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On Pitt, Wake Forest, and patience in an impatient football world

2021 ACC Championship - Pittsburgh v Wake Forest Photo by Logan Whitton/Getty Images

On Saturday, Pitt battled Wake Forest in the ACC Championship Game - a matchup of two non-bluebloods.

It was the first ACC Championship Game not to feature either Clemson or Florida State since Boston College represented the Atlantic Division in 2008, what feels like about three lifetimes ago.

Counting Virginia Tech as a ‘blueblood’ (particularly in those days), you have to go back to the 2006 matchup between Wake Forest and Georgia Tech to find an ACC title game with a profile similar to that of Wake-Pitt.

As a BC fan, you can look at this in one of two ways.

On the one hand, it’s frustrating that these opportunities come about so rarely - Clemson and Florida State both being down by their standards - and yet we weren’t within shouting distance of taking advantage of it this year.

But on the positive side, you can look at what Wake and Pitt (and to a lesser extent, NC State) accomplished this year and know that opportunities do come along, even if they’re not as frequent as you’d like.

And that’s what got me thinking about patience. And by that, I don’t mean patiently waiting as a fan for our team’s moment to shine (there’s not much we can do about it either way). By that I mean, how patient should mid-tier programs and their ADs be as they look to build teams that can compete with and beat the bluebloods?

As all college football fans know, the coaching carousel is crazier than ever this year. One year after some prognostications of doom about the financial future of college athletics, programs are splashing millions left and right to buy out coaches and hire new ones.

The pressure is on more than ever to win and win now- and as the gulf between the playoff and elite bowls and the rest seems to grow in terms of prestige and attention, few fanbases are content with just being competitive year after year. With 65 “Power 5” programs, only 25 of them can be in the top 25 (#math) but pretty much 55-60 out of the 65 think that’s a baseline expectation. So the pressure is on, always. And patience is hard to come by.

The question for a program like BC is... how patient is too patient?

In 2015, I argued (against some pretty fanatical opposition) that it realistically probably takes 5-6 years to take a program like BC and really stamp it in your image and compete at a higher level than your historical average. For BC, our historical average is smack-dab on-trend to a 7-5 finish - a 55.8% winning percentage, at 518-408-14 all-time. Because of that, I wasn’t in favor of canning Addazio after one horrible year (though it sure was very horrible). Because for a program like BC, you need stability.

It turns out Addazio most certainly was not the guy, as he further proved at his next stop; BC probably waited a year too long to make the change after his limitations were all too clear.

But odds are pretty good that whoever the coach is that gets BC over the hump - and we all have faith that Hafley can be that guy - it’s likely not going to come as instant gratification. The magical Autumn of Jags was probably a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Year 3 of Hafley is an important year. But based on the historical record, it’s not going to be the definitive sign one way or another of what BC’s fate will be in the ACC.

Let’s take a look at some coaches whose tenures have been a success, and their records over three-ish years:

Pitt - Pat Narduzzi

The newest ACC champ, PItt has been on an upswing in recent years, culminating in this season. They won the Coastal in 2018, falling in the ACCCG, then finally broke through this year with the conference title.

Based solely on Narduzzi’s first three years, though, you’d think maybe things were going in the wrong direction. Narduzzi inherited a program that remarkably finished either 6-7 or 7-6 every single year from 2011-2014. He promptly bumped that record up to 8-5 in years 1 and 2, but then fell to 5-7 in year three, missing a bowl game.

Year 4 was the divisional breakthrough, though it was in a very down and chaotic Coastal. Pitt finished 7-5 in the regular season, then lost two postseason games to finish 7-7.

An 8-5 and a 6-5 season later, Pitt broke through in a big way this year, going 11-2 in Narduzzi’s 7th season in charge.

Another program whose patience in their coach was rewarded was Wake Forest, with Dave Clawson putting together his best team of his tenure this season and making it to the ACC title game.

Jeff Hafley spoke glowingly leading up to the BC-Wake game about how Clawson has stayed at Wake for a long time to implement his system, bring in his players, and build a winning culture, and that’s something he wanted to emulate at BC. Take all coachspeak for what it’s worth, but Hafley signing a 5-year extension seems to indicate his desire to do something similar, despite occasional rumors that bigger programs may be interested in him.

Clawson’s first two years were both 3-9 seasons in 2014 and 2015, and no doubt you wouldn’t have to look too far into the archives to find calls for his head. Year three stabilized things, with Wake improving to 7-6; they continued to float between 7 and 8 wins in Clawson’s fourth, fifth, and sixth season.

In Year 8, Clawson hit 10 wins and got Wake as high as #10 in the country.

The Narduzzi-Clawson ACC title game was between a guy in year 7 with his program vs. a guy in year 8 with his program - in an era where in both sides, there’s usually little patience. Programs are quick to pull the trigger on coaches, while coaches also seem to always, always be eyeing greener pastures and/or more monehhhh. It was nice to see something different on the ACC’s big stage.

Dave Doeren is another ACC coach pretty long into his tenure by modern standards, in year 8. He put together one of his finer seasons this year, going 8-4 at NC State, and coming just one game away from making the ACC title game. He never had the mighty struggles that Wake had early in Clawson’s tenure, but he did start with a 3-9 mark and had a few 7-win seasons before NC State started becoming an 8-to-9 win fixture since 2017.

What does this all mean? Well, we don’t know, really, because it’s going to take time to know how Hafley performs at every aspect of his job - recruiting, motivating, hiring coordinators, decision-making, etc. But odds are, if and when BC finds The Guy who gets us over the hump, whether it’s Hafley or not, our breakthrough year is going to be surrounded by a lot of 5-to-8 win seasons.

With Phil Jurkovec returning next year, there’s plenty of hope that BC can improve next season, and have a big year. But regardless of how it goes, next year won’t be the final word on Hafley’s ceiling at BC. Sometimes knowing how far a coach can take a program requires some patience - more patience than is usually on offer.