Caught in the Wake
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- It's just before 9 on a chilly, sunny March morning on the campus of Wake Forest University.
Coach Jim Grobe pulls his Mercedes sedan into an open spot in the faculty parking lot next to the Pruitt Football Center, arriving just in time to walk in with defensive line coach Ray McCartney.
It's the first day of spring football practice, the Demon Deacons' official start to the 2009 season, and Grobe and his staff have allowed ESPN.com an all-access look into their program.
Save for the small display case in the main entrance, the front office they walk into looks more like a modest living room than it does a BCS football shrine meant solely to impress recruits. The facilities here are reflective of the entire program -- functional, not flashy.
The phone rings.
"Wake Forest football," answers Grobe's administrative assistant, Bonnie Rae, before reading a sign on her desk to a player on the other end of the line:
"Only players with class 'til 2:45 p.m. should be in training room after 3 p.m. All others tape at 2 p.m. and be out by 3 p.m."
Rae, 57, has made this office her second home since Grobe was hired eight years ago. A comfy couch next to her desk is often taken advantage of by players who flop on it as they're passing through to the locker room, lounge or team meetings.
Nothing -- and no one -- gets past her unnoticed. Rae is the only woman in the building, and she's protective of everyone in it. The players call Rae on her cell phone and send her text messages. They look for their packages to be delivered to her desk.
"She's the mother hen," Grobe says.
He disappears for a few hours at an administrative meeting with athletic director Ron Wellman, leaving the meetings and practice planning to his assistants. By 9:04 a.m., the offensive and defensive coaches have gathered in adjacent meeting rooms on the second floor.
Welcome to the first day of spring football practice at the smallest school in the BCS.
The defense lost seven starters from 2008, so defensive coordinator Brad Lambert knows he must find some playmakers this spring. A depth chart covers one of the four dry erase boards, and before the meeting ends, names have been shuffled around.
The Demon Deacons' defense has earned a reputation for forcing turnovers, having secured more (102) than any FBS program during the past three years combined, and these assistants would like to keep it that way.
"That's what we've been good at," Lambert tells the coaches. "We have to keep emphasizing it. That's why I put turnovers circuit on Day 1."
Defensive backs coach Tim Billings has a question about how to teach stealing the ball in a drill they use to try to create fumbles. He uses McCartney to demonstrate the running back with an imaginary ball in his right hand. Billings wants to know whether to teach it punching the ball out or ripping it out.
"We teach it both ways," Lambert says.
The defensive coaches are a laid-back group and are prepared for the afternoon practice. They turn off the lights and begin to watch film of every game last year, starting with the drive right before halftime of the season opener at Baylor.
Next door, the lights are on, and Steed Lobotzke, the excitable offensive coordinator known as "Lobo," is at one of the dry erase boards with a green marker in hand. It's not even 10 a.m., but his fingertips are already stained with ink. It's a bit more of a harried pace in here. Since the 2008 season ended, Lobo has been focused on shifting the offense back to more of an I-formation team with quarterback Riley Skinner under center.
"I think we've run this [play] enough, but we'll go through it quick," he says, starting another sketch on the board. "The receivers have the play on their wristbands. That's the new part for us. This is what we haven't talked about before."
One of the boards is covered entirely with what might look like algebra to some, but it is the quarterbacks' checks and presnap reads.
Lobo cautions the other assistants not to overload the players on the first day.
Although the first day of spring practice can be a little overwhelming for the young players, it's one of the least stressful for this staff, the majority of which has been here since Grobe was hired. Composed in part of disciplined Air Force grads who have played for Grobe and/or coached with him during his time at Air Force (as an assistant) or Ohio, there is a strong sense of familiarity and loyalty to their boss. He's like a father or older brother none of them wants to disappoint, so they've been prepared for weeks.
All go their separate ways for lunch. Some work out; others work their way to a nearby Taco Bell. During the season, Grobe takes a walk with his wife, Holly, every day at lunch. (How many coaches do that and win football games?) Following their lunch break, the coaches disperse to their respective offices to tie up any last-minute details or e-mail recruits.
Recruiting is always in season
It's 2 p.m., and all nine assistants have gathered in the offensive meeting room for their weekly recruiting meeting. After eight seasons at Wake Forest, the staff is realistic about what kind of athlete it can lure to Winston-Salem.
Lobotzke, the offensive coordinator who is so organized he never seems to have a hair out of place, briskly runs through a few sheets of paper with information on each recruit.
Upon learning one has already committed elsewhere, Lobo wads that paper into a ball and throws it into the center of the table before reading off another name.
"Texas," somebody says.
Another sheet wadded up. And another.
They start in on the defensive recruits.
"His mom loves us," Billings deadpans. "He loves North Carolina."
Together, the coaches send out about 350 letters a day. McCartney, who doubles as defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator, is seated at the head of the table and wants the staff to trim that number to about 100.
It might not be that easy.
"I know 34 offensive linemen that better be getting letters," Lobo says.
"If we've gotta have that many to win, let's do it," McCartney says. "We want to e-mail every kid every day. If he's on Facebook, we want to Facebook him every day."
Around 2:45 p.m., Grobe peeks in and leans against the door frame, wearing sweats and holding a coffee. He has spent the first half of the day working with the American Football Coaches Association's ethics committee, along with what he calls "housekeeping" -- discipline, academics, recruiting, admissions and the like.
He places a lot of trust in his assistants and rarely calls staff meetings.
"Whenever I call a staff meeting, there's a panic," Grobe says. "Everyone thinks something has really gone wrong, the wheels are off. I've been coaching now almost 35 years, and I think there's a benefit to staff meetings, but at the same time they can be counterproductive. I never wanted to sit in a staff meeting, and when I was coaching linebackers and listening to the quarterbacks coach talk about how his quarterbacks were playing. The head coach likes to hear that, but all the other coaches don't need to sit around and waste time listening to that. So everything we do is to try to be as streamlined as we possibly can."
From 3:45 to 4:30 p.m., the players have filtered in and are in their individual meeting rooms on the second floor. Five quarterbacks are in Room 255 listening to quarterbacks coach Tom Elrod talk about wristbands and huddle procedures. Most of them are in their socks, scribbling notes in spiral-bound notebooks. They've been meeting with the coaches about changes to the offense all winter, so this is a quick refresher. Today is about execution on the field.
"You guys will get a ton of reps now," Elrod tells them, referring to the fact that backup quarterback Brett Hodges has left the team.
The tight ends and fullbacks are in a bigger room. There are eight players, tight ends/fullbacks coach Steve Russ and graduate assistant James Adams.
"What do I hate to see, Wooster?" Russ says, picking on veteran tight end Ben Wooster by mimicking his shuffle across the room. "The Wooster trot. That's a long way to go. Let's make sure we get our butts in gear."
It's 4:22 p.m. and hard to ignore Lobo's voice booming from the next room as he tries to explain fronts and man protection versus gap protection to 12 burly offensive linemen whose knees are bumping up against the desktops.
Funny, but this is the only room where food is visible. A box of Oatmeal Cream Pies is on a shelf up front.
Every now and then, Grobe will visit a room if he has something he needs to say, or to see whether he needs to answer any questions. Not today.
Players need to be on the field to stretch at 4:45 p.m., and practice begins promptly at 5 p.m.
"He'll blow the horn in 16 minutes," McCartney says.
Grobe takes a knee on the 35-yard line to watch, but he's not the only one with a good view. Practice is always open -- to everyone. High school players are wide-eyed on the sideline. A few fans are lined up behind the brick wall, and one is taking pictures as if he's at Disney World. Grobe spends a large portion of this practice entertaining guests while keeping an eye on things. He says practice is open because the Demon Deacons have what he calls a "wholesome" environment. In other words, nothing to hide.
That doesn't mean some yelling doesn't go on.
Wooster has apparently learned something today.
"That's what I'm talkin' bout, Wooster!" Russ yells. "You can use your quickness if you step well."
Redshirt freshman Chris Givens hits the grass for a few push-ups after a dropped ball.
"Obviously, the first day there's going to be some rust on everybody," quarterback Riley Skinner says. "We put in some new things offensively, scheme, formation, route-wise, personnel-wise, a bunch of different stuff, so spring is when a lot of the young guys get to experience a lot of that. It's going to be rusty when you're putting in new stuff with young guys, but I was pretty impressed with how fast everybody was picking stuff up."
At the end of the two-hour practice, Grobe finally speaks. He meets his players in a huddle on the 50. He talks to them about behavior, and says "do the right thing." He tells them to take care of one another, stay healthy and be careful. They raise their shiny black helmets and say, "Deacs on three. One, two, three, DEACS!"
Closing up the shop
It's about 7:30 p.m., and two of the last people to leave the office are Grobe and his wife. There are no meetings after practice today, and there's a reason for that.
"If you're not careful, coaches will end up knowing their players better than they know their own children," Grobe says. "That's unavoidable during the season, but in the offseason once February hits, I try to make it as normal as we possibly can. We're as close to 8-5 as we can possibly be in the offseason. I try to give my guys as much time as I can with their families."
The rest of their time is spent like everyone else -- trying to win football games.
That's life at the smallest school in the BCS.
Heather Dinich is ESPN.com's ACC football blogger. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the ACC blog.