NSJ 2021 Coach of the Year: Dave Clawson takes Wake to new heights

The football coach led the Demon Deacons to as high as No. 9 in the AP poll

Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson led Wake Forest to a 10-win regular season and signed a long-term contract to stay with the Demon Deacons. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

It’s not necessarily a compliment to refer to a passer as a “system quarterback.” But if you want to call Dave Clawson a “system coach,” go right ahead.

He’s more than comfortable with the label.

That’s why he’s so quick to deflect the credit he’s received for the successful season he helped Wake Forest achieve in 2021, including his recognition as the ACC’s Football Coach of the Year.

“All these are program awards,” said Clawson, who has added another honor to his list of accomplishments by being named Coach of the Year by the North State Journal sports staff.

“I’ve hired a great staff. I have a football team that bought in. I have a wonderful family that’s incredibly supportive of what I do, and when you have a great staff, a bought-in football team and a great family, good things happen. It just so happens that my name goes on the award and I’m certainly grateful that they recognized us, but it’s certainly a we, not a me, award.”

Clawson has had Wake on an upward trajectory since arriving from Bowling Green in 2014.

But after leading the Deacons to bowls in each of the past five seasons, a school record, the 54-year-old New York native set out to take another step forward by challenging his team to go from “good to great.”

It was a goal Clawson knew was possible, even though almost everyone outside his program didn’t.

Wake was picked to finish fifth in the ACC’s Atlantic Division in a preseason media poll at the league’s Football Kickoff event.

The Deacons defied that prediction by starting the season with eight straight victories, rising as high as No. 9 in the national polls and winning the Atlantic title for the second time in history with a 10-2 record — setting offensive records along the way while ranking third in the nation with an average of 42.9 points per game.

“I’ve coached for 33 years and I’ve been a head coach for 22 years, and I have a feeling when I have a good team,” Clawson said. “I just really felt after going through COVID last year, some of the leadership I saw emerge, some of the progress the younger players made, the way we executed during spring practice, how much the players were engaged in the summer, how much extra time they were up in the offices … I just really felt this year we had a chance to not just be good, but to be really good.”

Even though the Deacons were beaten by Pittsburgh in the ACC Championship Game, denying them just the third conference crown in school history, Clawson’s assessment of his team proved to be spot on.

Eight team members, including first-team wide receiver A.T. Perry, offensive lineman Zach Tom and kicker Nick Sciba, were named to the postseason All-ACC squad.

Their performance helped Wake earn an invitation to play Texas A&M in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida, on New Year’s Eve. It also continued a pattern of success that has seen Clawson put together at least one double-digit win season and bring home a championship trophy in each of his four stops as a college head coach — Fordham, Richmond, Bowling Green and Wake.

“He’s a tremendous football coach,” said Pittsburgh’s Pat Narduzzi, who has known Clawson and coached against him since both were assistants at Northeastern FCS schools in the mid-1990s. “He’s a very smart guy.”

Wake athletic director John Currie went even farther in his praise of Clawson, calling him “an elite coach, leader and program builder.”

Unlike his previous stops, however, Clawson has decided to stick around and enjoy the fruits of his labor rather than leaving for a new fixer-upper project. On Nov. 26, a week before his Deacons took on Pitt for the ACC title in Charlotte and amid rumors linking him to several vacancies across the country, he signed an eight-year contract extension with a significant raise.

“Our desire is for him to finish his coaching career as Wake Forest’s all-time winningest coach,” Currie said.

At 49-47, he’s well on his way. Clawson is one of just five Deacons coaches with a winning record. He’s just 28 wins shy of surpassing D.C. “Peahead” Walker for the most ever at the school.

That individual accomplishment, however, isn’t high on his list of priorities.

“When you start a season, you have goals and we always want to set our goals high,” he said, “whether that’s the College Football Playoff, an ACC championship, a division title, double-digit wins.”