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Wake Forest: Overinflated Expectations Induced Gaudio’s Ouster

by - Published April 11, 2010 in Columns

Wake Forest has an inferiority complex, and Dino Gaudio just became its latest victim.

As Gaudio looks for a new job, he’ll be sending an impressive résumé to potential employers. In three seasons at Wake Forest, he had a 66.4 winning percentage, reached the NCAA Tournament two out of three seasons and attracted a couple of top 25 recruiting classes. Maryland’s Lefty Driesell, in the wake of the Len Bias tragedy, is the only ACC coach with a better winning percentage to get canned. But it wasn’t good enough for the Demon Deacons to keep Gaudio around.

When Wake Forest Athletic Director Ron Wellman announced that the team would be parting ways with Gaudio, he cited the Demon Deacons’ post-season failures. In 2008-09, Wake Forest peaked in January, reaching No. 1 in the polls before fading down the stretch, losing in the team’s first games of the ACC and NCAA tournaments to worse seeds. This season, Wake Forest had similar struggles, losing in the first round of the ACC Tournament to No. 12-seed Miami. In the NCAA Tournament, the No. 8-seed Demon Deacons beat Texas before losing by 30 to top-seeded Kentucky in the second round.

In sum, Gaudio had a 1-5 record in the ACC and NCAA Tournament in three seasons. That’s not impressive. Of course, Dean Smith didn’t even get the Tar Heels to an NCAA Tournament until his sixth season in Chapel Hill. And Coach K didn’t reach the Big Dance until his fourth season with Duke.

However, it’s not like Wake Forest has the rich tradition of Duke or North Carolina. In fact, the Demon Deacons have fewer NCAA Tournament appearances and wins than North Carolina State and Maryland. Historically, Wake Forest’s post-season numbers — 28 wins in 22 appearances, with one Final Four— most closely align with Georgia Tech and Virginia. Since 1962, Wake Forest has made it past the Sweet 16 only three times. And they haven’t reached the Final Four since 1962.

By firing Gaudio, Wellman signified that he expects the Demon Deacons to be a championship contender on a regular basis. Those are lofty expectations for a program that hasn’t had such aspirations since Billy Packer was on the court. Wake Forest came closing during the Tim Duncan era, but the Demon Deacons managed to reach the Elite Eight only once, in 1996, even with one of the best four-year players in ACC history.

Under Gaudio, Wake Forest was consistently in contention for great recruits. He was instrumental in forming some of Wake Forest’s best classes of the past decade, including while he was working as an assistant to his mentor, Skip Prosser, whom Gaudio replaced in 2007 after Prosser died of a heart attack.

Some people speculated that Prosser’s death was evidence of the excessive stress that coaches face. Wake Forest’s firing of Gaudio lends credence to that theory. Who can feel safe when it’s not acceptable to win two-thirds of your games and constantly put an entertaining, talented product on the court in front of a boisterous, packed house?

Yes, Wake Forest slipped up in the post-season recently. However, Prosser failed to reach the NCAA Tournament during his final two seasons. And his teams also had some disastrous NCAA Tournament results. The Chris Paul-fueled juggernaut of 2005 came to an unexpectedly early demise when the No. 2-seeded Demon Deacons lost to No. 7-seed West Virginia. The No. 2 spot was unlucky under Prosser — Wake Forest lost to No. 10-seed Auburn in 2003.

Upsets happen. Mike Krzyzewski, Dean Smith and Roy Williams all witnessed major NCAA Tournament disappointments at least once in their careers. Wake Forest will never know whether Gaudio could have joined that pantheon of coaching legends by continuing to draw supremely talented recruits to Winston-Salem. Instead, Gaudio will likely land at another school within a year or two and start to rebuild elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the Demon Deacons want to move up the ACC pecking order and have just set a precedent of axing good coaches who don’t find a way to make it happen. Let’s hope Wake Forest’s next coach can channel his inner Zen master to handle those blood pressure-elevating expectations.

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