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January 30, 2008
Gaudio looking like right choice for Deacons
Rivals Radio: Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio joins Bill King
He wasn't on anyone's list of fast-rising assistants on the verge of landing a head-coaching job. In fact, if Skip Prosser (Wake Forest's former coach and Gaudio's best friend) hadn't died of a heart attack July 26, Gaudio may have never been a Division I head coach again - an ugly fact that has been masked over by tragedy.
In Gaudio's previous seven seasons as a head coach, he never had a winning season. During stints at Army (1993-97) and Loyola (Md.) (1997-2000), Gaudio had nearly twice as many losses (124) as wins (68). His last season was his worst, a 7-21 campaign at Loyola that sent him heading back to Xavier to join Prosser's staff.
It raises a fair question: Is Gaudio, 50, the right man to lead Wake Forest? Can a guy who failed so miserably at small schools win at an ACC program on Tobacco Road?
Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman says he is convinced Gaudio can win.
Wellman was planning to conduct a national search in the wake of Prosser's death, and told Gaudio and the three other assistants – Jeff Battle, Pat Kelsey and Mike Muse – he was considering four different scenarios, including one that would terminate each of their careers at Wake.
"One involved me going outside the staff and hiring a coach who expected to keep the staff in place," Wellman told Rivals.com. "The second was hiring an external candidate to bring in his own staff. The third was to name an interim coach from our own staff, and the fourth was to name a coach from our own staff on a permanent basis."
Before putting any plan into motion, Wellman spoke individually to Battle, Kelsey and Muse. Each recommended he hire Gaudio.
That convinced Wellman he should interview Gaudio, who was given his start in coaching by Prosser at Wheeling (W.Va.) Central Catholic in 1980, first. After spending more than six hours with Gaudio, Wellman offered Prosser's right-hand man the job.
"Dino said all the right things," Wellman said. "He went into great detail. We talked about how he would run practice to how his bench demeanor would be during games. Dino has the same expectations on and off the floor as Skip, but he understood that this was not going to be Skip's program. He made it clear that he was Dino and that he would do things his own way.
"He's lived up to his all his statements, and I've been very, very pleased so far. His players have responded exceptionally well while facing as hard as circumstances as any team I've ever seen."
Wake, which is starting two freshman and three sophomores, is 13-6 overall and tied for fifth in the ACC at 3-3 after edging Miami 70-68 on Tuesday night. Those aren't the kind of numbers that will spark talk of a major success story, but they do show a great deal of progress. At this point last season, the Deacons were 9-9 overall and 1-5 in the league.
"We have shown a strong will and been very resilient," Gaudio said. "We played four of five games on the road early on and we had a lead at Vanderbilt (the Deacons lost 83-80), who everybody in the country knows is a very good team. I'm real proud of our guys."
But what about Gaudio's previous head-coaching record? Wellman says it didn't bother him, pointing out that Bob Knight and Mike Krzyzewski had losing records in their final seasons at Army. Knight was 11-13 and Krzyzewski was 9-17. Gaudio went 10-16 in his final campaign at West Point in 1996-97.
"Dino's record did not play a factor at all," Wellman said. "Two pretty good coaches also struggled at Army and they went on to win national championships. So I don't think Dino's record there is any indication of what he will do here."
Walt Corbean, Wake's director of basketball operations, played for Prosser and Gaudio at Xavier from 1985-87. He knows how difficult it is to win at Army because he was Gaudio's assistant and recruiting coordinator at the military academy, which hasn't had a winning season in 23 years.
"Army might be the toughest job in the country," Corbean said. "The environment at West Point is unique. It's not your typical college basketball atmosphere.
"Cadets have to deal with things that a normal college basketball player doesn't. They are being pulled in so many different directions. They are up at the crack of dawn and have a full schedule every day. Instead of being well-rested for games and practice, they are mentally and physically fatigued. I can remember players showing up for a two- to three-hour practice and having nothing to give you."
When Gaudio is given good resources at programs with winning traditions, he has proven to be an excellent recruiter, something that did play a factor in Wellman's decision.
The Deacons will welcome Rivals.com's top-ranked recruiting class for next season, a group that features three five-star prospects: 6-foot-9 small forward Al-Farouq Aminu and 6-11 centers Tony Woods and Ty Walker. Gaudio had a hand in luring the trio to Winston-Salem, N.C., spending time with each before Prosser died and talking to each on the phone afterward. When Gaudio was officially named Prosser's replacement, Aminu, Woods and Walker quickly reaffirmed their commitments.
"Dino is a great recruiter and this class exemplifies that," said Battle, who first began working with Gaudio at Xavier basketball camps in the mid-1990s. "He knows how to get his point across to people without talking down to them. He really relates well to players."
That was obvious long before November when the Deacons signed their highest-ranked recruiting class in school history. In 2006, Gaudio was selected one of Rivals.com's top 25 recruiters after helping Wake land the No. 10-ranked class in the nation. That group included promising point guard Ishmael Smith, who led the ACC in assists as a freshman last season.
In 2007, the Deacons landed a pair of top 100 prospects: James Johnson and Jeff Teague. Johnson is leading the team in scoring (15.1 ppg) and rebounding (8.3 rpg) and Teague leads the ACC with 2.4 steals a game.
With the quick development of those two, combined with the addition of three five-star prospects, the Deacons will have one of the nation's most talented rosters in 2008-09.
"James and Jeff have done very well for us," Gaudio said. "The future of this program is very, very bright."
During his seven seasons as an assistant at Xavier, Gaudio recruited three post players who went on to have long careers in the NBA. Brian Grant, Derek Strong and Aaron Williams - the only active one out of the group - combined for 36 years in the NBA.
Gaudio's coaching style also was appealing to Wellman and the assistants. More fiery and confrontational than Prosser, Gaudio won't hesitate to physically show players what he wants in practice, or yell at anyone from a decorated senior to a little-used walk-on if he sees a mistake.
"He has that Italian background and runs with it," said former Wake star Josh Howard, a burgeoning star with the Dallas Mavericks who also recommended to Wellman that he hire Gaudio. "There were times he would jump right into practice with the players. I think he thought he was 22 years old.
"He's a monster of a coach, the kind of guy who wants everything done right. He will not shy away from any challenge. He'll stick with it as long as it takes. He's very tough."
Wake was in desperate need of added toughness. The Deacons, who started three freshmen, finished last in the ACC last season in scoring defense (allowing 76.4 points a game) and opponents' field-goal percentage (46.8). Those numbers led to a 15-16 record, Wake's first losing season since 1989-1990.
Gaudio made it clear that defense was a priority from Day One.
"Things were a little different from the start," Battle said. "Through the first two or three days of practice, we spent about 80 percent of our time on defense. We did a lot of defensive drills and even changed some of the defensive concepts we use. We wanted to create an identity and make sure the players knew they would be held accountable for mistakes on the defensive end."
Those mistakes are steadily shrinking. The Deacons rank fifth in the ACC in scoring defense, giving up 66.7 points per game. Opponents are shooting 41.7 percent from the field, which ranks sixth.
Gaudio's influence also can be seen in Wake's 9.6 steals per game, a jump from 6.4 a season ago.
The Deacons did give up 112 points to Boston College in their first ACC road game, but that number appears to be an anomaly. Vanderbilt is the only other opponent to break the 80-point barrier against the Deacs.
"We got our bells rung a little bit at BC, but if you throw that one out, we have been very good (defensively) for most of the year," Gaudio said. "We are doing our best to guard and we are doing a little better."
Wellman also can be confident that Gaudio's players are doing their best in the classroom. During the six years Gaudio has been on the staff at Wake, every senior who has played for the Demon Deacons has graduated (including Howard). That's particularly important at Wake, which is one of the smallest "Big Six"-league schools with an undergraduate enrollment of around 4,300 students.
"We tell all our recruits that our No. 1 goal is for you to graduate," Wellman said. "We make no bones about it. We want them to have an excellent athletic experience, but our priority is for them to graduate from our institution in four or five years. What Dino has done in the previous six years reflects that."
Wellman doesn't expect that to have changed six years from now. He firmly believes Gaudio is Wake's coach of the future.
"I told the entire staff that my decision was based on the long-term welfare of the basketball program," Wellman said. "If we were naming someone a coach just to get through a tough situation, that would be unfair to everyone. This is not a short-term deal. We believe this is a long-term solution. Otherwise, we wouldn't have given Dino a five-year contract."
Rivals Radio: Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio joins Bill King
Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.