Steve Forbes is a fascinating yet curious hire for Wake Forest, not because he can’t coach (he’s terrific) or because he lacks charisma (he has personality to spare) or because he’s too old or too young or hasn’t won or lacks experience or any of the other typical reasons to question a coaching hire.
There’s no question Forbes is a winner. The only question about how Forbes will fit at Wake Forest is how he won. Of the 14 players on East Tennessee State’s roster last season, five were junior-college transfers and another three were Division I transfers.
That fits with Forbes’ history, having spent 11 years as a JUCO head or assistant coach. Needless to say, that doesn’t work at an academically elite school like Wake Forest, so the Demon Deacons are already asking this particular leopard to change his spots as he walks in the door.
There’s a leap of faith on Wake Forest’s part that Forbes can recruit elite high-school talent and build his program that way. Which is another way to say: Forbes is a coach you’d hire in a heartbeat somewhere other than the smallest private school among the Power 5 conferences. For Wake Forest, it’s a gamble.
But it’s also a gamble that’s certainly worth taking, given the dire state of the program after a decade with Jeff Bzdelik and Danny Manning and without a single winning record in the ACC. New Wake Forest athletic director John Currie had to get this hire right, and if there’s a comfort level with Forbes because of time spent together at Tennessee (where Forbes worked for Bruce Pearl) that wasn’t there with the other candidates, then fine.
While there were hairs to split and nits to pick with all of them, none could make a better overall case than Forbes, who is a startling 130-43 at ETSU and whose last team would have been a popular NCAA upset pick as a 10 or 11 seed in the NCAA tournament that wasn’t. Forbes gets an A for his Xs and Os.
Off the court, he’s affable, quotable and personable — more heir to Dave Odom and Skip Prosser in that respect than Bzdelik or Manning. The latter two never seemed to get that part of the job, how it’s partly incumbent upon the coach to make Wake Forest compelling in a crowded basketball state with three higher-profile programs, especially in the down years. Odom and Prosser knew that they had to be smarter, funnier and more open than the next guy just to get a fair shake, even when they were winning. Based on his ETSU persona, Forbes should understand that intrinsically.
It’s just the roster-building that’s hanging out there, and it’s going to require an abrupt departure from past practice. Forbes coached eight all-SoCon players in his five seasons at ETSU. Two were high school recruits he inherited from the previous regime. Two were his own high school recruits. Three were junior-college transfers. One was a graduate transfer. He once described his recruiting strategy as “guys from the Land of Misfit Toys.”
Wake Forest doesn’t typically do things that way. There may be room for transfers — Manning took two this offseason, including Winston-Salem’s own Isaiah Wilkins from Virginia Tech — but few junior-college players are going to meet Wake’s admissions standards. For this to work, Forbes is going to have to walk away from the quick-fix JUCOs that enabled him to keep East Tennessee State on top of the Southern Conference year after year while he tries to rebuild Wake Forest from the ground up.
It’s the one question mark about a hire that checks all of the other boxes.
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