There is little doubt why Wake Forest hired Dave Clawson. He said it during his introductory press conference on Tuesday, when he mentioned other paragons of football success at academic institutions.
Clawson mentioned Stanford.
He mentioned Northwestern.
He mentioned Vanderbilt.
He did not mention Duke, probably a conscious snub given Wake’s proximity to and rivalry with the school. But he really did not need to give a shout out to the Blue Devils to make his point. Wake Forest aspires to be where Duke is. Scratch that. Wake Forest aspires to be where it once was, before Duke came along in 2013 and became the academic school from the ACC to take all the headlines.
Before Duke, there was Wake Forest in 2006. The Deacs have not won a conference championship since then. Despite his best efforts year in and year out, coach Jim Grobe could not quite find the same formula that got Wake atop the ACC. Duke, meanwhile, made a larger investment in its football program and reaped the benefits, making the ACC championship game one week ago.
Status quo could not remain in Winston-Salem, not with Duke on the rise. Grobe resigned last week after 13 seasons, saying he felt a fresh focus was needed. Now in comes Clawson, another import into the ACC from the MAC. Clawson interviewed for the job after his Bowling Green team won the MAC championship and agreed to terms in short order.
The challenge is daunting, given the state of the Atlantic Division (see: Florida State and Clemson), its size as the smallest among the BCS schools, and its high academic standing. But as Grobe showed, winning at Wake Forest is not impossible.
Clawson brings a track record that gives athletic director Ron Wellman encouragement in this regard and made him the obvious choice. Before landing at Bowling Green, Clawson succeeded at smaller, private academic schools. He took an awful Fordham team to 19 combined victories during his final two years (2002-03) -- the most victories there in consecutive seasons since 1918-19
Then at Richmond, he led the Spiders to the biggest two-year turnaround in program history, taking a 3-8 team in 2004 to 9-4 and an NCAA playoff berth the next year.
Those two experiences, perhaps more than his stint at Bowling Green, shows Clawson is up for the job. One other key point to remember about the time Clawson spent at Richmond -- he heavily recruited the Charlotte area and spoke at length on this topic Tuesday, specifically mentioning NFL players he coached at Richmond from the Charlotte area.
There will be those who question the hire, especially when you consider Clawson was on the hot seat at Bowling Green after posting back-to-back losing seasons in 2010 and 2011. But Bowling Green rebounded to win the MAC title this year, upsetting heavily favored Northern Illinois -- the program that sent Dave Doeren to NC State, another Wake Forest rival.
Clawson cautioned that program building takes time, but the expectation is to win and win as soon as possible. He studied from Wake Forest when he was at Richmond, looking for clues to how to find football success at academic schools. Clawson mentioned this, and praised Grobe, underscoring how big the shoes are to fill.
The facts are there to see plainly. Clawson has won everywhere. Now the question is whether he can win at Wake Forest, a school with its own unique set of challenges, now looking up at a resurgent Duke program.
“If you set your goal anything lower than being a champion, you're setting the standard too low,” Clawson said. “It’s going to take work. I believe wholeheartedly that can be done at Wake Forest. We will work relentlessly to that goal until it's accomplished.”