Wake Forest Athletics: An Interview With AD Ron Wellman

Andrew KahnCorrespondent IJanuary 12, 2009

Don’t feel sorry for Ron Wellman, Athletic Director at Wake Forest University.

Don’t feel sorry for him because his school has under 4,500 undergraduates and has to compete with other ACC schools several times its size.

Don’t feel sorry for him because when you think of college basketball you think of North Carolina and Duke and not only does Wake share a conference with those schools but it shares a state.

Don’t feel sorry for him because when you think of college football you might think of Florida State and Miami and Wake shares a conference with them, too.

No, don't feel sorry for Ron Wellman or the Wake Forest athletic department because the Demon Deacons are doing just fine.

Wellman, who has been Wake's AD since 1992, was named the 2008 College Athletic Director of the Year by Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal, an award he certainly deserved given Wake's recent athletic success.

Football Facelift

Going into the 2006 season, the Wake Forest football team was coming off three straight losing seasons. The program had won a total of 38 games in the '90's. The Demon Deacons were picked to finish last in the conference by the media. All Wake did that year was go 11-3, win the ACC, and represent the conference in the Orange Bowl.

Jim Grobe, Wake's head coach, was named Coach of the Year by several outlets, including the Associated Press. Grobe was hired in December 2000.

Before coming to Wake, Grobe was an assistant at Air Force before becoming the top man at Ohio University, a school that went 0-11 the year before he arrived. During Grobe’s six-year stint, Ohio posted a .500 record.

“We felt he was a good match,” Wellman said of the Grobe hiring through a recent phone interview. “He’d been at Air Force for 11 years as an assistant. (Air Force is) dealing with student-athletes at a similar caliber –– they have to perform academically as well as athletically.”

Given the state of the Wake Forest football, Wellman also liked that Grobe had experience turning a program around. “He took what was probably the worst program in the country (Ohio University) and made it into a force. That led me to believe he was a viable candidate for our position. When I met him, it quickly became evident he had the right values and ideals.”

The Deacs have gone 9-4 and 8-5 the past two seasons under Grobe, winning a bowl each year. 

Dealing with a Tragedy

Shortly after reeling in Grobe, Wellman made another savvy hire, luring Skip Prosser away from Xavier. Prosser led the Deacs to at least the second round of the NCAA Tournament in each of his first four years. In 2004, Wake Forest basketball reached a mark never before attained in school history: a No. 1 ranking.

Then, in the Summer of 2007, Prosser tragically died of an apparent heart attack. He was only 56.

This could have sent the Wake basketball program into a tailspin. Instead, the Deacs, now led by one of Prosser’s assistants, Dino Gaudio, haven't missed a beat. They are currently 14-0 and No. 2 in the country after their thrilling victory over North Carolina last night.

Wellman, like most everyone who ever came in contact with Prosser, had nothing but great things to say about the former coach, and said the process to find a replacement was not easy.

“After his funeral, I met with his staff and told them I was going to make a decision for the long-term betterment and consideration of the program,” Wellman said. “Emotionally, it would be easy to hire one of them."

Hiring from within was just one of the four options Wellman was considering. He could’ve brought in a coach with more notoriety who had previous head coaching experience. Instead, he went with Gaudio.

“All of the (other assistant) coaches supported Dino,” he said. “I interviewed him for about eight hours, and we touched on just about everything. It became very evident to me that he was the right guy to lead this program.”

It’s certainly hard to argue with Wellman now, not after Wake's perfect start. One of the reasons behind the team’s success is star freshman Al-Farouq Aminu, a McDonald's High School All-American. Wake Forest’s ability to land top recruits –– former Deacs Chris Paul and Eric Williams were also McDonald's All-Americans –– is impressive given the school’s size.

Size Doesn’t Matter

“We don’t view size as a disadvantage—we view it as an advantage,” Wellman said. “It’s a uniqueness we have that we do our very best to exploit. We are unique within our conference and within the country.”

Part of that uniqueness, according to Wellman, is that Wake’s size means students don’t get lost in the shuffle.

“Our students have the opportunity to interact and get to know their professors,” he said. “We have a very nurturing environment, both academically and athletically.”

A smaller student body certainly hasn’t prohibited Wake Forest from recruiting top players and achieving national success on the playing fields. And football and men’s basketball aren’t the only programs doing well, either.

In 2006, the same year Wake went to the Orange Bowl, the field hockey team reached the National Championship, and the men’s soccer team advanced to the Final Four.

As Wellman puts it, when the whistle blows, size doesn't really matter.

“I tell our coaches we have the same number of scholarships as everyone else.”