The last time we saw Wake Forest play basketball, the Demon Deacons became one of the major-conference teams in the 2019-20 season to find a way to lose their final game. They finished with their eighth losing season in the past 10 years. They’ve been to the NCAA Tournament once since the start of the 2010-11 season. They own a 36-92 record in conference games since the ACC expanded to 15 teams.
This is what we call a massive rebuilding job.
Is it any bigger, though, than what Steve Forbes has accomplished with his career?
From the dark days of 2010, when he lost his plum assistant coaching job at Tennessee, to the despair of August 2011, when he was handed a one-year show-cause penalty by the NCAA infractions committee, to his return to the junior college ranks he thought he’d left behind, to the NJCAA title game with Northwest Florida State two years in a row, to the Final Four as an assistant coach at mid-major Wichita State and then to a torrid five seasons as head coach at East Tennessee State that included NCAA Tournament bids in 2017 and 2020 — not many college coaches ever completed a climb that far in a time frame that short.
It’s an amazing story with an even happier chapter beginning now. Forbes will be introduced Friday in his new position as Wake Forest head coach, and in a relatively new manner: a video news conference with reporters who will ask how he can restore the program of Chris Paul, Tim Duncan, Randolph Childress and Len Chappell.
Not even a week after dismissing Danny Manning following a 13-18 season, Wake Forest chose Forbes from a strong field of potential candidates led by UNC Greensboro coach Wes Miller.
His record as a head coach is a compelling enough reason to settle on Forbes. At ETSU, he averaged 26 victories and, this past season, put together a 30-4 record that included a road win over Southeastern Conference power LSU and a 16-2 mark in the Southern Conference. That likely would have produced a sweet seed in the NCAA Tournament had the selection committee ever gotten around to pondering a bracket, but March Madness was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m not sure where we stand in East Tennessee State history,” Forbes said after the Buccaneers’ SoCon title game win. “But if there is a Mount Rushmore, this team is on it.”
What is most telling about the hire, though, is that Wake Forest athletic director John Currie was an associate AD at Tennessee during Forbes’ time there. Currie had moved on to become AD at Kansas State when everything went to heck with Bruce Pearl’s Volunteers, but Currie chose to invest in Forbes as a coach and Forbes as the person he knew, rather than eliminate him as a candidate because of that episode.
It was, in the realm of NCAA scandals, relatively tame. Pearl reportedly had a barbecue at his home when prospect Aaron Craft was on an unofficial visit, and Craft came to the house. That was not permissible under NCAA recruiting rules. A photo taken at that party became public, and NCAA investigators asked about it. Pearl subsequently admitted he did not tell the truth to the NCAA; even that public admission and apology did not lessen the punishment that arrived when the case was completed.
Forbes did not lie, but neither did he say anything to accuse Pearl. When the NCAA punishments came down, Forbes was not spared.
“The day we got fired … I cleaned out my office on my birthday,” Forbes told reporters before the first round of the NCAA Tournament in 2017. “That was a real memorable birthday. I probably thought I would get back to Division I at some point as an assistant, but being a head coach … maybe I wasn’t a real sexy hire at that time.
“Adversity does certain things to certain people, and I thought it was a tremendous teaching moment for me. I try to tell our players all the time: When you get knocked down, you got to get back up. You tell your kids that, and there I was knocked down, and my children were looking at me like: What’s Dad going to do? So I felt like I had to get up, be accountable and persevere.”
That made him a champion at the junior college level, as an assistant at Wichita State, as a head coach at ETSU. Now it has made him the head coach in the Atlantic Coast Conference, albeit an ACC school whose best days are well past. If anyone can make the Deacons part of the future, it probably is someone who understands how to conquer the biggest defeats.