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Jim Grobe and the Wake Forest Way

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Jim Grobe uses circumstances many view as constrictive as a way to guide young men down the path of life.

I'm proud to be at Wake Forest, I think it's the way it should be. You ought to be able to get a great education and still play big-time football.
~Jim Grobe

From the outside looking in, Jim Grobe's job at Wake Forest may seem like an impossible one. He there leads a football program that has specific resource limitations in comparison to its competitors. One of the nation's most respected institutions, Wake Forest has the smallest student enrollment of any major conference school and plays in a league where the defending conference champions have more full-time employees than they have undergraduate students.

Prior to Grobe's arrival in Winston-Salem, the Demon Deacons, with over 100 years of football on the books, had never won nine football games in a single season; six times they had lost ten. Notable names like John Mackovic, Al Groh, Bill Dooley and Jim Caldwell came to Wake Forest but struggled to find consistency. Administrators even turned to the heavens in the late 1950s, hiring Paul J. Amen. His second year, the Demon Deacons didn't win a game.

Douglas Clyde "Peahead" Walker is the program's pioneer and legend. At 5'6'', he had a penchant for wearing bright-colored ties and, reportedly, left Yale in part because they called him by his legal name. At Wake Forest, different is a must. 

"We are the smallest school that plays BCS football by far. The next smallest school probably doubles us, but that's okay," Grobe explained on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. "The biggest thing for us is that we are a real for-real academic school, kind of an Ivy League type, but we are playing in a BCS Conference."

This is a university with a world-renowned business program and a campus regarded as one of the most picturesque in the country. Football, however, has long been a work in progress. Until recently, Wake Forest hung just one championship banner in the football offices. With close victories over rivals North Carolina and North Carolina State, the Demon Deacons were the ACC's best in 1970 with a modest record of 6-5 overall.

In 2006, Wake Forest nearly doubled that mark. Grobe led the Demon Deacons to 11-3, winning the conference championship and earning a historic berth in the Orange Bowl. The storylines, as the nation kept track, were many. Wake Forest again nipped neighbors North Carolina and NC State, shutout Florida State 30-0 in Tallahassee and edged Georgia Tech in the second-ever ACC title game. Grobe was named the Associated Press Coach of the Year.  

On a cold December day in Jacksonville, Florida, Grobe was hailed a champion. Though a landmark moment, the former head coach at Liberty High School in Bedford, Virginia has long been helping others reach the top.

Before his chosen profession, before playing at the University of Virginia, Grobe was a scrappy linebacker at tiny Ferrum Junior College where he starred on an undefeated Coastal Conference championship team. In addition to winning games, Grobe was selected for the Catlin Citizenship Award for his community commitment and display of leadership skills. He would earn Academic All-ACC honors with the Cavaliers and graduate from UVA with a Master's Degree in Guidance and Counseling. Qualities shown four decades ago continue to define Grobe today.

Hence, his current situation and perspective. Grobe, who served as an assistant at the Air Force Academy for a decade, uses circumstances many view as constrictive as a way to guide young men down the path of life. A more intimate setting, a more rounded tone allows for certain philosophical roots to take hold. The options Grobe and his program offer are undoubtedly uncommon. What sets Wake Forest apart, however, is oftentimes what sets Grobe's players up for success -- both on and off the field.

"There are a lot of kids looking for a smaller environment, a lot of parents that are looking for a smaller environment. We're different than anyone else in the conference, not just because of our size, but also because of our academics," Grobe continued. "When you throw in the strong academics and then play the type of people we play every week, there are no guarantees."       

The Demon Deacons, despite being an outlier in terms of athletic infrastructure, constantly compete against some of the premier programs in all of college football. Wake Forest has Clemson, Florida State and Miami all on their schedule this season, three teams currently ranked in the top 13 of the national polls. Those tests are part of the appeal. For the Demon Deacons, nothing is given, absolutely everything is earned.   

"Somebody said to me, 'coach, it seems like things are going the wrong way'. Well, they're not going the wrong way, they're going the way they will every year. We can win every game we play and we can lose every game we play," Grobe acknowledged. "If you come to Wake Forest, you have to realize that first and foremost you have to be a real frugal student, that you will have to go to real classes and it's going to be tough academically. But then you practice to play the 'Noles, 'Canes and Hokies and those guys. When you're doing that, it's not easy."

In the opinion of a man with a post-graduate degree and coach of the year awards from two different leagues, those odds offer a great return on investment.

"I'm proud to be at Wake Forest, I think it's the way it should be," Grobe nodded. "You ought to be able to get a great education and still play big-time football."  

During his esteemed tenure, Grobe has changed the expectations on campus. Winning 28 games in a three-year span, 2006-2008, will do that. The ACC's second-longest tenured coach has taken the Demon Deacons to the postseason five times, where he has a winning record. Grobe also has winning marks against in-state rivals Duke, North Carolina and NC State. In his last seven meetings with Florida State, Grobe is an impressive 4-3. With his next victory, he will tie "Peahead" Walker's school record for most all time.  

"The thing is at Wake Forest, we know we can compete. We know we can win an ACC Championship. We can go to bowl games, we can win bowl games," Grobe added. "But every year is a challenge."  

Wake Forest differs, in many respects, from the college football norm. That proud distinction is more than just one Grobe pitches and sells. It's one he lives as well. 

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports