For the past several days I’ve been obsessing about the most sought-after man in sports right now: Dave Clawson, head football coach at Wake Forest University.
I’ve been watching YouTube videos of his press conferences, reading his press quotes, and finding out everything I can about what makes this man tick going back to the day he got hired in 2013.
Because he’s doing something that’s never been done before leading one of the smallest schools in Division I to a top 10 ranking in football after 10 weeks of the season. That’s virtually unheard of in the history of college football. When a guy does something this stunning, you have to ask yourself what’s going on here, what makes this guy tick, what’s his secret sauce?
I have a few insights to share based on my investigation. Let’s start with this: He is the most articulate of any coach in any sport I’ve ever heard. His insights are penetrating, logical, sensible, and enlightening. Some coaches have the gift of gab and are entertaining but not necessarily eloquent; this guy doesn’t gab.
He speaks with an obvious and smooth command of the English language, proper grammar, and with a touch of wit. He’s like an Ivy League English or History professor with the command of his words, but much more easy to relate to and like.
Known for his voracious reading habits, this guy went to one of the best universities in the United States, Williams College, arguably a higher quality education than several of the Ivy Leagues. Don’t believe me? Ask people who really know higher education what they think of the quality of a Williams College education, and they’ll fill you in: Williams College is for very, very smart people and delivers an ultra-elite education to its students.
Williams College is all about the intellect and the mind and pursuing deep and important thoughts and ideas. This education molded Clawson’s mind.
He’s a different guy in other ways besides intellectual curiosity and erudite speaking. Most college coaches are into bravado and coming across as tough and have the big macho thing going on perhaps to make up for their hidden insecurities. This guy Clawson has none of that. He doesn’t act macho. He’s just who he is, being himself, modest and honest and treating everyone in the press, and everyone he meets, with respect – not with condescension like, say, Brian Kelly at Notre Dame or Nick Saban at Alabama or that ass who coaches Penn State.
Even better, Clawson doesn’t come across as if he’s impressed with himself for having studied and graduated from Williams College. He comes across as a nice guy who just believes in working hard. How cool: an unpretentious Williams College graduate.
Which brings me to the theme he’s shared with his team for this season of transitioning from a good to a great football team. This is based on a famous business book titled Good to Great that I read. The book’s purpose is to figure out what the two or three defining characteristics are of great companies, those that rise above just being good. And the big takeaway, in a remarkably consistent and uncanny way, is that leaders of great companies share a few common characteristics.
The first is they have just a few strongly held beliefs and are adamantly committed to them and cannot be convinced otherwise. They hold onto these beliefs no matter what because of their convictions that those beliefs are what matter most. And the second belief is they’re not big PR hounds wanting all the attention or highly extroverted salespeople.
Clawson is one of these understated great leaders. He has a few beliefs. One is to set high goals. On the day he was introduced as the coach at Wake Forest in 2013, he said he did not believe it was acceptable for Wake Forest to be content winning six games and going to a bowl game. That’s what Wake Forest fans were used to and would have been content with.
That’s not ambitious enough for Clawson. The goal should be to win the ACC championship and win a lot more than six games in a season and be the team to beat in North Carolina above NC State, UNC and Duke. Wow – how audacious. New coach in town telling the Wolfpack, Tar Heels, and Blue Devils that little guy Wake Forest would be ruling the state’s football universe. But here’s the thing: He was serious and made that pursuit and accomplishment crystallize. Damned impressive.
His rationale is that if you aim for six wins you probably won’t win that many and you’ll have a pretty bad season, say four wins. Better to aim much higher and if you miss you’ll still have perhaps an eight-win season. He’s so right. He understands the psychology of setting goals. Set them high and you have a much better chance of achieving greatness and being successful than setting easier-to-attain but less exciting goals.
His second core belief is that you can run a highly successful football program and also have players who excel in the classroom. Most people think it’s one or the other. Not Clawson. And he won’t budge on this. He demands that his players sit in the first two rows of every class and arrive five minutes early.
He’s a smart man. He’s learned from the results of studies that students who sit in the front row of classes get higher grades, on average than students who sit behind them. His belief has paid off; none of his players have failed out of Wake Forest and many have performed well in the classroom and on the field.
I would go on and on about this intriguing man on his remarkably consistent rise up the college football totem pole. I love the story of his first day on campus when he went to the Wake Forest library to introduce himself to the students and brought them all Krispy Kreme Donuts. Who does that?
A man who understands people. He wanted the students to know he cared about them and their support of his team and prioritized showing them that by showing up at the library and greeting them not in a pompous way like “hey I’m the new head coach, look at me.” Rather he did it to say “hey I care about you students as much as I do my players and we’re going to have a great time together enjoying Wake Forest develop into a fun, exciting, and successful football program you’re all proud of.”
He’s done that – a man of his word all the way. It took him several years to get to this, his best season as the head coach, but you could see this coming after several consecutive years of winning seasons and taking home bowl game trophies.
In his press conference today, Clawson spoke about his experience Saturday night after his team beat NC State. Finding himself amid the crowd of students and players on the field, he drifted several feet away to get a better view and take it all in.
He watched the celebration of his team and the student body, which had broken an all-time attendance record with 4,600 of them showing up for this big game. He said he would have waited for several hours for his players to stop celebrating on the field before congratulating them in the locker room in his post-game speech.
He talked about how important it was to enjoy the moment. So much work had gone into preparing for NC State, and for all the games this season, and since he became the head coach at Wake Forest. Yet it wasn’t about working after the game, being all serious and disciplined and controlling. It was time to let loose and feel joy and revel in the moment. This was his belief. If you can’t enjoy these moments, he asked rhetorically, then why are you doing all this work?
There is now the inevitable chatter that Clawson is at the top of the list for any major college football coaching jobs that open up over the next several weeks and months. And rightly so. This guy’s got the goods, the mindset, the personality, the work ethic, the vision, the track record, the charisma, and the leadership skills that any sensible university would crave.
But he’s ours. He’s our Wake Forest football leader, the best we’ve ever had and probably ever will. Many people are going to be worried that he’s going to leave because some big-time football program will wave so much money at him that he won’t be able to resist.
Don’t buy that. He’s not going anywhere. Not in a year or two years or three years.
In one of his press conferences recently he told a story about a time in his junior year of high school his father took him around to see 15 different schools and one of them was Wake Forest. By far, he said, his favorite was Wake Forest. The only reason he didn’t enroll here was because he wanted to play college football and he wasn’t quite good enough to play for Wake Forest so he opted for Williams College.
Let that sink in. Long ago in his heart, he had already fallen in love with Wake Forest as so many of us have the first time we saw the place. It was genuine and visceral. And then many years later he got the head job at this wonderful institution of higher learning – arguably as great an education as you’ll get anywhere in the United States.
This is a man who cares about learning deeply. Sounds like Wake Forest to me. This is a thinker. Sounds like Wake Forest to me. This is a man with a voracious curiosity and reading hunger. Sounds like Wake Forest to me.
It all fits perfectly.
Guys like Dave Clawson don’t do what typical college football coaches do, running for the fatter paycheck whenever they can. This is a man of substance and character looking to make a mark on this world in his own way doing it with more steadiness and humility than your typical college football coach.
I believe in my heart it would be more appealing to him to continue building one of the greatest football programs in the history of small Division I universities than to go to a much bigger Division I school full of blue blood football players and traditions. The latter path is not the one Clawson will gravitate towards. He’s a man running his own race on his own terms not needing to be the big star but rather just believing what he believes.
With the success he’s had, punctuated by this year’s already unprecedented success at 9 wins and 1 loss, he knows he can build on this to raise the program to even greater heights. That will be, to him, more intellectually challenging and gratifying and important and historic than moving on to a bigger-name football program.
This guy has it all right here at Wake Forest, everything he’s ever dreamed of – and he knows it.
Sammy Sportface, a sports blogger, galvanizes, inspires, and amuses The Baby Boomer Brotherhood. And you can learn about his vision and join this group's Facebook page here:
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