Wake Forest takes positive step forward with Manning hire

Wake Forest hired Danny Manning, the 1988 National Player of the Year and Tulsa head coach, to replace Jeff Bzdelik on its sidelines.

Christopher Hanewinckel/Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODA

Wake Forest found the answer to the question of who will be its next head coach: it’s one of the best players in college basketball history, Danny Manning. And if his coaching career mirrors that of his playing career, the Demon Deacons will be in great shape for years to come.

It certainly won’t hurt the resume of embattled athletic director Ron Wellman, who has now arguably made two pretty solid hires in less than a year’s time in Manning and new football coach Dave Clawson.

"There have been very few players who have had as much success on the court as Danny," Wellman said. "He has played for and worked under a number of legendary coaches and he has been successful in his coaching career. We fully expect that Danny’s coaching career will reflect the excellence of his playing career."

Manning won the National Player of the Year award as a senior at Kansas, where he (coached by Larry Brown) led the Jayhawks to a national title. He retired from professional basketball in 2003 after 15 seasons and two All-Star game appearances. And he was certainly groomed by some of the best coaches in the game — not only by Brown in college, but also through spending nine seasons on the bench at his alma mater under Bill Self (he was a full assistant for the final five seasons at Kansas).

He developed a reputation as a good recruiter and developer of big men during his time on the Kansas bench, working with the likes of Cole Aldrich, twin brothers Marcus and Markieff Morris and Jeff Withey, among others.

"I’m blessed to have even met him," Markieff Morris (now with the Phoenix Suns) said in an interview with ESPN. "He’s the best big-man coach in the country. Any time that whistle blows and you look over to that sideline, he’s telling you what to do."

There are still some question marks about his head coaching experience — he spent two years at Tulsa, where the Golden Hurricane went 38-29 — but his team won 11 of its final 12 games this season and reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003 (losing to UCLA in the second round). Finishing strong is of course something Manning is familiar with: his ’88 Kansas team had the most losses of any national title team ever, but obviously got it going when it mattered.

He’s going to need to start quickly in Winston-Salem, though. The Wake Forest fan base is beleaguered after watching Jeff Bzdelik (who stepped down on March 20) coach the Deacons to a 51-76 record over the past four seasons with little hope of things getting much better. The 2014 season was Wake’s first with a winning record since 2010, which was also the last time the program made the NCAA Tournament. Dino Gaudio preceded Bzdelik and had a total of 31 losses in three seasons at the helm before being dismissed. Bzdelik had half as many losses this season alone.

Another added bonus for Wake Forest is that Manning is a native of Greensboro, N.C., having spent three of his four seasons at Page High School, a little over an hour outside of Winston-Salem.

In spite of North Carolina and Duke being right in Wake Forest’s backyard, the Deacons have had success over the years landing in-state players on the recruiting trail, and bringing in Manning should only help land the state’s top talent. But Manning, by sheer virtue of being a semi-successful coach with the endorsement of several big names, is already well on his way to reenergizing the Wake Forest fanbase, a group that desperately needed a change from the Bzdelik era.

"He has a tough side, but he has this quality to calm kids down and make them listen and make them want to play for him," Brown, now the head coach at SMU, said of Manning. "That’s a special gift. Plus, he’s bright. He’s the whole deal for me."