Wilder, Old Do­min­ion al­ways aim high

Coach known for catch­phrases builds pro­gram with nod to blue-col­lar roots

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Paul Myer­berg

Grow­ing up in Madi­son, Maine, where his fa­ther ran an Exxon sta­tion and his mother a lo­cal restau­rant, Bobby Wilder knew by his 13th birth­day that he wanted to be a foot­ball coach.

When his sched­ule al­lowed, Wilder would pump gas and check oil at the gas sta­tion. The restau­rant, Mad Dog Pizza, which he de­scribed as “a Happy Days kind of place,” served break­fast, lunch and din­ner, and it was an all-hands-on-deck fam­ily es­tab­lish­ment — his four older sis­ters and mother logged long hours, while his grand­mother cooked the mo­lasses cook­ies and donuts.

More of­ten than not, how­ever, Wilder was play­ing sports.

“I’m the one that’s dif­fer­ent. The only one in­volved in ath­let­ics,” he said. Base­ball in the spring and sum­mer. Foot­ball in the fall. Bas­ket­ball and hockey in the win­ter. An epiphany came as a young teenager, when Wilder spent a sum­mer work­ing a lo­cal sports camp: I want to coach, he thought.

For the rest, it was seven days a week at the sta­tion and the restau­rant. Asked if or when his fam­ily took any va­ca­tion, Wilder can re­call just one: On a win­ter day, they loaded into a car and drove to neigh­bor­ing New Hamp­shire to visit the lo­cal Santa’s vil­lage.

“The epit­ome of a blue-col­lar fam­ily, that’s what we were. That’s just what my fam­ily did,” Wilder said. “It was in­grained in me. So now when I work seven days a week here, I don’t think I’m do­ing any­thing out of the norm of what I’ve seen my en­tire life.”

You can take the coach out of Maine — even­tu­ally, and not un­til a decade ago — but you can’t take Maine out of the coach. Wilder’s ap­proach to build­ing the Old Do­min­ion foot­ball pro­gram from scratch is it­self a byprod­uct of his home state — its peo­ple, its men­tal­ity and, last but not least, its state univer­sity, where he played and coached for more than two decades be­fore be­ing hired as the Mon­archs’ first head coach in 2007.

“The val­ues that he in­stills into the staff and the play­ers here at ODU are very sim­i­lar to the things I was taught as a player at Maine,” said quar­ter­backs coach Ron Whit­comb, a four-year starter un­der cen­ter for the Black Bears from 2003 to 2006. “We used to call it the Maine Way. It’s a workman’s men­tal­ity. You’re not ex­pect­ing any­body to give you any­thing, and you’re go­ing to work your way to the suc­cess you have. That’s def­i­nitely been the way we do things around here.”

The pro­gram Wilder has built is tak­ing flight: Old Do­min­ion, which rechris­tened its pro­gram in 2009 af­ter debt and a rule pro­hibit­ing fresh­man eli­gi­bil­ity led the univer­sity to shut­ter foot­ball in 1940, went 10-3 and won the Ba­hamas Bowl last fall, ce­ment­ing the Mon­archs’ place as the most suc­cess­ful startup in Foot­ball Bowl Sub­di­vi­sion his­tory.

How it was built and how it has been main­tained bears the fin­ger­prints of Wilder’s long ten­ure at Maine, where he once starred at quar­ter­back be­fore be­ing hired by cur­rent Iowa coach Kirk Fer­entz as a re­stricted-earn­ings as­sis­tant in 1990.

In hind­sight, it was per­fect train­ing for the task of build­ing an FBS pro­gram from scratch. Un­der Fer­entz and his suc­ces­sor, long­time Maine coach Jack Cos­grove, Wilder learned to max­i­mize the Black Bears’ as­sets and pa­per over the pro­gram’s weak links, such as a clear re­cruit­ing dis­ad­van­tage; the univer­sity was “the last stop be­fore the bus stop” for po­ten­tial col­lege prospects, Wilder said.

That mind-set fit into the dom­i­nant theme of his child­hood: Wilder see­ing his par­ents work seven days a week, one at the gas sta­tion and the other at the restau­rant, to make ends meet in Madi­son. Once he ar­rived at ODU, it felt nor­mal to change the Ga­torade in the Mon­archs’ drink dis­penser, for ex­am­ple, or to empty the garbage from the coaches’ of­fices. It’s a les­son he learned from Cos­grove: No job is too small, Wilder was told, so don’t wait for some­one else to do what you can han­dle your­self.

“There’s no job that he wouldn’t do,” said ODU of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Brian Scott, who coached along­side Wilder with the Black Bears from 2004 to 2006, “but that’s just Maine.”

But there is un­de­ni­ably some­thing unique about Wilder, par­tic­u­larly in one key re­spect: In an era of con­stant move­ment among coaches — par­tic­u­larly among as­sis­tants, though traf­fic among head coaches draws far more at­ten­tion — Wilder en­ters his 28th sea­son as a full-time coach hav­ing worked at just two pro­grams, Maine and ODU.

“You’re talk­ing about an en­dan­gered species. You don’t see that in this time and age,” se­nior as­so­ciate ath­let­ics director Bruce Ste­wart said. “But that’s who he is. It’s also in­dica­tive of how he coaches.”

Fer­entz’s im­pact lingers, and Cos­grove’s is even more pro­found. Yet Wilder’s ap­proach is, in a word, or­ganic — not birthed from any in­di­vid­ual coach but de­vel­oped and honed dur­ing his en­tire ca­reer, dat­ing even to his days as a record-set­ting quar­ter­back, when he be­gan to col­lect the thoughts and ideas that have come to de­fine his ten­ure as a head coach.

“I pre­pared for this, took a lot of notes, stud­ied,” Wilder said. “I did ev­ery­thing my whole life to get my­self ready to be com­fort­able be­ing a head coach.”

Take his col­lected say­ings, which his as­sis­tants and play­ers term “Wilderisms.” P.M.A., he’ll tell the team, an acro­nym for Pos­i­tive Men­tal At­ti­tude. And oth­ers: Aim high. Stay in your lane. I’m just happy my key still works. Ev­ery day is your birth­day. Make to­day your mas­ter­piece.

Or view the ease with which ODU has piv­oted from one of­fen- sive style to the next. Once a pass­first team led by Tay­lor Heinicke, who left in 2014 as one of the most pro­lific quar­ter­backs in Divi­sion I his­tory, the Mon­archs’

2016 scheme was pred­i­cated more on the run­ning game, even as the of­fense had enough bal­ance to fin­ish fifth in Con­fer­ence USA in to­tal pass­ing yards.

“It is very or­ganic. I don’t have an ego when it comes to our of­fense, de­fense or spe­cial teams,” Wilder said of his pro­gram’s ap­proach. “I think that’s why we’re

67-30. I’m not try­ing to min­i­mize our abil­ity to coach X’s and O’s, but we do aim high. Ev­ery­thing is those two words: aim high.”

ODU’s rise, mean­while, has led to a pos­si­bil­ity: Should the Mon­archs again con­tend for a con­fer­ence ti­tle, it’s in­evitable that Wilder’s name will be tied to Power Five open­ings in Novem­ber and De­cem­ber — a prospect he shrugged aside, call­ing the ODU pro­gram “like my child.”

“I don’t want to sound self­ish, but I started this pro­gram. And this is con­sid­ered the best startup pro­gram in the his­tory of col­lege foot­ball. It’s just such an un­be­liev­able source of pride,” he said.

“My child right now is 8 years old. My child is in the third grade. And my child is still grow­ing. I look at it as an un­lim­ited po­ten­tial to con­tinue to grow and be suc­cess­ful. It would have to be some­thing mon­u­men­tal to make me con­sider want­ing to stop rais­ing my child, if that doesn’t sound too corny. My heart and soul is in this.”

His heart and soul, and more than a lit­tle bit of Maine. But that’s al­ways been the case. Even dur­ing the hir­ing process, which be­gan with a cold call to then­ath­let­ics director Jim Jar­rett, Wilder never de­vi­ated from his script: I know I’m not from the area, he said, but here’s my blue­print for build­ing this pro­gram — a pitch that quickly moved him to the top of the Mon­archs’ list.

“I didn’t have a name. I wasn’t a name guy,” he said. “I wasn’t at Vir­ginia, Vir­ginia Tech, Alabama, Clem­son. I was an as­sis­tant coach at the Univer­sity of Maine. But I knew ex­actly who I was.”

JA­SON COOPER, AP

Coach Bobby Wilder hoists the Ba­hamas Bowl tro­phy last year af­ter Old Do­min­ion beat East­ern Michi­gan to fin­ish 10-3.

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