Steve Forbes once gave a rival coach a bobblehead before a game.
He’s loyal, he cries easily, and he enjoys learning something new, whether it be about basketball or not.
More than anything, he brings a vigor that has helped him find success at every level of college basketball.
“I think it’s being myself,” Forbes said today, “putting my best foot forward and letting people feel my passion and my energy for being here.”
With the selection of Forbes as the next head coach for the Wake Forest men’s basketball program, the Deacons hope they’ve found the ember to reignite both the program and the interest of its fan base. Former co-workers and competitors alike believe he’s the person to do so.
“They’ve got a guy who’s worked his way back to being a major success story, and I think his attitude and his passion will permeate this program quickly,” said Houston Fancher, who worked with Forbes at Tennessee. “And I think Winston-Salem is going to know they hit one out of the park before too long."
Added Mike Young, current Virginia Tech coach and former Southern Conference foe: “We had absolute bloodbaths when we were together in the Southern. And in some strange way, I look forward to those games again because you know what you’re going to get.”
A detour on the way up
Forbes’ resume shows a steady climb through the levels of college basketball, a brief downfall and a triumphant uprising. He started as a junior college coach in Iowa, his first job coming as an assistant at Southwestern Community College in 1989. He became the head coach two years later, then moving to Barton County Community College in Kansas as an assistant in 1993. He eventually became the head coach there, too, in 1995, staying three more years until he started his ascent.
Forbes went to Idaho (1998 to 2000), Louisiana Tech (2000 to 2003), Illinois State (2003 to 2004) and Texas A&M (2004 to 2006) as an assistant before earning a job with Bruce Pearl at Tennessee in 2006.
The Volunteers went to the NCAA Tournament in all of Forbes’ five seasons with Pearl, featuring two Sweet Sixteen appearances and one trip to the Elite Eight. In those final two seasons, Forbes and Fancher coached together. Fancher, hired as the coordinator of video scouting, said Forbes helped him get the job.
But Forbes' rise in the profession came to a halt in March 2011, when Pearl and the staff were fired after an NCAA investigation into a recruiting violation. A high school junior recruit on an unofficial visit attended a cookout at Pearl's home in 2008; the recruit and Pearl weren't allowed to be together off campus.
The recruit, future Ohio State star Aaron Craft, was photographed during the cookout. Pearl originally disputed the situation, and Pearl admitted to lying to the NCAA in 2010. Forbes, who wasn't at the cookout, was swept up in the mix. Forbes was hit with a one-year show cause penalty involvement, essentially a short banishment from the NCAA that forced him to find a new job.
It’s a situation about which Forbes has been outspoken regarding the way it shaped his journey.
"It really kind of changed my life, to be honest," Forbes told journalist Jeff Goodman on the Good N' Plenty podcast. "I just went back to being a basketball coach. ... I thought it really grounded me, and it really helped me, and I think it taught a great lesson to my children that when you get knocked down, you get back up."
He landed back in the JUCO ranks again as the head coach at Northwest Florida State, leading the team to the junior college finals in 2012 and 2013.
Fancher, a former head coach at App State and currently the director of operations and player development for the N.C. State women’s basketball program, was named Tennessee’s interim head coach and was retained by the next staff.
“You never heard him complain,” Fancher said of Forbes' detour back to the JUCO level. “The guy just put his head down, got a junior college job and went to the national championship in junior college.
“Didn’t necessarily reinvent himself, but he went back to work to erase any questions anybody might have about him.”
Winning his way back
After that, Forbes worked under Greg Marshall at Wichita State from 2013 to 2015 before earning his first head Division I head coaching job at East Tennessee State. Forbes turned the middling Bucs program into a perennial contender in the Southern Conference, winning at least 24 games during all five seasons with the program. That includes a 30-4 mark last season, which should have ended with ETSU playing in the NCAA Tournament as conference champions.
That winning clip re-energized Freedom Hall, ETSU’s homecourt. The program led the Southern Conference in attendance the last four seasons, averaging more than 4,000 fans per game in three of them. It created some raucous battles between Forbes and Young, who coached at Wofford for 17 seasons before making the Southern-to-ACC jump last year.
Young recalled a funny moment between the two during Forbes’ second season at ETSU.
“We’re pretty good, he’s pretty good, it’s a pivotal Southern Conference game in late February, the place is sold out, crowd's going crazy, and here comes the Bucs onto the floor,” Young said. “It just so happens to be Steve Forbes’ bobblehead night in Johnson City.
“So I’m sitting over there sweating like a gorilla, and here comes my buddy Steve Forbes, and he presents me with a Steve Forbes bobblehead. And I promptly place that on the end of the scorers table along with my towel, my glasses and my water bottle. And the Forbes bobblehead was right there on the end of the scorer’s table throughout the course of the game. I scooped it up at the end, we shook hands, and I forget who won or lost. Just typical.”
Young called Forbes one of his favorite people in the business. Part of that is due to personality, and part is the style of play. He called Forbes’ teams hard-nosed and said they “would guard the fire out of you.” ETSU last season alone was inside the top 50 of KenPom.com turnover percentage, forcing turnovers on 22.3 percent of possessions, and steal percentage, forcing steals on 11 percent of possessions.
He also built strong relationships with his players in part with his sense of humor, which he displays often on his Twitter page. Daivien Williamson, a sophomore guard at ETSU and a Winston-Salem native, had a favorite Forbes quip.
“"He called us Burger King All-Americas all the time, especially when we went up against the teams that had McDonald's All-Americans," Williamson said. "He really had a lot of great sayings that kept us loose, and I think that helped us go 30-4 this past season."
On top of it all, though, Forbes brings hope. Hope that he can help return the Deacons to the nation's top 25, contending for talented recruits and closing the gap with the other members of North Carolina's Big Four.
Fancher pointed out the similar personality traits Forbes shares with one of his predecessors.
“He’s got a lot of interests, sort of like Skip Prosser,” said Fancher, who had a long relationship with the former Wake Forest head coach who died in 2007. “Skip was not just a basketball coach. Skip had a lot of things going on mentally as far as interests and could talk to you about a wide variety of subjects, and Steve’s the same way. ...
“People will get to him quickly and adapt to him quickly. Just a down-to-earth, very approachable type guy.”
That’s a quality comparison to earn on the first day of job. Now, it’s time to see just how bright the spark of Forbes’ hiring can be.
Staff writers John Dell, Jeff Mills and Conor O’Neill contributed.