Ten years ago, on an otherwise normal weekday morning, Steve Forbes was face-to-face with an NCAA investigator, staring at a picture he'd never seen and didn't even know existed 20 minutes earlier. Bruce Pearl, then the coach at Tennessee, was in it. Aaron Craft, a one-time UT recruit, was in it. The photo was taken during a cookout at Pearl's home that violated NCAA rules. So Forbes, then an assistant under Pearl, suddenly found himself in an impossible situation. He could either be evasive or effectively rat on his boss -- and ratting on his boss wasn't an option he seriously considered.
"You do that in this business, and you are done," Forbes later told me. "Blackballed."
So Forbes went with evasive.
And you likely know the rest of the story.
Once Pearl realized he was caught, he held a press conference and publicly acknowledged he and his staff misled the NCAA about the circumstances surrounding the photo, a notice of allegations followed, and after the subsequent season, the 2010-11 campaign, the entire staff, Forbes included, was fired and punished with show-cause penalties that would eliminate any chance of getting a new job at an NCAA-member institution. In other words, Steve Forbes was 46 years old, married with three children, unemployed and unhirable at the major college level. And, if I'm being honest, in that time, the idea that he'd someday bounce back and become the leader of an ACC program seemed way unlikely.
Steve Forbes, now 55, was named Wake Forest's new coach Thursday
"You're the first call I've made as the head coach of the Demon Deacons," Forbes told me Thursday afternoon, at which point I asked what he would've said if I would've told him, back in 2011, that he'd enter the 2020-21 season as the head coach of an ACC program.
"I would've laughed in your face and said, 'Yeah, OK. Good one, Gary,'" Forbes answered. "I would've told you there's a better chance of me winning the Boston Marathon."
And yet here we are.
It's been a humbling climb.
After Forbes was fired in 2011, he landed a job as a junior college head coach at Northwest Florida State. All things considered, he was fortunate and thankful to have it. But the $60,000 annual salary represented a roughly 75% reduction in pay based on what he was making at Tennessee. So Forbes was stuck with a big house in Knoxville that he could no longer afford or sell. When I went to visit him in Florida, in the fall of that same year, Forbes told me he believed the house would eventually go into foreclosure.
Either way, he had a job to do.
And he did it well.
Forbes went 62-6 at Northwest Florida State in two seasons -- at which point Gregg Marshall, fresh off of a Final Four, and with Forbes' show-cause penalty in the past, offered him a job as an assistant at Wichita State. The opportunity to return to the Division I level, plus the salary increase, was too much to pass up. So Forbes joined Marshall's staff, spent two seasons there, then got the job at East Tennessee State, where he's spent the past five years winning consistently.
ETSU went 130-43 under Forbes.
He won two Southern Conference regular-season titles, two Southern Conference Tournament titles, never finished worse than third in the league, and secured two bids to the NCAA Tournament. So in his past seven seasons as a head coach -- two at Northwest Florida State, five at East Tennessee State -- Forbes' record is 192-49. That equates to a winning percentage of 79.7. And that, combined with a proven track record of recruiting at the highest level of the sport, and a preexisting relationship Wake Forest Athletic Director John Currie, is why Steve Forbes has gone from fired with an uncertain future to hired as the coach of an ACC program in less than a decade's time.
It's an improbable turn of events.
"It's a dream come true," Forbes said. "My wife, Johnetta, bless her heart, we were talking last night, and she said, 'You do realize that Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams are in your league?' I said, 'Oh, geez. Thank you for reminding me of that, honey. Now I probably won't sleep.' But it is a dream come true."