Wake Forest was the Vanderbilt of the ACC, or the Northwestern, or the Rice. High academics, low football.
It had been 50 years since a coach left the Demon Deacons with winning numbers. Not since comical but efficient Peahead Walker quit in 1950 with a 77-51-6 record for 14 seasons.
Flash ahead to last weekend. Jim Grobe's face flushed. His eyes moistened. Stomach churned. He is Wake Forest's coach and was stinging from a 27-24 near miss at Virginia.
But these aren't your daddy's Deacons. Grobe is a documented resuscitator, adept at turning the football moribund into something proud, lively and hopeful.
In his third Wake season, Grobe is 16-13, including 3-2 this season. Not yet smashing, but good enough for Bobby Bowden, coach of ACC dominator Florida State, to term the Deacs "an opponent that scares you, with some excellent athletes and strong coaching."
Grobe blew many whistles before being hired to wake up Wake. An undersized 1973-74 defensive lineman at Virginia, the 51-year-old West Virginian coached at Liberty High School in Bedford, Va., and for tiny Emory and Henry College before joining Fisher DeBerry for 11 years as an Air Force assistant well-schooled in unfashionable wishbone offense.
Finally, his head-coaching job phone rang. Loser No. 1 was calling. Ohio University had won a pitiful 17 games in 10 seasons. Grobe accepted a killer challenge. In six seasons his Bobcats were 33-33-1. Not championship stuff but, comparatively, a cymbal-smashing success.
Loser No. 2 called. Wake Forest on the line. Jim Caldwell was fired after a 26-63 record for eight autumns, the 11th consecutive post-Peahead coach to fall sadly shy of .500. Grobe is yet to find a puppy he considers too sick to save.
So that's why his 16-13 record, decorated with 2003 upsets of Boston College and N.C. State, is impressively separating the Deacs from football stumblers such as Vandy, Rice, Northwestern and even ACC brother Duke.
"Losing is no longer acceptable," Grobe said. "In the past Wake teams might have taken solace from losing by three to a good opponent like Virginia, but my players walk away feeling rotten, absolutely knowing they're good enough to compete with just about anybody."
Wake is unique. Born in 1834 in the small North Carolina community of Wake Forest, a half hour from Raleigh and near campuses of Duke, N.C. State and North Carolina/Chapel Hill, the entire university opted to leave town and make a 120-mile move west in 1956 to Winston-Salem, a city for which two brands of cigarettes were named.
"It was powered by the R.J. Reynolds tobacco family, offering a lot of money and free real estate," said 81-year-old Marvin "Skeeter" Francis, former Wake director of sports information (1955-68). "It could have only been done with a smaller school. We had 3,000 students at the time. Back then we had a lot of fun, even with all the losing. Some happy and proud times."
Wake became collegiate home to Brian Piccolo, a gutsy 1962-65 running back who would form a Chicago Bears backfield pairing with the extraordinary Gale Sayers. But the charming Floridian was struck down young, dying of cancer at 26. His stunted life became a heart-wrenching movie, Brian's Song. Two of Piccolo's daughters have graduated from Wake.
Grobe coaches at a special place.
Wake historically has been more imposing in basketball and golf than football. Losers make bad choices. In 1956, when hiring still another coach, Bob Devaney applied. He was blown off, winding up at Nebraska, becoming a legend as predecessor to Tom Osborne.
Back in Winston-Salem, the fellow chosen over Devaney was Paul Amen, a name that seemed to make him fitting to boss Demon Deacons. His run became an 11-26-3 flunk.
Even today, undergraduate enrollment is 3,950, less than a tenth the size of Ohio State, Florida, Michigan, Texas or Penn State. Annual tuition at the private institution is $26,490. In an era loaded with 85,000-plus college stadium capacities, the Wake ballpark seats 31,500.
Wake is ranked among America's 25 best colleges by U.S. News & World Report. Academics are almost at Duke's level. Difference is, Grobe unquestionably has Deacs football pointed uphill.
Peahead would be proud.
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SECOND CHANCE: Mike Price did one of the dumbest things I've ever seen from a coach, and that's a non-honor roll on which indiscretions are voluminous.
Price was a success at Washington State. At 57 he was handed the keys to one of college football's highest temples, Alabama. But before coaching a single game, he got fired for goofing around with a stripper.
Price became the butt of America's jokes. I say he should be allowed another chance. Price's skills are still there. If they made me boss of Arizona athletics, I would hire Price to replace the fired John Mackovic, a former Wake Forest coach and quarterback.
Who among us hasn't made a whopper of a mistake? Price didn't kill anybody. Wasn't accused of rape. Brought no blood. His motivation should be colossal. 'Zona says it isn't interested, naming defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz interim coach, even as the Wildcats stumble through another embarrassing season, 1-5 with suffocating losses to LSU (59-13), Purdue (59-7) and Oregon (48-10).