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Beneath the towering spire of Wait Chapel at Wake Forest University there is a bulletin board notice that reads: SUNDAY 11 A.M. SERMON, PRAY TO WIN, TAKE YOUR LOSSES. At Wake, as it is called on its Winston-Salem campus, taking losses is sort of a tradition. "For years we've been the Skylab of college football," says one alumnus.
Last season Wake won one game and lost 10. That was nothing unusual. The year before, the Deacons were also 1-10. Wake's 263-394-31 record is second only to Kknjansas State's as the worst of any "big-time" school. Things got so bad in the '60s and '70s that students, administrators and alumni took to poking fun at Wake's football fiascos. They popularized the bumper sticker WAKE UP. After a particularly galling loss sealed yet another 1-10 season in 1974, one fan stopped his car by a road sign on Interstate 40 outside the campus and whipped out a paintbrush. When he pulled away, the sign read: I-40, WAKE FOREST o. Even Chuck Mills, the Wake head coach in 1973-77, joined in the fun. Once he introduced a new "throw and go" offense. Two seasons—and 19 losses—later he told the press, "It's still throw and go; people come to see us play, throw up and go home." Upon being fired Mills said, "Changing coaches around here is a diversion, not an answer."
But that was yesteryear. Going into last Saturday's game against No. 13-ranked Auburn, the Deacons had won six of seven games. They had knocked off three teams—Georgia, North Carolina and Maryland—that at one time or another this season had been among the nation's Top 20. Most astonishingly, Wake had materialized in the Top 20 itself, at No. 18, the Deacons' first national ranking since 1944.
How did it all happen? Well, Quarterback Jay Venuto says it's "character." Safety Mark Lancaster thinks it's because "we believe." No doubt opponents say they're doing it with rabbits' feet. Wake beat tiny Appalachian 30-23 thanks in large part to recovering a fumble with a minute and a half to play. The next week, at Georgia, a Bulldog last-second fieldgoal attempt fell short of the crossbar by a foot. Wake won 22-21. The week after that, East Carolina missed a field goal on its last play. Result: Wake 23-20. In a 19-14 victory over Virginia Tech, Wake intercepted a pass to squash a fourth-quarter drive that seemed likely to produce a go-ahead score. Then, at North Carolina, Wake stole the ball on a kickoff return, this time with 47 seconds to play, to clinch a 24-19 victory. By Wake standards, its 25-17 win over Maryland was a rout. "It's amazing," says Athletic Director Dr. Gene Hooks. "Every week I keep waiting for the bubble to burst."
But last Saturday, under a bright blue Carolina sky and before an overflow home crowd of 34,000 at Groves Stadium, Wake's bubble didn't burst; it rose to unheard-of heights. In the first half the Deacons lost four fumbles and had a pass intercepted as Auburn surged to a 38-20 lead. Early in the second half Auburn had a chance to pull away. The Tigers took the kickoff and drove to midfield. Quarterback Charlie Trotman dropped back and lofted a pass to Rusty Byrd at the Wake 10-yard line. Byrd had two steps on Wake's Derek Crocker, but the pass sailed through his hands. From then on the Deacons struggled back. Following a Tiger punt, Wake marched 73 yards in nine plays for a touchdown. The big gainer was a 31-yard pass from Venuto to Wayne Baumgardner. Venuto then hit Baumgardner for a two-point conversion to cut Auburn's lead to 38-28. Auburn drove back to the Wake 36, but a 53-yard field-goal attempt was wide to the right. Venuto answered by guiding the Deacons on a 10-play scoring drive, James McDougald diving in from the one for the touchdown. Auburn 38-35.
With just 4:38 gone in the fourth quarter, Wake scored again to take a 42-38 lead, Venuto completing four passes for 57 yards and McDougald sweeping the right side for his fourth TD of the day to cap a 12-play 77-yard drive. But Auburn wasn't finished. The Tigers advanced from their own 20 to the Deacons' three, mainly on the running of James Brooks, who gained 117 yards for the day. But with third and goal from the three, Trotman flubbed a hand-off and the ball popped on top of a pile of linemen, where Deacon Linebacker Carlos Bradley grabbed it. Wake could not get a first down and had to punt with 2:17 left. Auburn took over at the 50. Trotman kept for a gain of five yards, then threw an in-completion. On third down the Tiger quarterback let loose a long pass, but just as Flanker Byron Franklin glided under it at the Wake two, Larry Ingram leapt in front of him and intercepted the ball and Wake ran out the clock.
Earlier, in the second quarter, Franklin had turned Ingram around on a pattern and hauled in a 33-yard scoring pass. "Awhile after the play, Coach [John] Mackovic came up to me and said I could do one of two things," Ingram said later. "I could fold and put my head between my legs, or I could go back out and play ball. I went out. I thought if anything comes my way, it's mine."
Mackovic, 35, is the cockeyed optimist responsible for Wake's about-face. In 1964 he quarterbacked the Deacon team that featured Running Back Brian Piccolo, an experience, he says, that helps him understand the problems of developing a winning team at Wake Forest. It is a picturesque and well-thought-of Baptist school but one with a small enrollment (3,143), high academic standards and, to put it mildly, no winning tradition. Two years ago Mackovic was the offensive coordinator at Purdue, where Head Coach Jim Young had him design the attack and call the plays. Last year he applied for the job at Wake because it presented "an opportunity rather than a challenge." He wanted to be a head coach and the Wake job was open. Mackovic believes strongly in the power of positive thinking. On a bookshelf in his office are Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude, Think and Grow Rich, Psychocybernetics, The Magic of Thinking Big, See You At The Top ("by Zig Zeglar, a great one," Mackovic says) and just about every other self-help book published in the last decade. He studies The Memory Book by Harry Lorayne and Jerry Lucas and has taken three-day seminars in motivation and time management. He enjoys reading Edgar Cayce, the late seer who predicted, among other things, the rise of Atlantis. Cayce might have been wrong now and then, but he was always enthusiastic. So is Mackovic. He remembers the first words he said to his 1978 Wake team. "It was an eight-word speech: 'Never, never, never, never, never, never give up.' "
After the 1978 team had finished its 1-10 season, Mackovic entered the locker room with a solemn face. Some players figured it was harangue time. Instead, Mackovic said, "I'm proud of you. You played the last game as hard as the first." To people who knew Mackovic it came as no surprise to see at the close of the season a headline in the Raleigh News and Observer that said: MACKOVIC SEES SILVER LINING.
"I believe in miracles," he said a day before the Auburn game. "For example, my daughter Aimee has a congenital heart defect. She had open-heart surgery at the Mayo Clinic when she was 15 months old. Now she's four years old. For her the miracle isn't that one day she will wake up and be well but that someday some doctor is going to develop a surgery that's going to make her well."