GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Dave Clawson needed just a few weeks to earn his next promotion, at 26 years old. His responsibilities were growing, his pay was increasing and, with a master's degree in hand, he was on the fast track to success, just like the rest of his college buddies.
"I was waiting tables in Columbus, Ohio, at the Cooker Bar and Grill," Clawson said. "I was four-table rated, by the way. That was a big moment, now, because when you go from three tables to four tables your tips increase by a third."
Clawson's roommate from his undergraduate days was a manager at the restaurant and offered his old friend a place to crash and a path to cash while he bided his time after he lost his job at Buffalo, where he was coaching defensive backs, quarterbacks and running backs.
Clawson had degrees from Williams College and Albany, he had friends working on Wall Street, and he had his whole life ahead of him.
If there were a time to push the restart button, this was it.
"I would take as many shifts as I could for the two weeks, and then go try to go to clinics or go visit other schools or try to interview for jobs," Clawson said. "And the only job I ended up getting was Lehigh University, $3,000 a year to be their running backs coach.”
Twenty-one years later, his decision has paid off nicely. Clawson is undertaking his biggest reclamation project yet at Wake Forest, where he’s replacing longtime coach Jim Grobe. It is the latest program Clawson aims to rebuild, after lifting Fordham, Richmond and Bowling Green to heights not seen in recent memory.
The 47-year-old Clawson has, in many ways, come full circle. The product of a private, academic-minded Division III program is now in charge of the football team at the smallest Power Five school.
"There's not too many problems or too many things that can happen in a football program that I haven't experienced first-hand," he said.
Clawson thanked donors and private planes for helping him salvage Wake Forest's recruiting class this year. He has lengthy experience with the former, having landed his first head-coaching job at Fordham in 1999. At 31 years old, Clawson was the nation's youngest Division I head coach. Tasked with reviving a program short on success since the Vince Lombardi days, he was, in some ways, in a CEO role.
"I was very lucky at Fordham that I made mistakes and I was able to do that in an environment that wasn't so public and with some people that understood that I was young and I was going to be aggressive," Clawson said.
His career highlight up until that point was coordinating Villanova's offense during Brian Westbrook's historic 1,000/1,000 season in 1998. Responsibilities at previous stops included equipment, laundry and field-painting.
Upon graduating from Williams in 1989, the former defensive back became a graduate assistant at Albany, coaching quarterbacks and running backs while living with six other coaches. He also worked as a dishwasher, bounced at a local bar and taught physical education to elementary school students.
Clawson's coach at Williams, Dick Farley, wanted to apologize to Clawson's parents at graduation. Most of the other graduates were bound for law school or medical school, but Clawson set out on his own path.
"That's one of the attractions about him," Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman said. "I described him as being very intentional, and probably that was the first indication of it."
When Clawson took over Richmond in 2004, Wake Forest was among the programs he modeled his after.
"At Richmond we were the smallest and arguably the most academic of all the schools in that conference," he said. "We didn't play Florida State and Clemson, but at the time Delaware and James Madison and programs like that were powers, so we had to figure out a way."
The prevailing theme of Clawson's career has been his adaptation to his personnel. At Richmond, he focused his recruiting efforts in the South, selling meaty, cerebral linemen on a ground-and-pound path to glory.
At Fordham, he sold New York, recruiting inner-city Catholic school players to run a flashier, pro-style offense, while helping the program nearly double its budget over five years.
"What he did at Fordham was just incredible," said Hank Small, who hired Clawson at Lehigh. "At that point you could really tell he could do a lot of different things."
Clawson started 3-19 in his first two years at Fordham before finishing 26-10 the last three, winning the Patriot League in 2002. He parlayed a 3-8 debut season at Richmond into a 26-12 finish with two league titles, laying the foundation for a team that won the FCS crown in 2008. By then, Clawson was Tennessee's offensive coordinator, with the possibility of perhaps succeeding Phillip Fulmer.
A 5-7 2008 season and Fulmer's firing proved otherwise.
"I thought he was going to get enough of a buyout where he could go play golf or vacation or live a normal life," Farley cracked. "He said he thought he was young and that he continued to want to coach and he didn't want to sit out and take the easy money and do something else."
Instead, Clawson landed at Bowling Green. In a contrast from his past, Clawson implemented a defense-first approach, improving a two-win team in 2010 by at least two games every year. The Falcons had the MAC's top defense last year, went 10-3 and routed unbeaten Northern Illinois to win the conference.
The reality of the Demon Deacons' situation is that they lose a four-year starting quarterback (Tanner Price), the top pass-catcher in school history (Michael Campanaro) and the runner-up in league defensive player of the year voting (Nikita Whitlock). With them, Wake won four games last year.
Wake Forest was picked last in the Atlantic Division, and while the cupboard seems bare, Clawson sees a sliver of light ahead.
"It's not like this isn't a place that's never won, that we've had success, and some of it is recent," he said, referring to a 2006 ACC title.
Recruiting, retaining and developing are keys. Wake Forest cannot afford to miss on players because its nearly $63,000 a year price tag for its nearly 5,000 students makes counting on walk-ons difficult.
"He has obviously been successful wherever he's been, and all of us knew that going in," fullback Jordan Garside said, "so we kind of trusted him and the system that he's trying to instill."
The truth is he’s coached every position group except for defensive linemen and linebackers in his career. Teaching so many areas at so many places helps him hold people accountable, he said, and he cannot help but get involved.
Take, for instance, his restaurant background, which shows while out eating with his wife and two kids. Great service equals great tips, bad service equals bad tips, and he knows every excuse in the book.
"Sometimes the kitchen gets backed up and there's nothing they can do about it and you shouldn't penalize them," Clawson said. "But if they're in the corner texting and not coming back, you know they're blowing you off."
The former four-table-rated server can afford to dine a little fancier now, starting his fourth head-coaching job. But his appetite to succeed remains as big as ever.