Former Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry was a redshirt junior in 2007 when he made the unfortunate decision to skip his sociology research methods class the same week the Demon Deacons were facing a gritty Paul Johnson-coached Navy team in Annapolis.
Jim Grobe suspended Curry — his best player and a Butkus Award winner — for the first quarter. “Instead of showing favoritism,” said Curry, “what mattered most was the culture in the locker room and sending the message he was trying to get across.”
If Grobe was willing to suspend the best linebacker in the country for missing a class, you better believe he doesn’t tolerate any of the horrific crimes Baylor has been accused of. By hiring Grobe — even on an interim basis — Baylor instantly raised its standard. Gone are the coach and athletic director who failed to take allegations of sexual assault seriously. In comes the coach with the zero-tolerance policy. Baylor needs a winner and a disciplinarian — and got both in Grobe.
“He’s not the happy-go-lucky grandfather type who’s coming in to be a figurehead,” said former Wake Forest quarterbacks coach Tom Elrod. “He will motivate those guys. He will work them hard, and he will have them play in a way that will make Baylor proud. The off-the-field stuff? That will not be tolerated, I can promise you that.”
That’s exactly what Baylor needs to hear. Grobe is the antithesis of all the horrific news that has been unearthed at Baylor. He’s one of the most well-liked and well-respected coaches in the country, and Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman made an egregious error when he thought he could do better.
Baylor tried to hire Grobe in 2001, after his first year at Wake Forest. He was also courted by Arkansas, Nebraska and Michigan. “He got offered every job in the world and turned them down,” Elrod said.
Instead, he chose to win at Wake Forest, the smallest school in the Power 5. Wake Forest was operating decades behind major programs in terms of facilities and resources. Yet Grobe had three consecutive winning seasons from 2006 to ’08, including an appearance in the 2006 ACC championship game after winning a school-record 11 games and earning a berth in the Orange Bowl.
“Of all the stuff we did, the thing I’m proudest of is we did it the right way,” said Elrod, who talks to Grobe every week. “When head coaches would go on the road, he would tell everybody, ‘Guys, I can’t talk to juniors.’ That’s a rule that’s broken every second of every day by everyone else.”
What happened at Baylor never did and never would have happened at Wake Forest under Grobe, and that can be traced back to his recruiting philosophy. Air Force coach Troy Calhoun knows how much Grobe values integrity in an athlete. When Grobe was an assistant at Air Force, he signed Calhoun, and later Grobe hired the younger coach as an assistant at Wake Forest.
“He used to tell you repeatedly as a coach that if you ever bring in a guy that has flaws in character, we should’ve known it ahead of time,” Calhoun said. “That squarely falls on your shoulders as an area recruiter. We had to ask pretty thorough questions. He always had a good pulse when you did a home visit, the way a kid would look you in the eye, the kind of interaction he’d have with a guardian or a parent. Those were absolutes.
“For him there was a clear difference when a kid makes a poor decision and discipline and a second chance is a possibility, compared to when you hurt another person where removal must occur.”
The Texas high school coaches will love Grobe because of his open-door policy — it’s not the CIA. The media will enjoy covering him for the same reason, and because he’s a straight shooter. Want to watch practice? Go ahead. Grobe has nothing to hide. This is a guy who made time at lunch to go for a walk through campus with his wife, Holly, nearly every day at Wake Forest. Every Friday night before road games, Grobe would bring a Snickers to each of his players’ hotel rooms at bed check.
“Grobe would go through and check your room, and he’d say, ‘All right, big guy,’ or ‘All right, sweetheart,'” said Josh Gattis, a former Wake safety who’s now an assistant with Penn State. “He loved to call you sweetheart, but he was a no-nonsense guy. If you weren’t doing things right, he’d bring you in his office and he was going to let you know that. He wasn’t a big screamer or a big yeller. He’s a motivator.”
Grobe, the son of a cop, was a tough, hard-nosed linebacker at Virginia and Ferrum Junior College, and he’s always had a passion for defense and discipline. He places a premium on winning the turnover margin, and that has been one of the biggest keys to his success. He rarely had elite talent to work with at Wake Forest — and he didn’t care.
“I’ve heard him say this 1,000 times in recruiting: ‘Bring me an average player who’s a great kid over a great player who’s a bad kid,'” said Elrod. “That was huge to him.”
Calhoun called Grobe’s success “flat staggering.”
“Does time have to pass — years or even decades — for us to really get a full appreciation for him being a great, great football coach?” Calhoun asked.
Now he has a chance to do what so many have wondered. If Grobe could be so successful with average talent at two of the toughest schools in America — before Wake, he was the head coach at Ohio — what might he be capable of at a school like Baylor?
Hold that thought. Winning can’t be his first priority right now.
“He always does things the right way,” Curry said. “He’s a fair guy. He gives everybody a shot. He won’t go into it with his mind made up about what needs to happen. I know he has a plan in his head, but he’ll give everybody a shot.
“I’m sure Baylor has plenty of really good guys who are going to fit right into coach Grobe’s mold. I know they have guys who are dependable, reliable and disciplined, and he will reach out to those guys, and those guys will be his voice in the locker room.”
It’s about time somebody in that locker room spoke up. This isn’t just a second chance for Baylor. It’s another shot for Grobe.
As it turns out, they could both use each other.