Dave Clawson is a coach who sees opportunity where others see obstacles.
When Clawson took over as head football coach at Wake Forest three years ago, there was some questioning of the career move. Should he assume such a heavy lift at a private school that’s the smallest of all the 64 programs in the Power 5 Conferences?
The 2016 season has proven that the Youngstown native and Lewiston-Porter High School product knew what he was doing. His Wake Forest team qualified for its first bowl game in five years. The Demon Deacons (6-6) will play 23rd-ranked Temple in the Military Bowl on Dec. 27 in Annapolis, Md.
“Year Three has always been a year where I feel the tide has turned,” Clawson told The News from his home in North Carolina. “This year we went from a three-win team to a six-win team. We still have a very young football team. I still think we’re on the incline. I like our team, and the advances we’ve been able to make as a program.”
Program building is nothing new to Clawson. He built Fordham, Richmond and Bowling Green into winners in previous head coaching stops.
Who knows? Clawson’s team might have fared even better than 6-6 this fall if it hadn’t had a conspirator in its own program.
Wake Forest revealed last week that team broadcaster Tommy Elrod, who had been a Demon Deacon assistant coach before Clawson was hired, leaked game-plan information to opponents over the past three seasons.
Louisville and Virginia Tech both were fined $25,000 by the Atlantic Coast Conference for accepting game-plan details. Wake Forest has contacted Army about leaks, as well.
Wake Forest was beating Louisville, 12-10, after three quarters this year before Louisville rallied for a 44-12 victory. Wake lost to Army, 21-13. The Virginia Tech leak occurred in 2014.
Clawson declined to comment on the scandal beyond his initial statements.
“I've never experienced this level of betrayal in coaching," Clawson told reporters last week.
“The big thing is that they were cheated,” Clawson said of his players. “They were not given a fair chance to compete on multiple occasions. But there's nothing we can do about it. We found out what happened; we found out who did it; they're no longer part of our program and now we need to move forward and try to win a bowl game.”
Wake Forest is an 11.5-point underdog to Temple. It’s a role with which the Demon Deacons are familiar.
Wake Forest has an enrollment of about 4,800 undergraduates, a figure most ACC schools dwarf. Florida State has 32,000 undergrads. North Carolina State, just down the road from Wake, has 24,000. Florida State’s football revenue of roughly $70 million also dwarfs Wake’s total ($20 million), according to federal documents from two years ago.
Clawson stresses Wake has strengths many of his rivals can’t match.
“I don’t view the size of the school as an obstacle,” he said. “To me it’s a strength. There’s no other Power 5 school where a student-athlete is going to get as much individual attention as Wake Forest in the classroom and other areas.”
“There’s an intimacy and a quality of education here that’s hard to replicate anywhere in the country,” Clawson said. “Our average class size is about 22 to 24 per class. That’s a lot of individual attention. It’s very hard for kids to fail here. There’s very much a safety net. We’re very aware of what’s going on with their life, and we stay on top of that.”
Clawson’s previous stop, Bowling Green, is one of the more unglamorous places in the Mid-American Conference. Yet Clawson attracted a slew of skill-position talent to the Ohio school. Bowling Green won the MAC title Clawson’s fifth year there, 2013. The Falcons won the MAC again in 2015 with Clawson’s recruits, rolling up 42 points a game.
But the 49-year-old Clawson has not tried to replicate his Bowling Green formula in Winston Salem, N.C.
“I think there is a formula to win everywhere, and you have to figure out what the formula is,” he said. “That comes down to how are you going to play the game? What type of systems are you going to use on offense and defense? What is going to be your recruiting model? We have to maximize the 85 scholarships we have. We are the smallest school in the Power 5. But the biggest school in the Power 5 only gets 85 scholarships, too.”
Whereas Bowling Green won with a high-powered offense, Wake Forest is succeeding with a closer-to-the-vest attack and a veteran defense that ranks 20th in the nation in points allowed (21.8), 39th in yards allowed and 12th in sacks.
“At Fordham and Bowling Green, we were able to attract skill,” Clawson said. “At Richmond and Wake Forest, we’ve tried to build the thing more along the physicality of the O-line, tight ends, trying to develop a running game and have that be our base. . . . Here, like Richmond, we play a little more conservatively. We’re willing to play more of a slugfest and be in lower-scoring games because we feel that gives us the best opportunity to win.”
Clawson says his recruiting efforts have been boosted by the fact Wake Forest opened a $21 million indoor practice facility in January. It was paid for with all private funds, which included a single, $12.5 million donation.
Wake Forest has only seven senior starters (five of them on defense), and 10 starters are freshmen or sophomores.
“Offensively I would expect us to take a big jump next year as those freshmen and sophomores become sophomores and juniors,” he said.
Clawson said adjusting his style to the talent on hand is something he learned at Lewiston-Porter.
“My head basketball coach, Jim Walker, was a great, strategic X's and O's coach and a great motivator,” he said. “He got us to overachieve. He’s probably one of the first people you could really say that coach made a difference in the performance. We always felt we were at an advantage going into games because he was on our bench.”