The first line of the official school release for Wake Forest’s hire of Danny Manning on Friday reads: “Danny Manning, one of the most accomplished college basketball players in the history of the sport, has been named the head coach at Wake Forest University.” For a school that just weathered one of the worst four-year stretches in school history under Jeff Bzdelik, you’d think a typical coaching hire would lead with, well, a person’s credentials as a head coach and not as a player.
But Danny Manning isn’t a typical hire. And nothing Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman has done since the tragic death of former coach Skip Prosser in the summer of 2007 could be described as typical. Wellman doesn’t use search firms. He goes with his gut even when all forms of statistical analysis scream otherwise, as evidenced by the Bzdelik hire. He can go on ill-advised never-ending “Oh heavens, yes” press junkets or be deafeningly loud with tight-lipped silence.
Through all that, he’s been right enough times to bring an ACC championship to WFU in football and to bring Prosser to Winston-Salem in the first place. His reputation outside of the Bzdelik disaster was a good one in the NCAA at large, strong enough to earn him the title of NCAA tournament selection committee chair. He's going to need to be right on this in what could be the last big hire he makes as athletic director at Wake Forest.
Everything in Manning’s history points to success. There aren’t the same red flags with him that there were with Bzdelik – like postseason failure, an inability to recruit at a high level, poor rebounding numbers, awkwardness in interviews, a lack of loyalty to programs and a tendency to throw players under the bus – and for that Wake fans should be able to breathe a sigh of relief.
The team brings back some talent. Players like Codi Miller-McIntyre, Arnaud "Bill" Adala Moto and Devin Thomas showed enough to upset Duke, N.C. State and UNC this season, and some help is on the way in Greg McClinton (who redshirted this season) and point guard Shelton Mitchell. It's far from a stable foundation, though. Bzdelik's recruiting was suspect at best compared to the players Wake traditionally brought in, and his record at WFU was 51-76 with no postseason tournament appearances. The Demon Deacons need deprogramming; they need to be taught what it means to be part of a winning team.
Manning has been around winning since he was in high school in Greensboro (N.C.). He can boast a laundry list of successes as a player across multiple levels, including a Naismith and Wooden award, an NCAA championship, a place in the Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame, a No. 1 pick in the 1988 NBA draft and 15 seasons in the NBA. He was a part of some incredibly impressive Kansas teams under Bill Self as an assistant. He’s shown strong aptitude as a recruiter. And his two years at Tulsa had plenty of positives, including a late run this season to capture the C-USA title over a well-coached Louisiana Tech team that earned him conference coach of the year and a 13-seed in the NCAA tournament.
Maybe Wellman missed out on VCU’s Shaka Smart and other bigger candidates. Or perhaps he convinced himself while watching the NCAA tournament that Manning was the man for the job.
Whatever the rationale, there’s no room for error with Danny Manning. He has to convince a win-starved fan base that he’s the right coach, he has to turn things around fast, and he’s going to have to bring Wake Forest back to being a premier program in the ACC. (It wasn’t so long ago that the Deacs were ranked as high as No. 1 in the nation and featured multiple NBA draft picks before the bottom dropped out. The fans in the past were passionate and supportive; they weren't always known for putting up billboards, hashtags and celebrating a coach's resignation.)
That’s a tall order for a guy with just two years of head coaching experience, no matter how much success he had as a player or how much of a household name he is. Plenty of nice things will be written and said about Manning, but none of that matters if he can’t get Wake back to the Big Dance. The odds of drawing the next Billy Donovan are incredibly low. While Manning might not be the home run hire on paper Demon Deacon fans were hoping for, he better at least be a ground rule double. Wake Forest – and especially Ron Wellman – can’t afford to strike out on another basketball coach.