As I listened today to a press conference during which Wake Forest football coach Jim Grobe announced his resignation after 13 years, I thought about an email I received in the fall of 2006. The email stands apart from the tens of thousands I've received in my life. The subject line read: "We're going bowling."
One of my college friends sent the email informing me and a few other college friends that the football team of our alma mater, Wake Forest, had won its third straight game to open the season. With three wins and no losses, he suggested, we had a chance to go to a Bowl game.
This was news. Throughout our undergraduate years in the 1980s, Wake Forest consistently finished with a .500 record or slightly below. In those days we didn't make it to a bowl game. In 2006 I figured Wake would follow its usual pattern by losing the next several games and finishing around .500 again. Mediocrity would prevail and that would be the end of it.
But as the weeks went by the emails kept coming from my friend, usually on Monday mornings.
Wake's Demon Deacons kept winning and were on a roll. As the surprising season progressed, the email list expanded exponentially. Pretty soon about thirty ofmy Wake Forest friends were firing emails to each other about the spell-binding success of the football team. Many of the emailers had not seen each other since graduation. The football team had awakened us from our middle-age stupors and brought us to each other as if we were undergraduates again.
Momentum continued to build. Wake kept winning. The email list expanded even more and
the number of emails about the team grew each day. Work became a place to talk to old friends about how your college football team was shocking the college football world out of nowhere. For the first time in our lives, Wake emerged in the national consciousness as a legitimate football school.
The team of destiny won the ACC championship for time in some 29 years. The win catapulted them to the Orange Bowl in Miami, Fla., one of the most prestigious in all of college football. This all seemed so surreal. It felt euphoric the day to day excitement building to a crescendo.
Party planning began in earnest. We showed our logistics skills and adeptness at delegating tasks. One guy's job was to land the party scene, one the hotel where we would all stay, one the tickets, one the charter bus for get us to the game. The Fez, a rock and roll band that four members of our era had formed as undergraduates, started planning to play at a Fort Lauderdale, Florida bar the night before our team played Louisville in the big game. More than 200 guys and girls from that era fly few all over the United States to be there. The Fez cranked
"Pump It Up" by Elvis Costello and "No Time" by the Guess Who. We danced. The
place rocked for hours. We broke sweats.
The party was only beginning. Digging out of our beach-front hotel, the next morning we arrived for a tailgate party outside the Orange Bowl about four hours before kickoff. Barbecue and beer abounded. It was a party for the ages, a party to remember until our last moments, a party that could never be done again, a unique set of sweet circumstances. Conversations with friends were like none we have ever had in our lives, because it had been so long since so many of us had spoken with each other. We knew at the time that this would be a once-in-a-lifetime event. The chances of Wake's football team qualifying for the Orange Bowl any time after that season were slim. It was a miracle that we were there. A bolt of lucky lightning like this doesn't strike twice.
Jim Grobe endured several sub-standard and disappointing won-loss records the past few years, and it's sad to see his tenure end this way. But he did something at coach that he probably could never even imagine in some ways more important than winning. By coaching that team to its most glorious moments, he gave a group of guys he has never met a precious gift of middle-age fun and renewed relationships.
As I listened to his classy press conference today, I thought about what he gave me personally. He gave me my friends back. In that winning season we all got back together. He gave me life experience that remains among the most exhilarating, memorable, and improbable of my life. He gave my friends and me a reminder ofhow meaningful our college undergraduate relationships had been. They were not lost and gone forever. They were lasting and deep.
Jim Grobe doesn't have to give Wake Forest, or me, or any of my friends anything else. He doesn't need to win another game. It is sad to see him go knowing he's a good man who just couldn't win enough football games. He talked about how building a consistently winning football program at Wake Forest has been a tall task.
A Wake Forest football player has to be a guy with good character who can handle the tough academic requirements while also being able to play big-time college football. "You've got to have all three and that's tough," he said.
Repeatedly today he stressed that he loved his players and I believe him. "Nobody will be
cheering for these guys harder than me," he said. He referred to Ron Wellman, the athletic director who praised Grobe highly during the press conference, as his "good friend" and it sounded genuine. He said he "loves" Nathan Hatch, the Wake Forest president. He said all the right political things, but I think he meant them.
I salute you, Jim Grobe, for doing something for my alma mater and me that has enriched my life immeasurably. You gave me back my friends. Since that season we have continued to email and get together. This will continue for the rest of our lives. Had your team not been so successful that year, this would have probably never happened.