WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- If there’s a silver lining to last year’s espionage for Wake Forest’s players, it’s the soundtrack at practice.
Before “Wakeyleaks,” when media and scouts regularly attended practice sessions, Dave Clawson kept the ambiance pretty tame, with a few of his favorites -- Elvis Costello, Talking Heads -- routinely on the playlist. These days, things are different. There are no visitors, no outside eyes and ears to record what happens on the field or what blares through the speakers, so the players get to pick to the music.
So, it’s not all bad.
Everything else about the aftermath of college football’s most bizarre scandal in recent memory, in which Wake Forest’s radio broadcaster -- a former assistant coach -- was secretly passing along insider information to the opposition, has been pretty ugly, though. And it has sent a clear message to coaches everywhere: Even if you think you're just being paranoid, it doesn’t mean no one’s out to get you.
“It will forever impact how I run a program,” Clawson said. “I hate it. I like being open. But we can’t do that anymore.”
In a profession littered with coaches who treat a playbook like it contains nuclear launch codes, Clawson might be a bit late to the party.
After all, it’s not as if the idea of covert intrigue is entirely new. In the NFL, the New England Patriots' spy drama is still a favorite talking point for opposing fans. Stealing signs is largely considered part of the game inside the game. Assistant coaches change jobs and bring plenty of inside intel with them to their new homes. These things happen, and coaches handle it by routinely self-scouting, changing up play calls, practicing ever more esoteric sign sequences.
“You don’t know paranoia until you coach football,” Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck said.
But Clawson was always a voice of reason. Wake Forest hardly attracted massive media attention, so why not give reporters a good look at his team? His roster wasn’t filled with blue-chip recruits, so if NFL scouts wanted to see his players in action, they were welcomed and encouraged to drop by.
Then one of the people trusted with that access burned him, and Clawson realized those coaches wearing the figurative tinfoil hats were right all along.
“There’s always an issue of security; people get your film, get your video,” said Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher, who makes a habit of having team personnel hold up towels on the sideline so curious onlookers and TV cameras can’t read his lips. “It's happened in college football off and on at different times. For years and years that's happened, so you're always checking for security issues.”
Still, Wakeyleaks was something new, something far more sinister, because the threat came from the inside.
Tommy Elrod was a Wake Forest lifer. He played there. He coached there. He helped the Deacons achieve some of the program’s greatest successes. When Clawson arrived in 2014 to steer the program in a new direction, he didn’t keep Elrod on staff, but there was no indication there was bad blood. It’s common practice during a regime change for the bulk of assistants to move on.
Only, Elrod decided to stay. He loved Winston-Salem, had kids in school there, coached baseball and served in the community. Coaching was a job, but Wake Forest was in his blood. Of course Clawson didn’t mind having one of the most ardent supporters of the school on the sideline for practices.
Then, as Wake wrapped up a walk-through at Louisville last year, a graduate assistant found the evidence.
Wake had run a handful of plays in practice that week designed to catch Louisville by surprise, plays the Deacons hadn’t used before. Each one of those plays was sketched out with precision, left behind on the practice field after the Cardinals had wrapped their workouts. Clawson ran one of the plays in the game to see how Louisville would respond, and sure enough, the defense had it played perfectly. How could this happen?
The answer, it turned out, was Elrod. He’d passed along insider info to Louisville assistant Lonnie Galloway, whom he’d coached with at Wake years before. After a thorough investigation by the school, Wake found that Virginia Tech and Army had received info from Elrod, too.
There has always been some level of corporate intrigue in college football, but this was a betrayal beyond comprehension.
“When I heard that, I didn't want to believe it, and I didn't want to think that that could happen or would happen in college football,” Virginia head coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “After that, I realized pretty quickly it is happening, it can happen and it is happening more than what any of us want to acknowledge.”
Clawson has heard similar sentiments in the year since the scandal first came to light. He bumps into coaches, all of whom offer their sympathy, shake their heads in astonishment, then admit they’ve upped their security protocol, too.
At Wake, that has meant nothing short of Fort Knox-level accessibility to practice. The bare minimum of personnel are allowed, and once individual workouts are over, anyone outside that small group gets the boot. Last year, practice sessions were uploaded onto a software system that allowed players to review from outside the football facility. No more.
“We know what happened in a few examples, but there might be a lot more examples out there that we’re not 100 percent sure of,” Clawson said. “It’s not fair to our players and coaches to jeopardize that.”
Still, there’s no guaranteed solution.
Last week, NC State head coach Dave Doeren noticed a contingent of fans watching his practice. They’d come for the state fair, going on across the street, but they snuck a few peeks at the Wolfpack while they were there. If that’s happening, how can anyone prevent another Tommy Elrod?
“It’s always in the back of your mind,” Fleck said. “If somebody really wants to manipulate a situation, it’s hard to stop them.”
Perhaps that’s the real lesson of Wakeyleaks. It’s not that coaches were too paranoid -- it’s that they might not have been paranoid enough.
When practice ends now, Clawson retreats to his office, clicks on the film and turns up his music. Talking Heads still gets plenty of play, but it’s within the confines of a private retreat. That’s a shame, Clawson said.
“In a game week, the clearance someone has to get to watch our practice, it’s nonexistent,” he said. “Which I think is sad.”
The players get it, though, and that’s all Clawson cares about. His guys worked too hard last season to find the Wake game plan scribbled on a Louisville play sheet. It’s not paranoia; it’s caution.
The slow drip of information -- one more team that had access to the playbook, one more detail about the plot -- was tough a year ago, but as Wake prepares to play Louisville again this season, there’s at least a sense of calm. Sure, the story lingers, well beyond the confines of Winston-Salem. But at least this year, defensive end Duke Ejiofor said, Wake won’t have to wonder how much of its game plan was compromised.
Hard feelings? Nah. Payback? Nope. A fair fight? That’s all he’s looking for.
“I just want to beat them,” Ejiofor said.