Hinds Little, president of the Winston-Salem Sports Club, peered at the 200 or so people gathered today for the club's weekly Wake Forest football lunch and said:
"I always knew we had a lot of Deacon fans around here. I guess they were all just busy on Thursday afternoons last year."
Gales of laughter. Also laughing was Wake Coach John Mackovic, who moments before had been explaining that on a good day in 1978, when his team was enroute to a 1-10 season, 40 or 50 people might show up, "If we were lucky."
Today, the room was jammed with people, waiting to hear Messiah Mackovic tell again how he had taken his team to a 5-1 record this season, including road wins over North Carolina and Georgia.
Mackovic, 35, tries very hard to avoid the pedestal people have wanted to place him on this fall. He waits in line like everyone else to get into the sports club lunch and when he talks, he does not fill the air with coaching cliches. He is honest, straight-forward and -- surprise -- funny.
"How did we stop Amos Lawrence?" he said in response to a question today about the Deacons' defense against the star UNC tailback.
"Well, we tried a novel approach. Instead of looking at films and telling our guys over and over what not to do and what not to let him do, we kept it simple.
"We told them, 'tackle him,' and they did."
If that answer sounds like a wisecrack it's not -- at least not completely. It is a basic part of the Mackovic coaching philosophy: give the players positives, not negatives to think about at all times.
Huge doses of positive thinking were needed when Mackovic arrived here before the 1978 season. Wake was 1-10 in 1977 when many players from a respectable 5-6 team had returned.
Coach Chuck Mills had been fired. His conservative offense and negative wisecracks were acceptable as long as the team kept improving. Once it slid, he was gone -- but not forgotten. Miffed over his firing, Mills has filed $454,000 lawsuit against the university and Athletic Director Gene Hooks, alleging he was mistreated by Hooks when he was fired.
Into this void stepped Mackovic, a 1964 Wake Forest graduate, who had quarterbacked the Deacons then. He realized his biggest job was changing attitudes -- of players, students, alumni.
"A lot of people just said, 'Well, we're supposed to get kicked around in football,'" said Mackovic. "I never believed that. I set out to tell people it can be better than this."
Mackovic's most important job was selling his players on the idea that they could be at good football teams. The 1978 season did little to advance that notion as injuries and several close losses kept the record at 1-10.
But this fall Mackovic installed Jay Venuto, a redshirt junior, at quarterback. Ventuo immediately turned the Deacs into a passing circus, averaging 32 throws and 234 passing yards a game. Such receivers as Wayne Baumgardner (29 catches, 538 yards), Albert Kirby (25 catches), James McDougald (17 catches) began making spectacular grabs. McDougald, the school's all-time leading ground gainer with more than 3,000 yards and Kirby gave the offense some balance.
"Coach Mackovic is a great play caller. That's a lot of it." Venuto said. "In the old days whenever we got a bad break we would start thinking, 'oh no, here we go again.' Now we think, 'okay what do we have to do now to make up for this.' We know now that we're going to be in every ball game."
The Deacons have not only been in every ball game, they have made every decision go down to the final minutes. Their one loss was 17-14 to N.C. State and their five wins have all been by five points or fewer.
"Confidence is the whole key to this football team, more than most others," said Wake Forest psychology professor Philip Falkenberg, who teaches many of the football players -- 87 percent of whom graduate. "Once they recognized that John was a good football coach, they willingly did what he told them to. When that brought results, they were more willing to do it. So the thing has grown from week to week."
It has grown to the point where most of the Deacons are confident going into Saturday's ACC game here against Maryland.
"We've reached the point now where we have confidence in our ability to play good football against anyone for 60 minutes," said defensive halfback Mark Lancster, a 1975 graduate of West Springfield (Va.) High School.
"What has helped a lot is the fact that Coach Machovic is a Wake Forest graduate. He understands what it's like to play football here. He knows this isn't a football factory and he doesn't want it to be. I don't think any other coach in the country could have come in here and done what he's done."
Fellow defensive back Carlos Bradley agreed. "He's just instilled in us the feeling that if we really worked, our time would come."
To this point in the season, Wake's time has come. This small, lovely campus in the Piedmont foothills has a student population of only 4,400. But the school has more than made up for what it lacks in numbers with the reaction to this fall's football victories.
After the victories over Georgia and Carolina, the team was greeted by hordes when it returned and the campus rocked in celebration for days. "When a bunch of us walked into our classes on Monday, the professors led the class in applause," said Venuto. "We couldn't believe it. Now they do it every Monday when we win. I never thought I would have that experience at Wake Forest."
Wake is having new experiences each week, it seems. Three weeks ago it was regional television. Last week it was beating hated UNC in hated Chapel Hill. This week it is being favored over a Maryland team that has dominated the Deacons for seven years.
And the scouts coming in from the Peach and Tangerine bowls Saturday will be here to see the home team. "That's a switch isn't it?" said Mackovic, with a mischievous grin.
And, as the leaves begin falling here, the major topic on campus is not basketball, it is football. At Wake Forest, that is REAL progress.