WFU athletics director looks for fresh start as he assesses 22 years at Wake Forest

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Ron Wellman has been athletic director at Wake Forest University for 22 years (Lauren Carroll/Winston-Salem Journal)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Ron Wellman was asked Thursday to take stock of the Wake Forest University athletics program at the end of his 22nd year as the school’s director of athletics, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

The two selling points to which he pointed were men who have yet to coach their first games at the university. Instead of accomplishments, so few and far between the past five years, Wellman touted a fresh feeling of a bright new beginning with the hiring of Dave Clawson to coach football and Danny Manning to coach men’s basketball.

“A lot of things excite me about our program,” Wellman said. “The two new coaches have generated a lot of enthusiasm amongst our fans, and the way they have been embraced by our teams and the enthusiasm of the players they are coaching — all the way through the fans and the community members.

“They have done so many things right already that I envision some great years ahead in football and basketball. But I envision great years ahead of us in many other sports, too.”

Wellman’s reasons for looking so readily ahead and so reluctantly behind most likely would come as no surprise to anyone invested emotionally or otherwise in Wake Forest athletics since the heyday of five to 10 years ago, when the Deacons were winning championships and Wellman was winning awards as the nation’s best director of athletics.

In the trajectory of his career, Wellman was still making a name as the athletic director at Illinois State (1987-91) the last time Wake Forest fans had so little for which to cheer for so long.

Lean years

Five seasons have passed since the Deacons last enjoyed a winning season in football. Four long and rancorous seasons have passed since the Deacons last enjoyed a winning season in basketball. Three academic years have passed since the Deacons finished above 89th in the nation and above last in the ACC in the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics’ Directors Cup — a competition that measures the overall strength of college programs.

As recently as 2007, Wake Forest ranked 23rd in the Directors Cup. In 2010, it ranked 37th in the nation and sixth in the ACC, ahead of Miami, Georgia Tech, Clemson, Boston College, N.C. State and Virginia. All have passed the Deacons, who have ended the past three academic years ranked No. 92, No. 89 and No. 98 in the nation.

“A lot of factors contribute to that, and it’s simple,” Wellman said. “We just haven’t been as successful as we need to be.

“You can talk about injuries, you can talk about recruits that didn’t come that you thought you were going to get to come, you can talk about a lot of factors. We just haven’t done as well as we need to do. And we’ve got to find ways to do better.

“I think we’ll be better (in 2014-15) than the last three years, but we’re still not where we want to be and need to be. Our goal is to be in the top 25. And we’ve done that.”

Unity required

The most pressing question facing Wellman, and Wake Forest as a whole, might be one of viability. Is there still a place in major-college athletics for a small school (4,815 undergraduates) with ever-escalating costs of tuition and fees (projected to be $62,538 in 2014-15) and a relatively modest endowment (about $1 billion, approximately 75th among U.S. universities) to compete in a conference that has only become more competitive with the most recent round of expansion.

Wellman’s job is to assure that there is.

“It can absolutely be done,” Wellman said. “And there are models of that across the country, private schools doing exceptionally well in intercollegiate athletics. Wake Forest has done that in the past, and we plan to do it in the future.

“There’s one way of doing it, and that is we’ve got to have everybody in lockstep about the importance of athletics at Wake Forest, and we do — whether it be our trustees, or our president, the faculty and staff, students, alumni, community members. Everyone needs to recognize what a good athletic program at Wake Forest can do for all of those constituencies, and it can be very beneficial to everyone.

“So that’s what we intend to do.”

Winning cures ills

The one way out of rut in which Wake Forest finds itself is to return to ACC relevance, if not contention, in the two sports that mean the most to the most people. By the time Jim Grobe, who won 48 more games than any other Wake Forest football coach of the ACC era, resigned in December, even he recognized the need for a change.

By the time Jeff Bzdelik resigned in March, the damage to the once proud basketball program — in terms of lost support amid a widespread alienation of the fan base — far exceeded Bzdelik’s overall record of 51-76, including 17-51 in ACC play.

Wellman preferred to keep his thoughts on the football program’s slide since the Deacons won the 2006 ACC title and appeared in three straight bowls (2006-08) largely to himself.

“There are a number of factors that lead to something like that,” he said. “To go into all of those at this point would probably be useless and nonproductive.

“I can tell you that we’re excited about the future, and we’ve had some bad breaks along the way.”

As for what lessons were learned over Grobe’s final five seasons, Wellman was only a bit more forthcoming. He has remained steadfastly reticent to criticize Grobe, a man for whom he has professed the utmost personal and professional regard.

“There are certain factors that are evident in every winning program, that the expectations have to be exceptionally high, you have to be driven, everybody within the program has to have a drive about it,” Wellman said. “There needs to be a high degree of discipline in everything that we do. Those are common factors to any program’s success.”

New center a plus

Wellman also was asked what lessons were learned during Bzdelik’s ill-fated stewardship of the basketball program.

“The ACC is getting better,” Wellman said. “The ACC is getting much better. And we’re going to have to be much better to compete in the ACC. So we’re going to have to compete in every area with the top programs of the ACC, whether it be recruiting or facilities.

“Any other aspect of the program that is going to be factored into one’s success, it’s important that we are competitive with all of those programs who are recognized as not only ACC-championship contenders but national-championship contenders as well.”

To that end, Wellman said the proposed Sports Performance Center will help Wake Forest level the playing field with its conference competition. The four-story, 95,000-square-foot facility, funded partly by a $7.5 million donation from Bob McCreary — a former football player at Wake Forest who made his fortune in the furniture industry — will feature a 27,000-square-foot weight and conditioning center as well as a 90- to 120-yard indoor practice facility.

Funds are still being raised for the facility, and no date to break ground has been set.

“Right now, Wake Forest is the only school in the ACC without an indoor practice facility,” Wellman said. “And it’s not a football indoor practice facility.

“Every one of our teams will use it in one way or another.”