Bzdelik hire a surprising one for Wake
When Ron Wellman first reached out to his old friend Jeff Bzdelik about coaching at Wake Forest, Bzdelik asked one simple question:
"What are you thinking?" he asked the Wake athletic director.
Excellent question and one posed by a lot more people than Bzdelik.
Of all the head-scratching coaching hires/fires this offseason, few came with more raised eyebrows than Wellman's decision at Wake. First he fired Dino Gaudio after just three seasons, explaining that Gaudio's 1-5 record in the postseason was more damning than his 61-31 overall record was inspiring.
Then he hired the 57-year-old Bzdelik, whose college postseason record is 4-7, with just one NCAA tournament berth and one NIT appearance on his résumé.
So, what exactly was Wellman thinking?
"The last three years we did not do well in February and March, and that's the critical time of the year,'' said Wellman, who met Bzdelik at Northwestern in the 1980s. Bzdelik was an assistant basketball coach and Wellman was the head baseball coach. "That's when we should be peaking but in fact, we were going the wrong way. Jeff's teams traditionally play their best basketball at the end of the year, and that's what we needed.''
And it is on their end-of-year results that North Carolina teams, in particular, tend to be judged. The painful thorn in Wake Forest's side is that the Demon Deacons have but one Final Four banner for their gym, a dusty old relic from 1962. They have never won a national championship.
That puts Wake in the rather overbearing shadows of those other in-state schools.
Of course, living up to the standards set at Duke and North Carolina is a rather tall order, but if Bzdelik has proved anything in his career it's that he gets a twisted enjoyment out of doing the impossible.
His résumé is dotted with the woebegone, programs and teams so savaged that no one else was terribly interested in taking over.
From his first head-coaching gig at Maryland-Baltimore County, where the Retrievers, then a Division II school, were 11-44 in the two seasons before his arrival and brilliantly decided to use that shaky foundation as a launching pad to Division I; to a job with the then-wretched Denver Nuggets, who finished 27-55 before he came on board; to a spot at challenging Air Force, where the Cadets' demands never make hoops easy; and finally a stint at Colorado, where the Buffaloes were just 7-20 the season before he arrived.
The common thread for Bzdelik: Each and every one of those teams got better. Against all odds, UMBC won 25 games in his two-year tenure; the Nuggets went from awful to the playoffs; Air Force made the NCAA and NIT in his two seasons and even enjoyed a top-15 ranking at one point; and Colorado was on the verge of respectability, finishing 15-16 last season.
"Someone said to me the other day, 'This seems to be your mission in life, Jeff,'" Bzdelik said. "I inherit jobs no one else wants and then just when things get going, like a fool, I leave before it all starts to happen. It's like building the house and never getting to live in it.''
Wake can hardly be classified as a crummy job no one wanted and Bzdelik is well aware of that. The Demon Deacons have a history of winning and more, an expectation of success. They have good facilities, a strong recruiting base and most of all, a fervent fan base.
This will be easily the best job Bzdelik has had in his 25-year career.
Technically it ought to be a mulligan season, what with Wake down four starters now that Al-Farouq Aminu has taken his talents to the NBA.
But there will be no mulligan for Bzdelik. Fairly or unfairly, his wins and losses will be measured through the viewfinder of Gaudio's record.
Especially since Gaudio didn't exactly leave the cupboard bare.
What the Demon Deacons lack in experience, they'll make up for in talent. Before he was let go, Gaudio landed a recruiting class ranked as the 12th best in the country by ESPN.com. The six-man crew offers talent at every position.
"I think in today's basketball world, every day is a challenge,'' Bzdelik said. "When the expectations are at the highest level and your goal is to pursue a championship without compromising the moral and academic integrity of the university, that's a great challenge, but you accept that. We've had great success here and people expect more of it.''
Wellman has promised patience -- a strange offer since it seemingly wasn't a commodity afforded Gaudio -- but also knows that his reputation, like Bzdelik's, will be judged by Wake's record .
He made the unconventional decision to fire Gaudio and the equally stunning choice to hire Bzdelik.
"Every hire we make needs to work, but I'm sure this is heightened more because of the decision, the status of the program as the decision was made,'' Wellman admitted. "There were a lot of questions and I understand that. We had [20 wins] last year, and when you make a change with results like that, there are naturally going to be questions.''
Namely, was Wellman's thinking a fool's folly or pure genius?
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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