When Dave Clawson was visiting colleges back in 1983 with his father and his high school best friend Alan Elia, the three made a trip to Wake Forest. Both young men fell in love with the beauty of the campus, and Elia decided he was going to go to school there.
Clawson, on the other hand, was stubborn. He wanted to play sports in college, no matter what. And somehow, he couldn’t convince the coaches at Wake Forest — or most Division I schools, for that matter — to recruit him for either football or basketball.
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He was just “a 5-11, slow guard from upstate New York” and, somehow, that wasn’t enough.
Clawson ended up attending Williams College (a D-III school) and playing both football and basketball, while Elia attended Wake Forest.
Clawson has moved slowly up the coaching ranks since 1998, when he took over the Fordham head coaching job at just 31 years old. The 2013 season was Clawson’s fifth year at Bowling Green (where he had a 10-3 record this year, 32-31 overall). But he never forgot Wake. It was less than a week before his team would face an undefeated Northern Illinois squad in the MAC Championship game when he heard the Demon Deacons’ job was open.
He felt what he called a “pang in his stomach,” knowing a job he’d always wanted was available. But he also knew that his team had a game to prepare for. Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman understood. The two men agreed to give Clawson a full day on Saturday to refocus and prepare for the interview, which took place on Sunday.
“I really wanted this job. I want to be at Wake Forest,” Clawson said during a news conference to introduce him on Tuesday. “The second that this job opened, I was dreaming that I’d be at a podium speaking with all these reporters.”
In case you didn’t watch college football on Friday night, Bowling Green handed Northern Illinois its first loss of the season, 47-27, and won the MAC title game. It was Clawson’s first MAC championship at Bowling Green, but one of several conference titles he’s won along the way.
The Sunday interview went well, and Clawson was announced as Wake Forest’s 32nd head coach on Monday night. Bowling Green will play a bowl game on Dec. 26 against Pittsburgh, and Clawson won’t stay on to coach in it. He met with his Bowling Green players early Tuesday, then sat down with his new Wake Forest players on Tuesday afternoon.
Wake Forest is not the typical dream job of most head coaches. It’s certainly a credit to the coach who came before him that it could be a dream job of any up-and-coming young head coach. The last time Wake Forest hired a football coach from the MAC, it turned out rather well, all things considered.
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It was 2000.
Jim Grobe had rebuilt an awful Ohio program into a more-than-respectable one and Wake Forest football hadn’t had a head coach with a record above .500 since D.C. “Peahead” Walker, a man who still shares the all-time wins record at Wake with Grobe (77). Grobe finished his career at Wake with a .484 winning percentage, the best mark since Walker. And Walker coached at Wake from 1937-50, for the sake of perspective.
Al Groh, Bill Dooley, Jim Caldwell — all well-known names in the coaching ranks and predecessors to Grobe — none could sustain any type of success in Winston-Salem. Those three combined for 83 wins in a total of 20 seasons at Wake.
Grobe won 77 games in 13 seasons.
Grobe finished .500 or better five times in his first eight seasons, including the 2006 ACC Championship game. But the program fell on hard times starting in 2009 — five straight losing seasons — and it just didn’t seem to be working anymore. At his press conference to announce his resignation last week, Grobe said he had expectations for the program that it didn’t meet the last two years, and that it was his fault.
There’s a certain irony inherent in the fact that the one responsible for raising the expectations at Wake Forest was the one who suffered the most as a result. But that’s college football. Come in, rebuild a school and if you stick around too long, they’ll find a reason to run you out. It’s true of even the best of head coaches.
Grobe said the program needed “new energy.” It has that in Clawson, but the spirit of Grobe lives on through the next man up.
Clawson’s three previous rebuilding jobs required very different strategies.
When he took over as head coach at Richmond in 2004, he knew academics had to be a priority. He studied the models of academic schools that were successful in football: Vanderbilt, Stanford and, yes, Wake Forest. He understands the challenges ahead.
Clawson didn’t shy away from his predecessor, who was one of the more likable head coaches in the ACC. He mentioned on more than one occasion how much respect he has for Grobe, and readily admitted he “stole” from Grobe as he built programs at his various stops.
“Certainly in building … one of the people I stole from is Coach Grobe. He proved that Wake Forest can win at a very high level in the Atlantic Coast Conference,” Clawson said. “Replacing a man of his stature is a responsibility I don’t take lightly. He’s one of the truly class gentlemen in the coaching profession.”
In the biggest challenge of Clawson’s career to date, he’ll have to combine recruiting and coaching at an elite level (the closest he’s come to that is spending a year as Phllip Fulmer’s offense coordinator at Tennessee) with academic excellence. Wake Forest is one of the smallest schools to play football in a BCS conference, which is worth taking into account when Clawson mentions the success other academically-strong BCS programs have had in recent seasons.
But it doesn’t scare Clawson, who thinks that Wake Forest can legitimately do both at a high level.
“If you look at college football on a national scale, there are a lot of great academic schools that play high-level football,” Clawson said. “You can combine great academics and be a great football program. Academics cannot be a reason to not succeed. To me, it’s a reason we will succeed.
“If you set your goal anything lower than being a champion, you’re setting your goal too low. … I believe whole-heartedly that can be done at Wake Forest, and we will work relentlessly toward that goal.”
Wake Forest finished 4-8 this season and is losing many of its best players, including quarterback Tanner Price, wide receiver Michael Campanaro and defensive tackle Nikita Whitlock.
But he was hired at Wake Forest because he understands the challenge that lies ahead of him. He understands that he needs to recruit players capable of handling the school’s academic rigors and on-field expectations. And he wants to take the deliberate, patient route rather than going for a quick fix.
“It’s not snap the fingers and it happens, but you have to have players that buy into every aspect of the program,” Clawson said. “It is really hard to be a championship football program if you don’t surround yourself with players that love football. … The sport is just too hard that if you don’t love it, it’s hard to succeed at it.”
He said all the right things in his introductory press conference — praising Wellman, the current players, his former players, his wife — but he could not have ended it more perfectly, bringing it back around full circle to his best friend.
“(Elia) said, ‘Make sure to finish your press conference by telling them that you want to roll the quad,’” Clawson said, referring to the Wake student tradition of rolling the trees in the main quad on campus. “So we look forward to rolling the quad many times here.”