Can ACC basketball live up to the glory of former years?
John Currie’s first job out of college was at his alma mater, when Ron Wellman kept him on at Wake Forest after graduation, working for the Deacon Club for $828 a month. Currie’s ACC roots actually run even deeper than that.
Currie, who will become Wake Forest’s athletic director upon Wellman’s retirement in May, moves the school announced Sunday, grew up in Chapel Hill the son of a North Carolina alum. He was baptized at Binkley Baptist by Robert Seymour, who was Dean Smith’s pastoral guide. Currie may not be the son of an ACC commissioner like his new N.C. State counterpart Boo Corrigan, but he’s not far behind.
Currie’s return to Wake Forest, where he worked for six years before going on to become athletic director at Kansas State (for eight years) and Tennessee (for eight months), is a homecoming in many ways, and not one that seemed to be in the cards. His precipitous firing at Tennessee last fall after a prolonged coaching search gone wrong – which turned out, in the end, to be partly a palace coup – opened the door for him to come home now.
“It’s either a coincidence or providential, depending on your beliefs, but it is very special,” Currie said Sunday. “It’s full circle.”
In what have turned out to be his final years at Wake Forest, Wellman has put just about every program on campus on solid footing despite the painful struggles in men’s basketball, with new facilities for football, basketball, baseball and other sports; an energized core donor base; the stabilization of the football team under Dave Clawson; and non-revenue powerhouses continuing to challenge for NCAA titles in golf, tennis, soccer and field hockey.
In many ways, Wake Forest is seeing the benefits of 27 years of Wellman’s careful, considerate leadership, and Currie will benefit from that foundation as he navigates a very volatile moment for not only the ACC, with the impending launch of the ACC Network, but college sports in general given the push for athlete rights and the accompanying parade of lawsuits against the NCAA.
“Intercollegiate athletics is at an interesting time with the existential challenges we face,” Currie said. “Wake Forest is nimble. We’ve got a pretty good sense of self.”
But the most pressing issue is basketball, and the juxtaposition of Currie’s final task at Tennessee and what figures to be his first big decision at Wake Forest is striking.
The notorious Tennessee football search started with a fan revolt over the proposed hiring of Greg Schiano and at one point flirted with N.C. State’s Dave Doeren. After Doeren decided to stay in Raleigh, Currie had a deal in place with Washington State’s Mike Leach but the deal was blocked by the university chancellor, who then fired Currie.
That chancellor was fired not long after, the eventual culmination of what was essentially a covert operation by former Tennessee football coach Phil Fulmer, with whom Currie had bumped heads with during an earlier stint in Knoxville. Fulmer took over as athletic director and hired Jeremy Pruitt, who went 5-7 in his first season.
“John and I have talked at length about his time as athletic director at Tennessee,” Wake Forest president Nathan Hatch said in a statement. “His abilities as a leader were put to the test through what was clearly a trying period for him personally and professionally. What impressed me was John’s resilience and integrity – always putting the needs of the student-athletes first.”
At Wake Forest, Currie may quickly have to make a critical basketball hire he absolutely cannot get wrong.
The Demon Deacons are 4-12 in the ACC this season and 25-68 in conference games (tournament included) under Danny Manning, who has one NCAA tournament appearance – as an 11 seed in 2017 – and to show for his five years in charge. Despite a reported $18 million buyout in the extension Manning signed a year ago, it was hard to imagine even Wellman staying the course, let alone someone coming from outside.
While young coaches with strong Wake Forest ties like Ryan Odom (UMBC) and Wes Miller (UNC Greensboro) have been seen as the most likely new directions to turn, Currie will bring a new set of eyes and a new set of contacts, should he decide that change needs to be made.
“Wake Forest is a lifetime decision,” Currie said. “Being at a place like this is not a decision made based upon current win-loss record.”
Currie will become only the sixth athletic director at Wake Forest since 1937, and the fact he’s taking over for the man who held the job while Currie was in college only underlines his perspective. But how he navigates the basketball situation will set the tone for his tenure, however many years – or decades – it lasts.