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Recruit, retain, develop and be flexible: How to win at a place where winning isn't easy

If you want to know how to win at a small, private, faith-based school in a pro market completely indifferent to small, private school football, you should talk to Dave Clawson. After a 3-19 start, he went 26-10 at Fordham. His 7-4 mark in 2001 represented the program's first winning season since 1988.

If you want to know how to win at a commuter school that stands in line behind the bigger state schools, you should take to Dave Clawson. After a 3-8 start, he went 26-12 at Richmond.

If you want to know how to win at a rural, public school in football-mad state, call Dave Clawson. After a 14-23 start, he went 18-8 at Bowling Green.

And if you want to know how to win at an elite, teeny tiny private school in a major conference, well, you know who you should call.

After a 6-18 start, Clawson is 30-22 in his past four seasons at Wake Forest, at a school that last strung together four consecutive winning seasons in the 1940s. Like its neighbor Duke to the east, Wake must find players that can thrive the rigors of an elite academic institution on Monday through Friday and against an ACC schedule on Saturdays. "Our kids have to compete with Clemson and Notre Dame on the field, and with 3.95 GPA, 30-plus ACT kids in the classroom," Clawson said during his general session talk at the AFCA Convention last week in Nashville.

Here is the blueprint Clawson uses to win at Wake Forest. It's one gleaned from 21 continuous seasons as the head coach at four separate schools with four wildly different situations -- from non-scholarship FCS to the Power 5.

Stick to your core beliefs, and be flexible everywhere else. Clawson recruits people that love football (this applies to both players and coaches), players that are committed to succeeding in the classroom, and people of high character. And that's where the stubbornness stops. "Everything else has to be flexible," he said.

This, by the way, includes the playbook. Heck, that flexibility starts at the playbook. Clawson's teams ran the West Coast offense at Fordham, played a two tight end, ball control approach at Richmond, and now he runs an RPO-based tempo offense at Wake Forest.

You've got to recruit, retain and develop, and all are equally important. Since Wake is after a certain type of player, Clawson stresses to his assistants that they've got to trust their eyes in the recruiting process. "The last thing I want to hear from an assistant coach is who else has offered a kid. Don’t hide behind someone else’s evaluation," he said.

Since getting players to Wake Forest is so difficult, losing the guys you've already signed is a crippling blow to roster development. "We don't need to get a 4-star guy and two years later he's not here," Clawson said. "We're better off not having him at all."

Clawson realizes the path to retaining his players is to first retain his coaches. In fact, nearly his entire offensive staff -- associate head coach Kevin Higgins, offensive coordinator Warren Ruggerio and position coaches John Hunter (RBs) and Nick Tabacca (OL) -- has been with Clawson for his entire run at Wake, which will stretch into Season 7 this fall. Clawson works to create an environment where coaches turn down job offers because their families want to remain at Wake. He also seeks out opportunities for professional growth for his assistants.

"I'm proud of the fact that if you came to Wake and played offense, you haven't had a change in terminology in six years," Clawson said. Six years in, Clawson has also yet to have a player fail out of school.

Both are necessities for winning at Wake. "We're never going to be young and good at the same time," he said.

Build relationships outside of the building. Clawson made it a point to build bridges with academic leadership when he arrived in December of 2013 and continues foster them today. "You can't just call when you need something," he said.

The same goes for relationships outside of campus. "You can't just call your donors when you need money," said Clawson. As evidence of his success on that front, Clawson plopped this stat on the table: Wake Forest raised $77 million for football since 2015 with the smallest alumni base in the entire Power 5.

All of that may not work at every school in every situation. Heck, much of that wouldn't work for Clawson at Bowling Green. But there's something in there for everyone.