Dave Clawson has created college football version's of Moneyball at Wake Forest

Socialapps.Tech 37 Nov 6
Nov 5, 2021

It's mid-October, Wake Forest is 6-0 entering its open date, and Dave Clawson is mad.

Well, he's not mad, exactly. In his eighth year coaching the Demon Deacons, Clawson doesn't really get mad. This is part of his coaching ethos. There are no F-bombs, media tirades or wild swings of emotion. Clawson wants to be the same guy every day. So no, he's not mad. Perturbed, perhaps.

At this point, Wake was ranked 16th, four spots lower than any other undefeated Power 5 school. The Demon Deacons led the ACC's Atlantic Division, but few pundits thought they'd stay there for long. Then there were the advanced metrics. The algorithms were downright dismissive of Wake Forest. The way Clawson sees it, the whole system is too narrow-minded.

"The formulas out there, they always downgrade us," Clawson said. "I don't think it's fair to our players that what we do is discounted, because of some recruiting rankings that came out six years ago that locks them in a certain way. Once you're a three-star, you're always a three-star."

Even now, the Deacons are a 2.5-point underdog for Saturday's game against 4-4 North Carolina (noon ET on ABC and the ESPN App), and ESPN's Football Power Index gives them only about a 50-50 shot of winning the division they currently lead.

But it's not as if the algorithms screwed up the math, Clawson said. It's that they measure the wrong things. The system loves Alabama, Ohio State and Georgia, because it was built to appreciate their brute force.

Wake Forest, with its three-star recruits-turned-sixth-year seniors, its unconventional offense and outside-the-box coach -- "the most progressive coach in America," according to Jason George, the team's director of performance -- somehow works.

Wake Forest is "Moneyball."

"We can't take lesser talent and win the race," Clawson said. "So we had to change the race."

Wake Forest is 8-0 for the first time in its history. It's ninth in the Playoff committee's initial rankings, the highest ranked team in the ACC. The Deacons have been to five straight bowl games. They've just received a $20 million donation to help build a new football facility, and they have their sights set on crashing the College Football Playoff in spite of a roster filled with guys none of their blue-blood counterparts wanted.

While coaches like Minnesota's P.J. Fleck, Iowa State's Matt Campbell and Kentucky's Mark Stoops have enjoyed acclaim for leading upstart programs into uncharted waters, Clawson's little engine that did remains little more than a footnote for most of America.

So yeah, Clawson is a little bit mad. He found a workaround that allows a school like Wake Forest to compete with college football's best, but after all that, the system doesn't appreciate the Deacons.

"We're a good football team, why are people surprised?" Clawson said. "This hasn't come out of nowhere. We've been good. We've been building. It doesn't upset me, but I just think our players deserve more credit."

CLAWSON TOOK THE Wake Forest job in 2014 after successful stints at Fordham, Richmond and Bowling Green, and he knew from the outset the renovation would be difficult. The football facilities were virtually nonexistent. The roster, particularly on offense, was so devoid of talent, Clawson struggled to fill out a depth chart. Jim Grobe led Wake to a historic ACC championship in 2006, but by Clawson's arrival, the program had been in decline for years. In the spring of 2015, ESPN ranked Wake as the worst job in the Power 5.

"Every job is hard," said Wake AD John Currie, who worked with Clawson at Tennessee and inherited him at Wake from longtime AD Ron Wellman in 2019. "Alabama's a hard job. But what are the factors that make a job hard, and what is it about a particular coach that makes them well suited for that particular challenge? There are a lot of great things about Wake Forest that nobody else in the country has. Then you look at Dave Clawson, and he has all the factors that really play well into what our strengths are."

Clawson has a dry, accessible demeanor and an analytical approach to problems. To keep his wife safe from COVID-19 last season, he set up house in his office for weeks at a time. He reads obsessively. This year's team mantra, "Good to Great," came from a book of the same name that he read on corporate growth. He has had offers from big-name schools, but has quickly shot down most suitors, staying far removed from the annual coaching-search rumor mill. He has no interest in being "a celebrity coach," he said. He's a foodie who's dined at Michelin-starred restaurants, but keeps a name tag from an old restaurant job in his wallet to remind him of leaner times. His favorite band is the Talking Heads, which seems fitting. Clawson could easily serve as college football's version of lead singer David Byrne, the coolest nerd in the game.

At a place like Wake -- the smallest school in the Power 5, an academic powerhouse and a football novelty -- Clawson's different style fit.

Wake's offensive coordinator, Warren Ruggiero, compared Clawson's approach to Steve Jobs': "You can't look at the competition and say you're going to do it better. You have to look at the competition and say you're going to do it differently."

Clawson's first two years at Wake were a slog, both ending with a 3-9 record, but he saw progress. The freshmen offensive linemen working with the scout team began to hold their own against the first-team defense. John Wolford, the QB he threw into the fire as a true freshman in 2014, weathered the storm. His early recruiting classes filled with raw material began to look like ACC-caliber players.

"The key to our success is to find the guys who can still develop and become as good as those four- and five-star guys," Clawson said. "They're not missing anything physically. It's just a year of development. I really believe a lot of our players, after a year of development in our program, they'd be four-star players."

Since 2015, Wake has as many first- and second-round draft picks as Texas, and in 2021, two players Clawson signed out of high school (QB Sam Hartman and tailback Kenneth Walker III, who transferred to Michigan State last spring) are among the top 10 betting favorites to win the Heisman trophy. The algorithms say they're three-star players, but Clawson knows better.

In Clawson's early years, Wake's offensive approach was usually to chew up as much clock as possible in hopes of winning a low-scoring game, which they did often: 6-3 (in double overtime) against Virginia Tech in 2014, 3-0 vs. BC in 2014 and 7-3 vs. Tulane in 2016. But as the talent developed, Clawson and Ruggiero adopted a new approach, a sort of Frankenstein's monster version of the triple option that utilizes a delay at the mesh point between the QB and running back that nearly affords a fan enough time to get off the couch and grab a beer before Hartman decides whether to pull the ball or hand it off. The scheme has produced increasingly astounding results, including a 70-point outburst against Army in Week 8 that came despite the Deacons holding the ball for just over 17 minutes. College football is often described as a "copycat" sport, but Wake's offense is a singularity.

Things began to click in 2016. Wake went to a bowl game. A year later, the Deacons finished 8-5 and upended Texas A&M in the Belk Bowl. Another bowl win in 2018. In 2019, Wake won its first five games and finished with eight wins for the second time in three years.

Clawson had turned the worst job in America into a consistent winner, yet few people outside Winston-Salem paid it much notice.

All of that might be enough to have most coaches looking for the first ticket to a more high-profile gig, but that's never been Clawson's aim. Between his stints at Richmond and Bowling Green, Clawson spent a year as the offensive coordinator at Tennessee. It was the end of Phillip Fulmer's run as head coach, the staff was new, and the team was bad. Clawson became a target for fan outrage, and at year's end, despite the three-year contract he signed, Clawson and the entire staff were let go.

Looking back, Clawson admits the experience was miserable, but he said he learned from it. He appreciates the patience he has been afforded at Wake Forest, and Clawson believes in its culture.

It would be nice to get a little acclaim for the success, but he knows that's a double-edged sword.

"I'm very happy where I'm at," Clawson, 54, said. "In this profession, if you're happy and enjoy where you're at, you don't feel a need to look."

HARTMAN DIDN'T EXPECT his prediction in July to gain much attention. By this point, Hartman and Wake's team leaders had been discussing their plans for the 2021 campaign for months, the logical end point in the "Good to Great" mantra.

"If we don't win 10 games this year," Hartman said, "that would be a disappointment."

Under Clawson, Wake had made real progress, but 10 wins? At Wake Forest? The program has been around since 1908, and in its entire history had exactly one 10-win season. The Deacons had two preseason top-10 teams on their schedule, and they played in a division that had been dominated by Florida State and Clemson for the past decade. The 2020 campaign ended with a 4-5 record and three straight losses. Ten wins wasn't simply aspirational. It was delusional.

A quick accounting of the most talked-about moments of Clawson's tenure at Wake Forest entering 2021:

  • In 2014, Wake and Virginia Tech went to overtime tied at zero, and the reaction of Hokies coach Frank Beamer to a final-second missed field goal became a popular meme.

  • In 2016, a former Wake assistant coach-turned-radio broadcaster was exposed as a spy, covertly giving opposing coaches detailed play designs he had seen at practice. The scandal came at the height of Julian Assange's WikiLeaks fame, and eventually took on the moniker "Wakeyleaks."

  • Two former Wake Forest football players, Tyler Cameron and Matt James, participated on "The Bachelorette" and "The Bachelor."

  • In last season's opener, ESPN's College GameDay made its first ever trip to Wake Forest. Of course, it came amid a global pandemic. Fans weren't allowed. The game was shown on a drive-in movie screen that night.

Off the field, the Deacons made headlines. On it, Wake was a quaint footnote in stories about Clemson or Florida State or North Carolina, even when it was winning.

"The narrative is always what [our opponents] aren't instead of what we are," Clawson said.

Inside the program, however, Clawson had already convinced his players they were capable of more.

"We're proud of going to bowls," Clawson said, "but quite frankly, I said to the team, 'If that's the only goal you have this year, we're selling ourselves short.'"

Through a miserable 2020 season upended by COVID-19, Clawson had seen progress. Jaquarii Roberson blossomed into one of the ACC's best receivers. Freshmen Caelen Carson and Nick Anderson emerged as dominant forces in the secondary. Hartman proved a master of Wake's offensive scheme. In practice, Clawson saw depth developing. In scrimmages, the offense and defense traded blows, neither side falling too far behind the other.

The 2020 season didn't necessarily look like the early stages of a breakthrough, but Clawson knew his team was close.

"We met as a staff and said, 'There's so much uncertainty in the world with the pandemic and social justice, we need to make our offices and our meetings and football the two to three hours a day that our players look forward to the most,'" Clawson said. "'Whatever we do, we have to create an atmosphere here where we're still going to coach them hard, but this part of their life has to be enjoyable.' The biggest [on-field] goal of 2020 was, let's get to 2021 without doing any damage to our football program."

Now 2021 was here, and Wake Forest was ready to unveil the machine it had built under the COVID-19-imposed veil. The rest of the world may have dismissed Hartman's prediction, but the Deacons believed.

"I want to win an ACC championship," Hartman said. "We are big-time football, and we're making that statement that inside this locker room, there's no shock."

CLAWSON WAS CONSIDERING the team's "Good to Great" mantra this spring when he got a phone call from an old friend. At Fordham, Clawson inherited Jason George as the team's strength coach when he took the job in 1999, and while George eventually found a career in the NFL, the two remained close. George had just left the Houston Texans, and he was looking for a change of pace. What he loved best about being a strength coach was the processes that went into maximizing a player's performance -- the data, the science, the psychology. He wanted a job where those things could be his focus.

It was fortuitous timing. Wake Forest had started hot nearly every year, but injuries and a lack of depth always managed to torpedo promising seasons. Clawson was frustrated and wanted someone to find a better way of preparing players for the grind of an ACC campaign.

"I think we're right on the edge of being a great football team," Clawson told his AD after the call, "and I think this guy can help us get there."

At first, George came in as a consultant on a three-day deal, returning with a detailed plan on ways to improve training loads, practice efficiency and data analysis. Currie was sold, and in March, George joined the staff full time as Wake's new director of integrated high performance.

What followed was a significant overhaul to how Wake prepares for games. The team had been using Catapult wearable performance trackers, and George developed better ways to interpret the data and design specific programs for individual players. George and Clawson formulated a new plan for Wake's practices.

"When we're physically working our athletes, there's a purpose behind doing it," George said. "We're not conditioning them, just running them [around]. The more ways they're getting their physical work combined with technical skills and tactical decision making and psychological cognitive work at the same time, we're more efficient in putting all those things into a practice plan."

Clawson calls George "an interpreter," who easily communicates between players, coaches and the strength staff. In Clawson, George found a coach willing to push the boundaries of what a typical strength coach's job should be.

"The best part of my day is having an interaction with him, and putting the practice plan together from two different perspectives and finding a good middle ground," George said. "Dave's a cerebral guy, so I can't just come in and say, 'I think we should do this.' I've got to have my guns loaded and the data to back it up."

It all fit with Clawson's three-pronged approach to pushing his team from good to great. He needed players to stay healthy. He needed to establish better depth. He needed to convince his stars that playing fewer snaps might ultimately benefit them in the long run. George's data offered solutions.

The final step was getting the team to buy into the plan. Again, he turned to his business books for the terminology: "Level 5 Leadership." The idea, Clawson said, is that greatness comes from the seemingly paradoxical accumulation of ambition and humility. He needed his best players to strive for something bigger, but accept a role that might be smaller. After 2020, this team was ready.

"There have been times in the past where I think we celebrated getting to six wins or being undefeated in September. I don't feel like that's the case with this group," Clawson said. "Our goal wasn't to be 5-0 or 6-0 or 8-0," Clawson said. "Our goal is to be a great football team."

Now, eight games into the 2021 season, the Deacons are undefeated, the ACC Atlantic is theirs for the taking. Suddenly, Hartman's prediction for 10 wins might be conservative.

CLAWSON HAD JUST finished a late breakfast at the dining hall across from Wake's football facilities this summer, when a student stopped him on his way out the door. It was freshman move-in day on campus, and the woman was lost. She had her younger sister in tow, and she hoped the nice man in the Wake Forest pullover could direct her to the bookstore.

As the group zipped through one building, cut across a courtyard and dodged down a walkway toward the bookstore, Clawson peppered the woman with questions.

Where was she from? (San Francisco. Clawson knew a sophomore from San Fran, too, and told the woman to look her up. They'd probably become friends.)

What high school had she gone to? (He did some recruiting at her rival school.)

What was her major? Was her sister going to attend Wake Forest, too? Did she have other siblings?

And then, of course, the kicker: Did she like football?

The woman had never seen a game -- she didn't even know who Clawson was.

Of course, she promised to watch the team this year, but she was hardly star-struck by the experience. This gets to the heart of Clawson's dilemma at Wake Forest. It's a place where he can personally sell the program to every new freshman who steps onto campus -- "His favorite things are coaching football and talking about Wake Forest," Currie said -- but changing a narrative requires a megaphone, and since arriving seven years ago, he's always heard the same refrain: Wake was a great place to go to school, but ...

But the talent. But the facilities. But the history. Wake was great, but for all the things that mattered to a football program.

"We wanted to change the 'but' to an 'and,'" Clawson said. "It's a great school and there are great facilities and you can win in football and make it the best of both worlds."

There are two potential codas to this story.

In one universe, Wake Forest beats North Carolina on Saturday, then Clemson, NC State and Boston College. The Deacons win an ACC championship. They are undefeated, and Clawson has finally forced the world to reckon with a program that refuses to fit into any of the mass-produced boxes the system expects.

In the other, Wake Forest loses -- this week or another, it doesn't matter when. The loss will be met with expectant shrugs, a universe pleased to return to a life in which the Deacons are good for memes and an occasionally entertaining shootout against Syracuse.

In that scenario, perhaps an end to Clawson's time at Wake Forest is inevitable. The experiment will have run its course. The establishment will prevail. It's easier to find a place within the system than to fight it. There would be room for vindication in this scenario, too. Clawson proved he can rejuvenate a small-time program, so what if he traded up for a bigger office and more opulent facilities and a traditional offensive scheme led by a five-star QB? What if he did all that and still kept winning? There will almost certainly be suitors in the coming months willing to bet he could.

"I believe Dave Clawson could build a great program anywhere," Currie said. "There's no question in my mind. I'm glad he's built a great program at Wake Forest."

Built. Past tense. The job isn't done, but it's clear to Currie that Clawson has passed the point of filling in the foundation and turned the program into one that expects to win every year. Yes, this season has a chance to be a breakthrough at Wake Forest, and there are bigger projects planned down the road, but the foundation is set. Wake doesn't need to win out to prove itself.

That's the ending Clawson might enjoy the most, one in which the Deacons' season can culminate with a championship or not, and it won't define them, because there will be more chances to come.

"There's a lot more we want to accomplish this year," Clawson said. "But there's a lot more we want to accomplish next year and the year after that and the year after that. We're not satisfied."

All those "buts" become "ands," until eventually there's a new football building paid for by happy boosters, more recruits are intrigued by the program doing things its own way and freshmen recognize Clawson and pester him with questions about the depth chart instead of directions to the bookstore. And, in spite of all the years of subtle steps forward, the college football world will suddenly look at Wake and, to paraphrase Clawson's favorite band, see a beautiful facility and beautiful roster and ask itself, "Well, how did we get here?"

Same as it ever was.