sinister (yet infinitely more likely) manner of my increased disinterest and apathy of a program that I have watched since before I could walk.

Let’s embark together shall we?

1. Denial

Perhaps I simply misread the first text I saw? This glimmer of hope quickly faded as I repeatedly clicked through texts from other friends and family delivering the same grim news about Danny. So indeed, this news traveled fast and it simply was what it was. However, the scheduled press conference had not yet started so I (naively) remained hopeful that the fan base would receive some cogent explanation for Manning’s retention.

Ever since Jeff Goodman’s early season report concerning an expensive buyout for Manning’s contract (in the range of $18 million), we have known as a fan base that there was certainly some possibility that he would return for at least one more season. While I personally believed - and still do - that any program competing at the highest levels of Division 1 athletics must be willing to bite a short term financial bullet to prevent longer term harm, if the rumors of an eight figure buyout were true one could plausibly conceive that we may be unable (or simply unwilling) to pull the trigger.

As the press conference got underway back in Winston-Salem my hopes of a cogent explanation faded quicker than my excitement for each and every ACC game after watching Wake play for the first five minutes.

[As an aside, the press conference was an odd occurrence in and of itself; I mean who ever heard of holding a press conference to announce that you’re bringing back a coach for another year unless you know that you have to explain yourself for an unpopular opinion? Boston College buried the news that their head coach Jim Christian - who has an even worse record than Danny does through his first five years - would return with a simple and concise press release in the middle of last week.]

Wellman’s opening statement seamlessly eased my transition - as his comments so frequently do - from the denial stage to the next stage: anger. So let’s keep this journey moving forward and take a look at what the outgoing AD had to say about his decision to retain Manning for another season (which, by the way, begins six months after Wellman leaves this job).

2. Anger

There is a considerable amount to unpack with Wellman’s statements, so I’ve pulled some specific quotes I want to focus on from him with the caveat that the entire press conference (or so called “conversation”) is worth reading and re-reading if you want to see further evidence of what sportswriter Eamonn Brennan once dubbed Ron Wellman’s “seminar in mass alienation” of a fanbase.

Thanks to Les Johns for providing a transcript of the presser and the handouts. Les is a great resource for Wake coverage and you should subscribe to him today if you do not already.

“When you have a couple seasons like we did, there are a lot of questions. So we wanted to address that, other than just drift into the next season. We wanted to let everyone know that we are committed to Danny. I believe our future is bright with him at the helm. We wanted to put all that behind us and get everyone to look to the future.”

Yes Ron, there are in fact lots of questions after back-to-back 20 loss seasons at an ACC school. Wake has never had back-to-back 20 loss seasons before in its entire 100+ year basketball history and Manning now as many total 20 loss seasons at the school (3) than every other coach in Wake Forest history combined.

You know what is another good way to address back-to-back historically bad seasons? Firing the person who is responsible. But I digress - remember, this is the anger talking.

For purposes of breaking down these comments, I’m going to take everything stated at face value. That is, I’m going to suspend my disbelief for the time being and accept that Wellman truly means it when he says “I believe our future is bright with [Manning] at the helm.”

My primary question here is: why? Why do you believe this Ron?

While past performance does not necessarily guarantee future results, it’s certainly one heck of a place to start. And in Manning’s case, we have the following past performance(s): five seasons, one NCAA Tournament “appearance”, three seasons outside the top 100 in KenPom, three 20-loss seasons, zero seasons with a top 125 defensive efficiency, and one season (last season) where Wake ranked in the bottom 15 in the country in effective field goal percentage. I guess we’ve just gotta make our shots and we’d be right back in the thick of things!

Moving on, Wellman offered that he doesn’t “talk about contracts and details of contracts of course. This was strictly a basketball decision, absolutely.” Understandable, Wake is a private school and has no real obligation to discuss contracts. However, I will note that Wake has a frustrating history of limited transparency in regards to, well anything that has to do with athletic administration frequently leaving fans and donors in the dark about what to expect from the future.

Further, Wellman’s comment above came in response to a question on whether he would hire Danny Manning today if he were not bound by a contract. In other words, his response is non-responsive to the inquiry.

In some sense I suppose a blanket statement that Wellman does not talk about contracts covers a hypothetical about what Wellman would do with a future contract that does not exist, but this response was simply a robotic talking point. While I understand that he’s not going to come out and provide a concrete “yes” or “no” to this question, he could have easily offered that he is prepared to move forward with Danny at the helm from the current juncture - which is our reality.

The language that this was “strictly a basketball decision” seemingly addresses the swirling rumors and innuendo that we are financially hamstrung by a contract extension Wellman gave to Manning two years ago (quite unnecessarily by the way - this was simply an unforced error - nobody was hiring Danny away after one NCAA First Four appearance). But it also doubles down on Wellman’s earlier statement that he is happy and confident with Manning at the helm moving forward for “basketball reasons” and as articulated above - he has provided no reason for that belief while reality indicates that there is scant evidence for such belief.

Indeed, let’s take a look at the five-year performance of the ACC schools (encompassing Danny’s tenure at Wake Forest) and see if we are even remotely “historically competitive” or whether there is some reason to be optimistic about Danny at the helm for “basketball reasons”:

ACC Performance 2015-19

School Record Winning Percentage 5 Year KP Average 5 Year KP Median Best Season Worst Season NCAA Tournaments
School Record Winning Percentage 5 Year KP Average 5 Year KP Median Best Season Worst Season NCAA Tournaments
Boston College 62-100 0.382 141.6 123 77 225 0
Clemson 95-69 0.579 44.6 45 14 84 1
Duke 148-37 0.8 8.2 4 3 17 5
Florida State 115-58 0.665 42.8 27 14 99 3
Georgia Tech 81-87 0.482 89 86 51 119 0
Louisville 117-54 0.684 18.6 17 7 38 3
Miami 109-61 0.641 41.6 41 15 73 3
North Carolina 147-43 0.774 5.8 6 2 10 5
NC State 98-71 0.58 59.8 46 32 109 2
Notre Dame 117-62 0.653 40.4 35 9 95 3
Pittsburgh 78-87 0.473 104.2 79 37 227 1
Syracuse 103-70 0.595 43.2 41 27 55 3
Virginia 144-29 0.852 5 4 1 12 5
Virginia Tech 100-68 0.595 66.4 50 11 175 3
Wake Forest 65-93 0.411 106.4 118 36 169 1

I believe the table speaks for itself, but it appears that we aren’t particularly competitive historically but merely competitive with Boston College. Yes, we have an NCAA appearance two years ago, which is more than a couple other schools in the conference can say, but by the same token, our average and median KenPom is abysmal both objectively and comparatively to our peers.

Suffice it to say that power conference schools should never have a five-year run where they are outside the top 100, much less with one coach who then receives support from his AD for “basketball reasons.”

As a side note: if anyone has questions about the chart above I’ll be happy to answer them in the comments or in an additional article.

“There were some very encouraging signs in my mind, in the way we competed at the end of the season. The team chemistry was very good. They showed a lot of grit in the last seven-or-eight games.”

Yes, Wake at times appeared to be improving as the season progressed - including a missed putback effort which would have given the Deacs their first win in Cameron since Tim Duncan’s senior year. However, if you look at Wake’s KenPom ranks over the time period Wellman references there is hardly much of a difference. Entering the UNC game on February 16 the Deacs ranked 177th in the country and now, with our season concluded, the Deacs stand at 169th. An eight spot improvement - particularly in light of the top 100 preseason ranking - is hardly anything to hang your hat on. This is a case of relying on anecdotes and individual observations rather than any measurable statistical analysis.

“Whenever you go through something like this, your fans become disgruntled, and we understand that. I wouldn’t want them to be happy with where we are. This suggest that our fans are passionate. They have high expectations. I have no doubt that our fans, because of their passion for our program, while they are disgruntled, frustrated and even angry right now, when we start winning, they will be back . . .

We have a loyal group of fans and I am confident when we start winning again they will be with us. The level of frustration we have seen from the fans is an indication of their passion for the program. They care deeply about the basketball program.”

Ah yes, Wellman’s discussion of the fan base in this situation. Classic. He is, of course, right that Wake has passionate fans and acutely notes that they are disgruntled and upset. However, this entire quote reveals exactly why (or how?) Wellman continues to make poor decisions: he just takes the fan base for granted and believes everyone will come back if and when Wake ever starts winning again in basketball. He may turn out to be correct on this front, but I firmly believe that Wellman’s actions over the previous nine years on the basketball front have permanently and irreparably damaged support from a large portion of fans. Not to mention, Ron hasn’t done anything over the past few years which have actually set us back on the road to winning again.

Wake is a small school that relies on support from the local area to sell basketball tickets and provide a great environment for games. Students who have graduated in the last decade have barely experienced a modicum of success and have no real reason to be passionate moving forward about Wake basketball. They never got the chance to pack the Joel for top 10 matchups and they are not likely to have any great ties to the program. This hurts fan engagement and it hurts future donations. This is squarely on Ron for taking the fans for granted and this is arguably his most fatal misstep as AD.

With Wellman’s comments comprising the “anger” portion (and there are many other gripes I have with his general tone, demeanor, and condescension but this article is already long in the tooth so perhaps it is for another day), I turn to Manning’s comments to reconcile my anger about next year with hopes that he can simply help me avoid the cause of grief through a positive outlook and insightful comments. Let’s take a gander:

3. Bargaining

When asked by Les Johns about who is responsible for Manning having a young team in his fifth year as head coach, Manning responded:

“What do you mean, who’s responsible . . . I think that’s always going to fall on the head coach, without question. But I don’t think you’re going to be able to control the decision-making of a kid. Those days are gone.”

This answer is good and well - he claims responsibility! well sort of; my parents taught me to ignore everything “before the but” when someone is apologizing or claiming responsibility - until you have to acknowledge that Wake’s turnover rate under Manning has far exceeded the national norm. By my count, Wake has graduated one four-year scholarship player during Manning’s tenure. I’d be shocked if there is another Division 1 program reeling from the same continued state of eternal turnover. While Bryant Crawford and Doral Moore were both eager to pursue their professional careers, it’s concerning to say the least that Manning has been unable to retain top talent - forcing his teams to forge on with a younger and inexperienced group of players with each passing season.

This leads to the obvious next question: what type of step forward does Manning expect to take next year in his sixth season. And oh boy, hold onto your hats because this one is a wild ride:

“We’re going to take a step. I don’t know how big that step is going to be, but we’re going to take a step. No question.”

I cannot even find the words to analyze this response to what kind of progress Wake is going to make next year. I understand Manning is not going to provide a concrete response here as to what he needs to do to keep his job, but holy cow. To state that the head coach of our program does not know how big a step Wake will take but merely that we will take “a step” certainly does nothing to assuage the fan base’s doubts regarding Manning as the head coach. Will it be a backwards step? This quote speaks so loudly regarding where Wake basketball currently stands that I’m not even sure it requires further analysis beyond the obvious: it’s meaningless rambling completely divorced from reality.

“I want to go undefeated. You’re asking me. Competitiveness, you want to win every game. To me that step is you’re winning more games. To me that step is you’re in the conversations of what going on right now with March Madness. That’s what you play for. That’s what you compete for. How big that step is going to be? I don’t know, but we’re going to take one.”

And...Danny simply doubles down on the nonsense from his last answer in the immediate next response. Yes, the goal is clearly to be in the conversation for the Big Dance, but as pointed out above Wake is so far removed from the relevant discussion that the team could take a monumental step forward next year and still have no chance at any postseason berth - much less the NCAA Tournament.

In this same vein, Manning also offered:

I am excited for next season. We will have most of this year’s squad back. Nine of our top 10 scorers are back. We have 91% of our rebounds back and 92% of our minutes returning. We saw a lot of development from that group last season and can’t wait to see the progress they will make this summer. We like our incoming class and our transfers who are becoming eligible. I think the potential for this group is high and I can’t wait to get to work with them.”

This quote really drives home the point of how perfect the timing was to make a coaching change. If we are going to actually compete next year with the roster we have and additions through transfers/recruits, why not take the base we have and provide a coach who can offer a fresh start and new views? And if the problem surrounds the threat of players leaving if Manning were not retained, then quite frankly why is this that big of a deal? I love the players and have nothing but support for them however the team just finished 169th in KenPom and if some of the players on that team were to have sought another option without Manning I cannot fathom that this would critically wound the program’s trajectory based upon where we currently stand.

Danny’s responses, simply echoing large portions of Wellman’s statements while offering immeasurable platitudes about “taking the next step” did not help reform my grief in the least, in fact it merely added to my frustration driving a full-fledged mental crisis into the next step: depression.

4. Depression

While standing in line at a sportsbook later Friday morning to place a few casual wagers on teams actually still participating in this year’s college basketball season, our group looked up when someone shouted out “Wake Forest? Go Deacs!” from the line ahead of us. We answered the call with an excited “Go Deacs” and began talking about Wake with an enthusiastic, if not slightly inebriated, fellow Wake fan. His second comment to us was “hey with Manning out soon the tides can change.” He had such excitement in his voice that it did hurt a bit to offer to him that we had not, in fact, fired Manning but instead doubled down on him for another year.

The fellow Wake fan’s response is not suitable for print here (nor is his ensuing two minute rant about the situation) but did provide a sense of community of sorts for our group. It also served as a reminder that Wake fans love the school and are passionate about their sports, specifically basketball. We wallowed together for a bit and eventually parted ways.

After receiving a couple of well-timed drink tickets upon placing our bets, we as a BSD group felt there was no better time like the present to put up some shots together (which we did in fact make) in what we lovingly referred to as #MarchSadness (or #ProHumanishote) Indeed, a tradition unlike any other: Wake’s eternal suffering in the month of March. Far too appropriate (and liberating) for the news of the day.

As discussed above, I have not yet come out of the depressive state and am indeed still in my feelings about this whole decision. Hell, it took me almost a week to even figure out what I wanted to articulate in an article, and I wanted to be sure I removed myself from the raw emotions stemming from Ron’s announcement before I took to this forum.

Although I was and remain sorely disappointed and disgusted by the state of our basketball program, I was grateful that when this announcement came out I was surrounded by close friends forged at Wake Forest to share the time with. We have had good times and bad with Wake basketball but through it all we have only been drawn closer by the events of each passing year. In the end, I suppose that Wake basketball has given us the greatest gift of all: community.

5. Acceptance

Despite my best efforts, I am no closer to the final step of the grieving process than when I began the article. As the summer passes by and we approach the start of another season with Danny Manning as head coach, perhaps these feelings of contempt will subside. The hopes of John Currie coming in at the start of May provides a glimmer of optimism for the future, a kernel of excitement of what is to come.

But for now, there is no acceptance, there is merely a tired and defeated fanbase bludgeoned over the head again by a seemingly incongruous decision with the idea that Manning’s retention was for “basketball reasons” and basketball reasons alone.

However, as always, go Deacs.