Look Ahead — 2022 Coach of the Year: Steve Forbes has Deacons pointed in right direction

With a COVID-disrupted first season in the rearview mirror and bigger coaching news on Tobacco Road, the Wake Forest coach is quietly building a winner

After a first season in Winston-Salem in which everything that could go wrong did, Wake Forest coach Steve Forbes has the Demon Deacons looking like an ACC contender. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

Steve Forbes couldn’t help but chuckle as he listened to the hyperbole of players Isaiah Mucius and Alondes Williams during their postgame press conference following Wake Forest’s win against Charlotte last week.

Mucius, who had just hit the game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer, compared his jersey popping celebration to that of Kobe Bryant, while Williams referred to his tomahawk jam in the first half as “the LeBron dunk.”

“So I’ve got LeBron and Kobe sitting next to me?” Forbes said. “I must be Phil, then.”

Forbes was referring to NBA coaching legend Phil Jackson, of course.

Although he still has a long way to go to match Jackson’s resume, which includes 11 NBA championship rings with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, the genial 56-year-old is well on his way toward producing one of the most remarkable success stories in recent ACC history.

One year after taking the job and suffering through a COVID-interrupted 6-16 (3-15 ACC) season, Forbes has transformed the Deacons from a perennial doormat into a surprise NCAA Tournament contender.

His work in leading Wake to a 10-1 start through the nonconference season has positioned him to become the North State Journal’s Coach of the Year in 2022.

Forbes’ success with the Deacons is hardly a fluke.

He’s won everywhere he’s gone — from the junior college level, where he led Northwest Florida State to back-to-back national runner-up finishes, to East Tennessee State, where he averaged 26 wins during his five-season tenure.

Because Forbes took over Wake’s program during a worldwide pandemic with only four returning players from the regime of previous coach Danny Manning, he was forced to scramble to assemble a patchwork roster filled with transfers and freshmen.

The process was made even more difficult by the NCAA’s prohibition on in-person recruiting.

Things only became more complicated when just two games into the season, the Deacons were forced to halt all basketball-related activities because of a COVID outbreak among their ranks, a setback from which they never completely recovered.

“Because of the situation with COVID, we couldn’t become a team,” Forbes said at this year’s ACC’s preseason Basketball Tipoff event. “Obviously Gonzaga, Baylor and those guys, they had great players. But they had a lot of guys back. Chemistry wasn’t a big issue for them. It was a huge issue for us because we had a new coach, we had new players.

“We couldn’t do anything. We couldn’t eat together, couldn’t be together, couldn’t even be in the locker room together. So it was very disjointed. There was no manual for that.”

Forbes said he doesn’t spend a lot of time looking back at last season or feeling regret for how it unfolded. His current team is helping to erase whatever bad memories remain.

Thanks to transfers and other types of attrition, Forbes once again started out with just four returning veterans. This time, though, he and his Deacons had a full offseason to get to know each other and install his system the way he wants to play it.

It also helps that he hit home runs on virtually all his NCAA transfer portal acquisitions.

Williams, a 6-foot-5 wing who averaged 6.7 points per game at Oklahoma last season, has already put together back-to-back 34-plus point performances while twice winning ACC Player of the Week honors.

Indiana State transfer Jake LaRavia has lived up to his billing as a sharpshooting stretch four while also showing that he’s a skilled rebounder, passer and defender.

And the duo of big men Dallas Walton (Colorado) and Khadim Sy (Ole Miss) has quietly become one of the most productive low post tandems in the ACC.

“It’s like anything: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” Forbes said when asked what he saw in those players to convince him they’d be a good fit. “You’ve got to evaluate what you see — use your eyes and listen to what people are telling you.”

Almost as important as talent is the ability of a player to accept coaching. To a man, each of the newcomers has bought into what Forbes has been selling.

“One thing we definitely learned from last year was what our identity is,” the Deacons coach said. “For me it’s more about knowing who you are every day, and we know that. And then it was recruiting. Go out and get an ACC roster.

“It was a very busy spring and summer. We only brought four guys back. We have nine new players, but (now) we have a great balance of older guys and younger guys. This is the way I did it at East Tennessee State. You’ve got to stay old and you’ve got to stay athletic. We were neither last year, and I believe that we are this year.”

The results so far bear that out. And as the calendar turns to a new year, it’s only just the beginning.