Steve Forbes, wearing a dark jacket and yellow tie that nicely corresponded to the school colors of his new employer, met the assembled media who cover Wake Forest basketball Friday morning in a manner unlike anyone who ever has accepted a high-major coaching job.
He stood at a podium. Reporters, via an internet service called WebEx, logged in from their home offices and guestrooms and the like, and asked the sorts of questions that often are asked about coaches taking over failing programs.
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Forbes, though, because he is taking over in the middle of a pandemic, faces challenges that are unique to the circumstance. Most notably: The Demon Deacons’ best returning player, 7-0 center Olivier Sarr, announced he is entering the NCAA transfer portal, joining Jahcobi Neath, Ismael Massoud and Ody Oguama, and Forbes does not want them to leave.
“We talked to every player last night, and I had an unbelievable visit with Olivier today, Ismael, all those kids we’re talking about,” Forbes said. “I think it’s one of those things, you know, there’s uncertainty at this time and they don’t know me. We have to build a relationship. I told them over and over again, my No. 1 recruiting responsibility, and priority, is to get everyone back.
“None of those guys — not one player I talked to last night — said they did not want to return to Wake. They all have the desire to return, it’s just a matter of relationships. I understand that. And I told them that: I understand if you want to look at your options. But you’re not going to look at a better option than Wake. You’ve got the triple-double right here: One of the top 30 educations in the country, you got world-class facilities and you play in the best league in America.”
Wake Forest was 6-14 in the Atlantic Coast Conference with those players this past season, under now-dismissed Danny Manning. They bowed rather meekly out of the ACC Tournament on its opening day in an 81-72 loss to Pitt, which was no power, either. All told, seven players from that group have entered the portal, leaving Wake with two scholarship currently players on the roster.
Forbes will generate enthusiasm at Wake whether or not those players return. It might take a little more time to build a winner if he winds up forced to start with an empty gym, figuratively, with few returning players or none — the way Mick Cronin did at Cincinnati in 2006 or Tom Crean did at Indiana that same year. Both eventually won multiple conference championships.
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Forbes won an average of 26 games per season in five years as head coach at East Tennessee State, and his teams twice earned NCAA Tournament bids by winning the Southern Conference championship, including this past season. His Buccaneers, like all teams that had qualified or aspired to compete in the 2020 NCAA Tournament, were kept from competing when it was canceled March 12.
Taking over Wake with the COVID-19 crisis still impacting the nation means Forbes’ gym also is empty, literally. Players are not on campus. They cannot yet meet with him in person as a group or individually.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge that I’m up for and I’m going to work really hard to build relationships,” Forbes said. “And I really want to get everybody back.
“Those are our most important recruits. … These are fine young men. They are ingrained in our community. It’s my job to build a relationship with them and get them to come back. So that’s what I’m going to do. They’re going to have to tell me no.”