Bobby Wilder aims High, and Old Dominion continues its Rise

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 the 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 was an all-hands-on-deck family establishment — his four older sisters and his 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 themselves into the car and drove to neighboring New Hampshire to visit the local Santa’s Village.


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“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 2003-06. “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 stared 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 mindset 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 2004-6, “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,” said senior associate athletics director Bruce Stewart. “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 own 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 “Wilderness.” 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 offensive style to the next. Once a pass-first 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 Xs and Os, 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 are 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 then-athletics 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.”

Published on: 12:59 pm. Aug 30, 2017.

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