College football is great for so many reasons. There’s the football, the tradition, the hatred, the unpredictability, and so much more. But perhaps the best thing is the underlying aura of sleaziness and pettiness that surrounds the sport. In hundreds of places across the country, there are people doing shady stuff, sometimes at great personal expense, to satisfy their intense need to get a certain result from a sporting event involving 18-to-22-year-olds. We don’t always get to hear these sordid stories, but on Tuesday, we did, and it was glorious.
In November, Wake Forest discovered something weird. While at Louisville’s Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, they found documents lying around detailing some of their own plays. That wouldn’t be so surprising — of course teams diagram plays run by their opponents — but the documents detailed plays that the Demon Deacons hadn’t yet run. Maybe it was actually the result of top-secret espionage on Louisville’s part, but it seemed as likely that something perfectly normal had occurred. Maybe somebody had just left a playsheet out, or maybe Wake had run similar plays and Louisville had made some lucky guesses. It was a weird game — Wake led 12–0 and still lost 44–12 — but the incident was widely forgotten.
Except, Wake didn’t forget. And in researching, it uncovered an explanation larger and weirder than any we could have invented. The school claims that Tommy Elrod, an ex-player and ex-coach who serves as the team’s radio announcer, “provided or attempted to provide” information about Wake’s game plan not only to Louisville, but to several opponents the team had faced since 2014. That’s when Dave Clawson took over as the program’s head coach, and when he did, he decided not to retain Elrod, who had been on the school’s football staff for 11 years. But despite firing Elrod, Clawson continued to allow him “full access” to the team’s practices, film sessions, and events in his role as a broadcaster. That access is now over.
This is one of the silliest scandals in recent college football history. It’s called Wakeyleaks, or maybe it’s called Wake-A-Mole, or maybe we have to rename the university Stay Woke Forest so the school’s athletes and students can be on high alert for potential conspiracies.
It has all the intrigue of an international intelligence scandal combined with the thrilling atmosphere of … one of the ACC’s least successful football programs. The Demon Deacons haven’t been good for a while. If they win their bowl game against Temple — and they probably won’t — it will be their first winning season since 2008. We had assumed that this was just because Wake Forest was being Wake Forest. Now we’ve been told that it’s the result of an intricate web of intrigue — and we have so many questions:
1. How petty is this dude? After playing at Wake Forest, getting a degree at Wake Forest, working at Wake Forest for a decade, and getting a job announcing Wake Forest, he was apparently still so mad about getting canned that he took drastic steps to harm Wake Forest’s football team.
He could have done so much less. For starters, he still had a job dealing with Wake Forest football, and hypothetically served to benefit from the team performing well. If they won games, more people would listen to the radio, and if more people listen to the radio, everybody makes more money, right? Even if he really disliked Clawson, he could have taken less drastic steps: He could have trashed the coach on air, or used his apparently considerable sway within the program to sow seeds of dissent.
Then again, he could have done so much more! He could have sold this information! He could have become a millionaire by feeding this info to other teams, then betting against Wake! But right now, there’s no indication of any of that. It seems like he was just so mad about losing his job that he was willing to ruin his alma mater for no other reason than personal vengeance.
2. Before Clawson took the Wake job, practices had been open to the public, according to the Winston-Salem Journal. But when he took the job, he changed the team’s policies, restricting access to “approved members of the media.” This suggests he may have had concerns about information from practice leaking. So why would he allow a guy he laid off to maintain such a high level of access to everything the team did?
3. OK, so you’re Elrod and you’ve decided to embark down a road of college football treason. Why would you feed this information to Louisville, a school coached by Bobby Petrino? In case you’ve forgotten, Petrino got fired at Arkansas after he (a) had an affair, (b) gave a $20,000 “Christmas gift” to the woman he was having an affair with, (c) hired the woman he was having an affair with to work in Arkansas’s athletic department, (d) went on a motorcycle ride with the woman he was having an affair with, and (e) crashed the motorcycle, leading to a police report detailing that he was on a motorcycle with a significantly younger female coworker.
Petrino managed to reveal his own secret in such a way that it had grave impacts on his job, marriage, bank account, and personal health. That makes him one of the worst secret-keepers in recorded history. I wouldn’t trust him with the combination to my gym locker, let alone information that could get me fired from my job.
4. Has anybody out there listened to this dude’s radio calls of Wake Forest football? I need to hear them. Does he have to act shocked when the other team is completely unsurprised by Wake Forest’s fake field goals? Does he add snide remarks about how poorly Clawson is coaching? “Wow, they saw right through that play! What a disgrace!” How could he simultaneously have a job where he has to celebrate Wake’s successes while taking such an active role in ensuring its failures?
5. I know this seems like a dark moment for Wake Forest football. But what I’m here to say is this: What if the exact opposite were true? What if the only thing holding back Wake Forest from becoming the next Alabama was Elrod’s espionage? What if, with the spy out of the picture, we are about to embark upon the beginning of a new Wake Forest dynasty?
6. But what if this is all too simple?
We now know that at least one team over the past few years has had access to Wake Forest’s most secret information. Play designs, game strategy, and so on. Pretty much anything they would have needed to know about how the Deacs were going to play, Elrod could have found out for them. Even with superior athletes, that level of information should seriously hamper a football team’s ability to succeed. And we know that Wake doesn’t have superior athletes: In Clawson’s three years in charge, they’ve finished 14th, 12th, and 11th in 247Sports’ ACC recruiting rankings.
None of this clicks. With below-average players and a massive strategic disadvantage, the Demon Deacons should have been awful. Instead, they won six games, and will play in a bowl for the first time since 2011. Knowing what we now know, doesn’t one of the ACC’s worst teams now seem … too good?
What if Elrod was a double agent? What if he was feeding opponents slightly true, but intentionally bad information? No wonder he was giving opponents plays they hadn’t run all season — he was trying to throw them off the scent of the team’s actual game plans. Perhaps Elrod’s counter-intelligence work was winning Wake multiple games, but once his less-than-legal methods of boosting the Deacs were unveiled, the school had no choice but to disavow him, pretending to know nothing of his heroism.
Or what if this is a false flag? What if Clawson is covering for his team’s subpar play by inventing a scandal that could explain any and every failing they’ve experienced? What if he’s using this as an opportunity to get rid of Elrod, a man who’s spent his entire adult life around the program, gaining precious influence? Perhaps too much influence for Clawson to bear?
In the high-stakes game of international espionage, the easy story is never the one that turns out to be true. The same is true for the significantly lower stakes of ACC espionage. Never trust anybody, investigate everything, and most importantly, stay woke …