The Jim Grobe System
By BJ Bennett
Follow us at Twitter.com/SouthernPigskin. Become a fan at the SouthernPigskin.com Facebook Page
Jim Grobe, engaging, modest and thoughtful, has a football program firmly built on a powerful set of ideals.
The pressures and demands of big-time college football oftentimes dictate how coaches can run a program. Wake Forest head coach Jim Grobe doesn't allow those limitations to guide his efforts. Instead, he puts defining restrictions on himself. Grobe's program is designed for and sustained by the concept of the student-athlete. Winning is not necessarily the ultimate goal, rather the natural byproduct of preparation and perspective.
At a private school with an undergraduate enrollment of just over 4,400 students, Grobe lives and works by a philosophy that struggles to gain traction throughout much of the country. He recruits football players to Wake Forest based on who they are, followed then by what they can do. In order to become a Demon Deacon, prospects must fit the personality of the program first. It's an approach that simply doesn't match the drama and glamor of the recruiting process today.
"I think honestly the boosters get upset with me sometimes because they want to know what the recruiting pool is like and I tell them it's more like a puddle," said Grobe of how he and his staff evaluate prospects.
It's a simple style, one not always rewarded by analysts and pundits.
"We start with character. We try to find a kid who is a self-starter to be honest with you. We can't have kids that we have to kick in the pants everyday to get them to go to class, to get them to be on time, to get them to practice hard, all of those type things. We have to go find a kid who is a self-starter and then we have to find a kid who can graduate from Wake Forest," Grobe explained. "Only after that can we start looking at a kid that can help us compete for championships. We've got to look really hard."
That method has brought players like Nikita Whitlock to Winston-Salem. A two-star recruit offered by just Southern Methodist and Wake Forest out of high school, Whitlock finished a standout prep career in Texas at 5'11'', 240 pounds. Having added 20 pounds of muscle since arriving on campus, Whitlock is now Wake Forest's starting nose guard. An interior lineman that size simply wouldn't measure up at other schools. Grobe has a found a role where Whitlock excels.
"I kind of have a rule. I'm not quite 5'10'' and I tell our coaches if you recruit me you're fired. We had a tough time pulling the trigger on Nikita because we are about the same height. He might have be by a little bit," Grobe chuckled. "He's a very powerful guy that has a motor that never stops. He's one of those rare guys that you get that's a great football player in a small package. What a great player, he's the guy that gets our defense going."
Most Wake Forest football players, Whitlock included, benefit from a redshirt year. It's a fading concept at most BCS Conference programs, but one Grobe has made work as he has competed with the likes of Clemson and Florida State in the ACC Atlantic Division. The majority of incoming recruits spend their first season on campus training for the opportunity ahead and learning on Saturdays on the bench instead of on the go.
"We typically don't play too many true freshmen. Most of the kids we bring in are really, really good football players but in a lot of cases they need a little development. I've been pretty secure in my contract, I haven't had to worry about playing kids right away because I'm going to lose my job if I don't. I have no problem playing true freshmen, but most of the kids we play as true freshman are starters. We really don't want to waste a kid. For us, it's all about development and we typically don't know what kind of football team we are going to have until we get these kids into their redshirt sophomore, junior and senior years. If we have a pretty good solid group of juniors and seniors then we can compete with anybody," Grobe continued.
That way of introducing freshmen to the college game, along with the aforementioned meticulous recruiting approach, has largely resulted in Grobe having a more savvy football team more years than not. While there have been ups and downs, the Demon Deacons have consistently been in the mix in their division and have won four of their last six against the Seminoles. Despite having far fewer resources and far less tradition than his peers, Grobe has compiled a winning overall record at his current stop.
"At Wake Forest it's all about if we've done a good job of developing the young kids into being mature older kids," he added.
During Grobe's tenure at Wake Forest, the Demon Deacons have not had a single recruiting class ranked higher than 10th in the ACC. Despite that, he has led the program to five bowl games and the 2006 ACC Championship. It was the Deacons' first conference crown since 1970, just their second all-time, and their first-ever berth in the Orange Bowl. That season, he was named the AP National Coach of the Year.
As college football continues to grow and expand, a thriving business-model leading the way, Grobe continues to build his program his way.
"We have to start with character and academics and then work towards football. It thins the recruiting class out. We have to do our homework on these guys before we bring them to Wake Forest," he concluded.
Grobe, engaging, modest and thoughtful, has a football program firmly built on a powerful set of ideals. The environment, without the constantly fluid consequences that come with most coaching jobs, has allowed his philosophy to flourish. In some ways, it's a challenge of the status quo. In some ways, it's a charge to a broader cause.