Wake football program growing
By Joedy McCreary
WINSTON-SALEM ó Aaron Curry stood near midfield at Wake Forest’s football stadium while he contemplated the question, looking for a way to explain how coach Jim Grobe’s program changed during his four previous seasons.
An obvious answer loomed over his right shoulder.
“Well, the Deacon Tower’s different,” Curry said with a laugh Saturday, turning to point toward the school’s glitzy new seven-story monolith.
The 123,000-square-foot tower of luxury boxes, club seats and a press box that overlooks BB&T Field has become the signature metaphor for the unlikely success story that Wake Forest football has become since Grobe took over in 2001.
The folksy coach with the self-deprecating charm and homespun wit took one of the ACC’s perennial doormats, built it into a league champion and then kept it among the league’s elite by returning it to a bowl game.
Now, as the finishing touches are added to the stadium’s most visible construction project ó the tower is scheduled to be fully operational by the Sept. 6 home opener against Mississippi ó the Demon Deacons similarly hope they’ve been built to last as contenders in the ACC.
If their run to the Orange Bowl in 2006 taught them that, yes, they could be winners at Wake Forest, last year’s 9-4 follow-up and Meineke Bowl victory against Connecticut showed them they could sustain their success.
“We as a team were some of the only ones who felt that wasn’t a fluke in ’06,” quarterback Riley Skinner said.
Now, Wake Forest finds itself dealing with projections that weren’t even this high the year after they won the ACC.
For the first time, the Demon Deacons are a preseason pick to finish in the upper half of the league’s Atlantic Division ó the season after the Orange Bowl, they were only picked to finish fourth. The media voted them No. 2 behind projected league champ Clemson, and they were No. 23 in the preseason coaches’ Top 25.
“I told them, ‘It’s really cool, it’s neat to be ranked … but there’s a danger there, obviously,’ ” Grobe said. “The danger is that players start chalking up a good season before you’ve played the first game, and that’s certainly not what you want. I think our players understand we’ve got a lot of work to do. Our coaches are aware that it’s easy to become overconfident if you’re not careful. I told our players, ‘We’ve got a good football team, but that doesn’t guarantee a good season. You’ve got to make that happen.’ ”
The Demon Deacons ó and by extension, the community in Winston-Salem and a campus full of Screamin’ Demons ó seem more determined to do just that now than perhaps they were just a few short years ago. Time was, a successful season here meant keeping things competitive, knocking off Clemson or one of their Tobacco Road rivals and maybe sneaking into a lower-level bowl.
“When I first got here, the vibe around the team and community was, ‘Oh, just get close,”‘ senior cornerback Alphonso Smith said. “If we finished close and played a hard game, they were satisfied here. But now, we’re expected to win. That’s how we practice here, that’s how our coaches coach, that’s the type of pressure our fans put on us here.”
For their part, the players welcome the attention and the additional eyes that will follow their every move on television and from the expensive seats in the fancy new tower. After all, nothing cripples a program quite like apathy.
“I think (in previous years) they were content with a 5-6 season or a 4-7 season,” said Skinner, a redshirt junior. “It kind of lost the drive on the team to go out and dominate. I think now, we’re looking to get to Tampa, the ACC championship, every year, and that’s our expectation. Just the work ethic that we had this summer, the work and our offseason training was miles apart from what it’s been like when I first got here.
“You could go on for hours about what the difference is since I got here, but it’s pretty exciting to see where this program is heading.””