Old Dominion coach Bobby Wilder’s success rooted in Madison

While impressive, it’s not that Bobby Wilder built the Old Dominion University football program from scratch that stands out. It’s that Wilder essentially did it twice, in 10 years. First, when he transformed the Monarchs from an idea when he arrived at ODU from the University of Maine in 2007, then again when he recruited and built the program further when it made the jump from the Football Championship Subdivision to Conference USA and the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2012 and 2013.

Now, Old Dominion is a model for how to create a Division I football program. The Monarchs have a Bahamas Bowl trophy, won at the culmination of the 2016 season, and next season’s non-conference schedule includes a home game against powerhouse Virginia Tech.
“We’ve hit a lot of milestones. I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished,” Wilder, a Madison native, said.

This weekend, Wilder hits a personal milestone, as a member of the Maine Sports Hall of Fame Class of 2018. Wilder is being honored not just for his success coaching ODU, but for his days as a standout quarterback at Madison Area Memorial High School, and as starting quarterback at the University of Maine. The induction ceremony is set for Sunday afternoon at the Collins Center at the University of Maine in Orono.

Wilder said he learned of the honor in December when he received an email from Dick Whitmore, the former head men’s basketball coach at Colby College and chairman of the Maine Sports Hall of Fame committee. As a kid, Wilder attended the Pine Tree Camp, Whitmore’s summer basketball camp.

“When I got that, I was staring at my computer saying ‘This can’t be right,’” Wilder said. “(Whitmore) was this bigger-than-life figure with a booming voice. It was extra special to get the news from him.”

To those who emulated Wilder and work alongside him, the honor is very much deserved.

“Anyone who was young and around then looked up to him,” Jon Christopher said.

Now athletic director at Skowhegan Area High School, Christopher quarterbacked Madison to state titles in 1988 and 1989, seven years after Wilder did the same, and also played at Maine. “At the time, Madison was going to state game almost every year. We were trying to not let down all the guys before us. We wanted to live to the Madison tradition. You wanted to be a part of that. Guys put in a lot of work and effort to live up to the bar Bobby set.”

Waterville native Brian Scott is now Old Dominion’s associate head coach/offensive coordinator, and played quarterback at Maine when Wilder was an assistant coach with the Black Bears in the ’90s. Scott recalled being a child and being impressed that Wilder, a Mainer like him, was starting quarterback for the Black Bears. When it came Scott’s time to be recruited, that was a factor in his decision to attend Maine.

“When he was a quarterback at Maine, I thought it was cool a Maine kid was the starting quarterback at Maine,” Scott said.

Wilder graduated from Maine as the program’s all-time leading passer, with 4,493 yards. Football has evolved into more of a passing game, and Wilder is still ninth all-time in career passing yards with the Black Bears. Half of the eight players ahead of Wilder on the list — Ron Whitcomb, Mickey Fein, Jake Eaton, and Emilio Colon — were coached by him. Much of Wilder’s coaching philosophy was instilled in him by his high school coach, Art Rudman. A three-sport standout at Madison in football, basketball, and baseball, Wilder sat out his sophomore season of football with knee problems. Wilder returned for his junior season, Rudman’s first as the Bulldogs’ coach. Madison went undefeated and won the Class C state title in Wilder’s senior season, 1982. The biggest thing Wilder still carries from his time with Rudman is discipline, he said.
“Everything has a start and finish. Academics, football. You’re accountable from the start to finish,” Wilder said.

Everyone in the ODU football program is accountable, Scott said, but Wilder is not a micromanaging coach.

“It’s very easy to work for Coach Wilder. He lets you do your job. He gives the staff a lot of freedom,” Scott said.

Scott is not the only member of Wilder’s staff with Maine ties. Whitcomb is the Monarchs quarterbacks coach. Defensive line coach Jeff Comissiong also played for the Black Bears, and defensive coordinator Rich Nagy was Maine’s defensive coordinator from 2001-05, where he worked alongside Wilder on Jack Cosgrove’s staff. Scott called Wilder’s ability to communicate his greatest strength.

“His delivery and confidence. He’s really got a gift when it comes to speaking, especially public speaking. He does a great job at presenting the message. He’s a great communicator,” Scott said.

Added Christopher: “He always had a way with people. I remember Art Rudman telling me (Wilder) was a leader of men. He gave his best and he had a way to get everyone else to give their best.”
When Wilder arrived at ODU in 2007, the plan was to build a program that could compete in the Colonial Athletic Association, a challenging FCS conference. After two years of recruiting and building the program, the Monarchs went 9-2 in their inaugural season, 2009. In 2010 and 2011 reached the FCS playoffs. In 2012, when the opportunity to step up to the FBS and join Conference USA arose, the Monarchs had to take it, even if it meant taking a brief step back.

“I thought we were close to a national championship (in FCS), and here we were transitioning again in ’13,” Wilder said.

In 2016, ODU went 10-3, 7-1 in Conference USA play, beating Eastern Michigan 24-20 to win the Bahamas Bowl. Following the upcoming season, ODU will tear down and rebuild its SB Ballard Stadium, the next step in its football program development.

“We have all the things we need to be successful. I never imagined this would all happen,” Wilder said.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Wilder had written his speech twice. He said his parents are organizing a large group of friends and family from Madison who will attend the induction ceremony. Wilder is looking forward to reconnecting with people he hasn’t seen in a while, including former University of Maine equipment manager Steve Jones, who will be honored with the Hall’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Since he began working with children when he was a teenage counselor in Madison’s summer recreation program, Wilder has known he wanted to coach. That passion still burns inside him as he prepares for his 10th season on ODU’s sideline. In Wilder’s first nine seasons, ODU earned a 72-37 record.
“I plan on coaching a long, long time,” Wilder said.

Posted on:  June 1, 2018

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