Turnaround Artist Dave Clawson and Wake Forest Are Cooking With Gas Now

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Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson reads this column regularly, but he probably won’t read anything in this section about himself or his football team. He obviously knows all that stuff already, but that’s not why he’ll avoid this section. Usually, Clawson just skips the football stuff and scrolls to the bottom to read about the food.

“Do you have the TV Food Maps app?” Clawson asks when I approach to set up an interview. I did not at the time. I do now. I also know which staff I want to join if I ever try to break into college football coaching. Clawson’s assistants know that when the head coach goes on the road recruiting in December or January, he’s making two lists.

• Where is he going to run in the morning?

• Where will he (and any assistants who happen to be in the area) eat between schools and in-home visits?

This is a sure thing for the assistants for two reasons. First, the head coach pays. Second, he has impeccable taste. “We’re going to find a place,” he says, “but it can’t be a chain.”

Then Clawson reels off a list of places he has loved throughout his career. When he was the head coach at Bowling Green, he stopped at Katzinger’s Deli nearly every time he recruited in Columbus. The corned beef reminded him of what he could get in the delis in the Bronx near Fordham, where Clawson served as head coach from 1999 to 2003. (Clawson was 31 when he took over the Rams.) The move to North Carolina prior to 2014 brought back many of the flavors Clawson remembered from his time running Richmond’s program from ’04 to ’07. Clawson has a few favorites in the state. In Winston-Salem, there’s the smothered pork chop at Sweet Potatoes. In Asheville, he can go to Rhubarb, which is run by chef John Fleer, whose work Clawson discovered during a vacation to Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm while clearing his head following the staff’s firing after his only season as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator in 2008. When Clawson visits daughter Courtney in Davidson, dad can treat at Kindred, which Southern Living recently named the best restaurant in the state.

That culinary curiosity also has followed Clawson home. During a trip to New York several years ago, Clawson and his kids (Courtney is 19, Eric is 16) got sucked into an episode of Chopped on their hotel TV. They kept watching after they returned home and also added The Best Thing I Ever Ate to the rotation. Soon, they began trying to visit places they’d seen on family trips, eating the dishes and then trying to recreate them at home. When the Clawsons make guacamole, they make the sage and bleu cheese guacamole from Lopez in Cleveland. Cleveland-based chef Michael Symon declared it his favorite, and the Clawsons agreed.

During the offseason, Clawson adds to his list frequently. Wife Catherine grew up in Europe and isn’t a huge sports fan. But the couple can agree on one channel. “When I came home, instead of watching a basketball game or a football game or whatever, we watch the Food Network,” Clawson says.

But when Clawson leaves home and heads to the office, he whips up something even more miraculous than bacon guacamole. After a rebuild that began with consecutive 3–9 seasons, Wake Forest has gone 7–6 and 8–5 in the past two seasons. The program at the smallest school (by enrollment) in the Power 5 has gone from a doormat to a team that expects to make bowl games and drives teams with much higher ranked recruiting classes crazy. “This is a very, very good football team that we’re getting ready to play,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told reporters before a 28–14 Tigers win over Wake Forest last season. “Anybody says anything different, then you have absolutely no clue what you’re talking about. We have not played a single team—and we probably won’t play another team—that plays as hard as this Wake Forest team.” NC State and its seven 2018 draft picks learned that firsthand when they lost 30–24 at Wake Forest on Nov. 18.

The Demon Deacons won the ACC 12 years ago under Jim Grobe, but that was a very different league. Swinney had yet to ascend to head coach and unlock Clemson’s potential. Florida State was mired in what the Seminoles now refer to as “the lost decade”. Miami was floundering. Virginia Tech was the only truly consistent program in the ACC at the time, and Wake Forest enjoyed a moment. Grobe probably should have cashed in on that success and taken the Nebraska job when he had the chance (Bo Pelini wound up coaching the Cornhuskers), but he stayed and the Demon Deacons fell back to their usual place in the ACC pecking order as Florida State returned to national prominence and Clemson entered a golden age.

When Clawson took the job, he asked for patience and got it. He knew the only way to build something sustainable was to redshirt players early and take the abuse on the front end. This was especially true on the offensive line. In Clawson’s first year, the Demon Deacons led the FBS in sacks allowed with 48. Last year, they allowed 20, and they’ll return a starting five that includes four fifth-year seniors and a fourth-year junior. Senior quarterback Kendall Hinton must replace the ruthlessly efficient John Wolford, but Hinton—who was replaced by Wolford following an injury in 2016—has experience leading the offense.

Clawson has survived the loss of an excellent defensive coordinator (Mike Elko left for Notre Dame last year and did so well there that new Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher hired him for big bucks) and a bizarre scandal in which a former Demon Deacons assistant-turned-radio commentator was giving game plans to opponents. Clawson doesn’t want to talk about Wakeyleaks anymore, but it’s a legitimate question to wonder if he might have won more in 2015 and ’16 if not for Tom Elrod giving away proprietary information.

Clawson also has obliterated any lingering doubts about his ability to coach at the Power 5 level following that ill-fated season at Tennessee. The year that got Phillip Fulmer fired wasn’t Clawson’s fault. The Vounteers had plenty of talent on defense (Eric Berry, Jerod Mayo, Robert Ayers) but the offensive talent was thin beyond tailback Arian Foster. Clawson actually was working to fix that. When the staff was fired, Clawson had commitments from quarterbacks Bryce Petty and Tahj Boyd. Petty started for two Big 12 title teams at Baylor. Boyd helped usher in the aforementioned golden age at Clemson.

But that all happened 10 years ago. Clawson has won at Bowling Green and Wake Forest since. He’s also consumed some great meals in the pursuit of more players who can win. On the day of the interview for this story, Clawson says he plans to visit his daughter at her school on his way home. That night, a text message arrived. It was a photo of the Clawsons walking into Kindred.

Sometimes, eating well is the best revenge.

A Random Ranking

Last week, we wrote scripts to help budding thespian Les Miles win an Oscar. One of those scripts was for a Waterboy sequel. We don’t know if such a film is even possible—would Fairuza Balk say yes?—but we can pass the time by ranking the top five Adam Sandler movies.

1. Billy Madison
2. Happy Gilmore
3. The Waterboy
4. The Wedding Singer
5. Big Daddy

Three And Out

1. A day before an SEC ruling that didn’t go the way he wanted but could benefit him in the long run, Alabama coach Nick Saban and several players got momentarily stranded when their boat ran out of gas on a lake in Tuscaloosa. Of course, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa documented the entire ordeal on Snapchat.

2. SI’s Ross Dellenger explains which schools in the SEC are blocking a rule change that would allow schools to decide whether to sell beer stadium-wide.

3. Syracuse redshirt sophomore quarterback Rex Culpepper, who was diagnosed with testicular cancer in March, rang the bell on Friday at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa to celebrate being declared cancer-free. Culpepper, the son of former Florida and Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Brad Culpepper, had just completed a grueling round of chemotherapy. He plans to return to the Orange in the fall.

What’s Eating Andy?

The application for credentials to SEC Media Days came in the email on Monday, and I got very excited for a moment. Then I realized we’re still a little under three months away from the start of football season. I guess it’s time to start working on some uniform rankings columns to pass the time.

What’s Andy Eating?

Those who read this space often know I’m not usually moved by presentation. Moist ribs plopped on a Chinet plate are still light years better than Escargot on bone China with a perfectly symmetrical drizzle of parsley butter. Still, I’m not immune to a stunning visual.

So when an image quite similar to this one popped up the first time I clicked a link for The Surfing Deer, I knew I needed to get myself to Seagrove Beach in the Redneck Riviera.

That’s thick-cut, candied bacon on a clothesline with a sprig of burning rosemary smoldering underneath. Obviously, thick-cut, candied bacon would taste incredible on a paper plate or out of a Solo cup. But something about the idea of being able to pick the bacon off a clothesline added a layer of intrigue that shouldn’t matter but did. So I made a reservation.

The clothesline bacon got me in the door, and it was delicious. But, as I’ve already pointed out, thick-cut, candied bacon is always delicious. I’m not sure it’s worth $14 for four average-sized strips, even if the delights below those strips (farm pea ragout, watermelon pickles) only add to the mystique. But I’m glad the image of the bacon convinced me to go, because the rest of the meal will bring me back.

When I return, I’m probably going to skip the bacon and double down on the short rib sliders. These pack braised beef, pimento cheese and Wickles pickles between two adorably miniature buns. Nearly every place has a slider appetizer, but few so expertly balance the combination and proportions of meat, cheese, bread and pickle. Each of the three sliders offers two or three (unless you’re Mark Richt) perfect bites.

While you’re downing those sliders, you’ll need some liquid refreshment. Get the Cube McGee, the Surfing Deer’s take on an Old Fashioned. This uses one of my favorite hacks (maple syrup instead of simple syrup) on a base of Elijah Craig small batch bourbon and also adds lemon and blackberry to the usual combo of orange and bitters. This drink could serve as appetizer and dessert, and a meal consisting only of short rib sliders and Cube McGees probably would be supremely satisfying.

But don’t stop there. Order a main course. The herb-marinated lamb tenderloin is tremendous. I ordered mine rare, and the deep red meat soaked up the hot mushroom vinaigrette and blended beautifully with the farro risotto beneath it.

Meanwhile, new SI five-star signee Dellenger ordered the Seafood Acadiana with a measure of trepidation. Ross lives in Louisiana and grew up eating the best of what the Gulf Coast has to offer. If he wound up getting something that didn’t compare to what he could get at dozens of places back home, he would have considered the trip a waste. But after a few bites of a thick stew that mixed grouper, lobster, crawfish, shrimp and andouille sausage, he declared the meal a success.

So thank you, clothesline bacon, for drawing our eyes to The Surfing Deer. And thank you, Surfing Deer, for giving our stomachs a reason to return.

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