Wake Forest’s Jim Grobe achieves beyond the numbers

Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly referred to former Wake Forest quarterback Riley Skinner as one of the 2006 team’s notable fourth- and fifth-year players. He was a redshirt freshman that season. This version has been corrected.


Jim Grobe is on the verge of winning his 100th game at Wake Forest. Previous coaches at the school include Colts Coach Jim Caldwell and former NFL coaches Al Groh and John Makovic. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
John Feinstein
Columnist October 9, 2011

When the time comes for Jim Grobe to retire, the chances that he will be voted into the College Football Hall of Fame are probably somewhere between slim and none with slim having little chance of prevailing. Almost halfway through his 17th season as a head coach Grobe has an overall record of 99-94-1.

And yet, if any of those voting were to take a close look at Grobe’s accomplishments he might be voted in by acclamation.

John Feinstein is a sports columnist for The Washington Post and also provides commentary for the Golf Channel and National Public Radio. View Archive

Consider — for starters — some numbers.

Grobe is in his 11th season at Wake Forest. After his team’s 35-30 victory Saturday over Florida State, the Demon Deacons are 4-1 and Grobe is now 66-61 at Wake. That record might not sound overwhelming until you consider that he is the first Wake Forest coach to have a winning record since D.C. “Peahead” Walker retired in 1950 with a record of 77-51-6. The last four coaches prior to Grobe’s arrival combined to go 95-159-2 in 23 years. Those four — John Mackovic, Al Groh, Bill Dooley and Jim Caldwell — weren’t exactly hacks. All but Dooley went on to become head coaches in the NFL and Dooley had a record of 132-91-3 in 20 years at North Carolina and Virginia Tech.

Grobe’s first job was at Ohio University where he was 33-33-1 in six years. Again, hardly Hall of Fame numbers. But if you consider that in the 10 years prior to Grobe’s arrival Ohio had four separate losing streaks of at least 12 games, that record becomes a lot more impressive.

“I’ve always tried to take the approach that you don’t make excuses,” Grobe said Sunday morning. “When you come into a situation where things haven’t gone all that well, there’s a tendency to find reasons to complain about everything. If you do that, it filters down to everyone in the program. And it doesn’t do any good to complain anyway.”

Grobe’s “no excuses” mentality was born, not surprisingly, at a military academy. He was on Fisher DeBerry’s Air Force staff for 10 years before getting the Ohio job. Four of the coaches on his current staff — including both coordinators — have Air Force connections. Steed Lobotzke, his offensive coordinator, was a 260 pound offensive lineman at Air Force who was good enough to be invited to the East-West Shrine game.

In 2000, Grobe succeeded Caldwell, now the coach of the Indianapolis Colts, at Wake. When he arrived the school’s facilities were in awful condition. Groves Stadium hadn’t seen a new coat of paint since 1968 and the practice and locker room facilities were tiny and ancient. “I asked [Athletic Director] Ron Wellman to get one thing done for football every year,” Grobe said. “He’s been as good as his word on everything.”

Wake was 6-5 and 7-6 — including a bowl victory — during Grobe’s first two seasons. He credits Caldwell for the fact that those first two teams had winning records.

Grobe decided from the beginning that, except in extreme circumstances, he was going to redshirt all his freshmen. That gave players who might not have been 5-star high school recruits an extra year to develop. By 2006 Wake’s two-deep was dominated by fourth- and fifth-year players, notably first round NFL draft pick Aaron Curry. The Deacons went 11-3 that season, won the ACC title and played in the Orange Bowl.

Those feats made Grobe the national coach of the year and a very hot coach. Grobe was pursued at one point or another by Arkansas, Nebraska and Clemson. All high-profile and very high-paying jobs at football powers where contending for a national title is certainly not out of the question. He stayed at Wake, even knowing that 2006 might be the zenith of his career.

The 10-year contract Wellman gave him certainly helped. But it was more than that. “A couple of places where I interviewed I was told I had to keep some of the old staff,” Grobe said. “That was a problem. If I was moving, I wanted all my guys to be able to move with me. I wasn’t just going to leave them behind. Plus, you get very attached to the kids you coach here.

Wake went to three straight bowls from 2006 to 2008 but was 5-7 and 3-9 the last two years. Grobe blames himself — though for different reasons in each case.

“I just never could get them pointed in the right direction,” he said. “Last year we were just too young because we’d made some recruiting mistakes. [Quarterback] Tanner [Price] should not have played as a true freshman, he should have red-shirted the way [Quarterback] Riley [Skinner] was. But we had to play him.”

Now, Price is emerging as a star and Wake is 3-0 in the ACC for the first time ever with Virginia Tech coming to town Saturday.

“It’s funny, my wife Holly pointed out to me [Saturday] that when we first got here all we hoped to do was somehow not be embarrassed when we played Florida State. Now, we’ve beaten them a few times [four of six] and we feel like, as good as we know they are, it’s something we should be able to do if we play as well as we can play.”

That’s what Grobe has done most of his career: gotten his teams to play as well as they can play. And if, for some reason they don’t do that, he points the finger at one person: himself.

No excuses.

For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.

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