Reminders of past success line the walls and rafters in Budd Gym at Wake Forest for Jeff Bzdelik, his staff and players to see on a daily basis as they work to return a once proud program back to prominence, which begins with a change in culture.
For the last two years the Demon Deacons (21-42, 5-27 ACC) have been mired in a culture of losing, but a new season brings hope for Wake that it can break from this pattern and create a culture of winning, and it all starts at the top with leadership.
"Programs that sustain the proper culture produce leaders, because they've been led properly and it just continues on," Bzdelik said. "We need to recoup that."
This is especially important, because as Bzdelik said no one has ever led C.J. Harris and Travis McKie, and they need to be ready to lead the seven freshmen. Bzdelik added that the newcomers cannot think of themselves as freshmen.
"I'm a big boy," Bzdelik said. "I understand the nature of this business. We got to win. We weren't going to compromise our values. We're going to stick by our principles. We've hopefully gotten through all that, and we should have. We got to continue to keep going. We made good strides from year one to year two. We got to make good strides from two to year three and keep it going, keep it moving up."
"That's where leadership comes in, and that's where making sure that we get the right fit here for Wake Forest, because it is a load. It's a load academically, and it's a small campus and there has to be a connection with the students too where there's a respect there, so we can get them back. We see that happening from the responses that we've been able to get, especially from the summer."
Tyler Cavanaugh, Madison Jones, Codi Miller-McIntyre, Arnaud William Adala Moto, Aaron Rountree, Devin Thomas and Andre Washington appear to fit the mold of a Wake Forest student athlete Bzdelik and his staff have been in search for since year one.
"Tyler Cavanaugh and Aaron Rountree came to me the other day and they go, 'You know what a couple of people said on our floor?' and I said, 'I don't know, what?' and I they go, 'You guys are good guys. You come and talk to us and you hang out with us and we're talking about stuff. You're interested in what we're doing,'" Bzdelik said. "And that's great. That's what we need, because every student here at Wake Forest is talented. This is what I tell my guys, 'They may not be a basketball player or a baseball player, but good golly there's going to be someone who's going to be a Doctor or a lawyer. Everybody's got a talent. Maybe somebody plays in the band respect that talent. Admire that talent. Ask about that talent, and they in turn will do the same to you."
"I talked to a lot of students. I said, 'How can we win you back?' and they said, 'Well, all we're asking for is your players to interact with us.' A couple of them told me, 'Coach, I spent the whole year with a couple of your players in class and they walked in with their earphones on, class started, they took their earphones out. As soon as class started they put the earphones in and walked out, never even said hello, never acknowledged us, so why would we come watch games?' What I'm sharing with you is what I share with my players. You want them to come to games? Get involved in their lives too, and they're doing a great job of that."
When the freshmen arrived for summer school they were put into a public speaking class and a class that forced them to get involved in the Winston-Salem community.
"They all had to give speeches, they had to interact, so now all of a sudden there's a connection there," Bzdelik said. "They actually had to speak instead of sending text messages on the speech. They had to communicate with other students, so other students learned about them and they learned about other students and it just kind of naturally got a conversation."
"They went to Dash games, they went to plays, they did a lot of social interaction to get them out and meet people and it really worked well. They liked it, other people liked it, and they got connected with other people."
Bzdelik has not only tried change the program, but himself too.
"When you get your butt beat you start really reevaluating yourself, and you start going okay how can I be better?," Bzdelik said. "How can I do this better? So I've spent more time this year with coaches than I ever have in my life, pro and college coaches and high school coaches, and it's helped me in a tremendous way."
Bzdelik has taken a page out of former Maryland coaching great Gary Williams' book, who on the first day of practice would have his players scrimmage and would use that as avenue to teach them how to play the right way.
The third year Wake Forest head coach said his team is scrimmaging more, which in turn provides teaching opportunities.
He is also embracing Wake's rich basketball tradition, and trying to glean whatever he can from past Demon Deacon standouts. For example Bzdelik ate lunch with former Wake Forest head coach Dave Odom. Bzdelik joked lunch nearly turned into dinner.
"It's one of the reasons why I have Randolph Childress and Rusty LaRue on my staff to be quite frank," Bzdelik said.
"Tim Duncan's been back here and talked to our guys. Chris Paul and all those guys have come back. It's important for them [current players] to understand the responsibility that they have to represent Wake Forest not only the right way off the court, but to add 2012, 2013, 2014 to these walls here. That's their responsibility and my responsibility, and we have to embrace that."
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