When he was hired in 2007 to launch a football program from scratch at Old Dominion University, Bobby Wilder knew he very quickly would need a blueprint of sorts to incorporate into his own vision.
His vision was not just to mold the Monarchs into an instant success but, in his words, to create the most successful start-up program in the history of college football.
Well, being a first-time head coach, he decided he needed a starting point for how to go about pulling off such a feat, and his research led him to two men who had won immediately in similar situations.
One was former South Florida coach Jim Leavitt and the other was, yes, former Coastal Carolina coach David Bennett, who had guided the Chanticleers to three Big South Conference championships and a playoff berth within the program’s first four seasons.
“It seems like it was yesterday,” Bennett said this week, recalling the conversations the two shared as Wilder came down to Conway for a visit soon after taking the job.
Now in its fourth season since debuting football in 2009, Old Dominion is 10-1 and ranked No. 3 in the country as it prepares to host Coastal on Saturday afternoon in Norfolk, Va., in the second round of the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. And while the Monarchs and Chants have never met on the field, they nevertheless have an intriguing connection.
“You could tell Bobby Wilder had something special about him,” said Bennett, who now is the athletic director at Socastee High School. “He wanted to go anywhere. He said, ‘Take me where you normally go. Take me to the local restaurant.’ He went to watch our little boy play a rec league youth baseball game, wanted to meet our family and he was constantly taking notes. I remember one of the key things he said as he left, he says, ‘If you could do it all over again and start one from scratch, tell me one thing you’d definitely do again and one thing you’d change and do different.’”
Bennett had quick answers for both ends of that question.
He emphasized the importance of getting the players and coaches involved in the community early to build initial support for the team and program. It was among the aspects of Coastal’s early rise for which he was most proud.
As for regrets, as he would lament time and again in the final years of his tenure, he wished the Chants had not let 36 players graduate after the 2006 season. While bringing in an initial class of 18 recruits who would do nothing but practice the year prior to the program’s debut season in 2003 and another 18 who would play as true freshmen that first year, he then saw the core of the program walk out the door all at once after their eligibility had expired.
“I knew when I got this job, the very first thing I was going to have to do because I had never started a football program before, I was going to need to find coaches that had started programs successfully,” Wilder said over the phone this week. “That trip was invaluable to putting together the plan, mapping out our plan.”
Wilder’s budding Old Dominion program took something else away from his time at Coastal.
He also lured away CCU senior associate athletics director Bruce Stewart, who had spent nine years at Coastal while helping with the launch of the Chants’ own football program.
“Bruce had a vision that he wanted that thing to be great,” Bennett said.
And Stewart took that vision with him to Old Dominion, where both he and Wilder – who was formerly the offensive coordinator at Maine – saw immense potential in launching a program in Norfolk, Va., and a Hampton Roads area that boasts population of about 1.7 million with no professional sports franchise to compete with for fans.
Stewart said his experience helping Coastal through its own start-up fueled his intrigue to try to replicate the same success at a larger program. For his part, he reiterated to Wilder the need to bring in transfers and space out the recruiting classes to avoid losing too many players at once. He also stressed the importance of engaging the community – on and off campus.
“If a community and institution aren’t fully behind it, starting a football program can really expose the weaknesses of your football program and your university,” Stewart said. “To be quite candid, Old Dominion would not be in the position we are in currently if not for the things I was able to take away from starting the program at CCU.”
Four seasons into the process and with plans to begin transitioning next year toward membership in the Football Bowl Subdivision, Old Dominion has no doubt followed through on its lofty intentions.
The Monarchs average 20,026 fans a game at Foreman Field and are in the FCS playoffs for the second-straight season while continuing their steady and rapid climb.
With a 37-9 overall record through four seasons against a schedule that has gotten progressively tougher each year, Wilder has built Old Dominion into a legitimate national championship contender.
“We started with a philosophy – a two-word phrase that we call ‘Aim high,’” Wilder said. “That starts everything we do in our program. You’ll see it right on the front of our helmets – ‘Aim High.’ That was the philosophy from the start. Everything we did, our goal was to be the best. Our goal right from the start was to win every game we played. We had to instill a mindset in our players that, yes, we’re all new; yes, we’re all starting together. But if we’re going to do this, why not be the best? Why not build the best startup program in the history of college football that’s the model people look at?”
First, though, Wilder had to attract players to his neophyte program, and for the initial recruiting class he’d sign in February of 2008, what he had to sell them was a PowerPoint presentation of what the stadium would look like on game days, what the practice facilities were going to look like and what that vision was for Monarchs football.
And, Wilder said, that came with a rhetorical question: “Is this what you want your legacy to be? That you were a part of history, that you could make history, that this would be your legacy that you started this program and you made it the best start-up program in college football?’”
The message resonated well enough for the Monarchs to bring in two initial recruiting classes that would contribute to a 9-2 finish their debut season, an 8-3 encore and 10-win campaigns now the last two seasons.
“Most of it was being the first to do something,” Old Dominion senior linebacker Craig Wilkins said. “Very few people have the opportunity to be the first to do something and to be a pioneer for this program, it appealed to a lot of us. Most programs sell tradition. There was no tradition here to sell. We had a chance to build that tradition, and I feel we’ve done a good job building it so far.”
Coastal, meanwhile, is continuing its efforts to do the same as it looks to build off its first-ever FCS playoff win last week at Bethune-Cookman. In the playoffs for the third time in 10 seasons and starting a new era under first-year head coach Joe Moglia, the Chants will have quite a challenge Saturday as they and the Monarchs formally meet on the field for the first time.
As for Bennett, he’s been following Coastal’s success from afar this season while keeping in contact with some of the players he recruited to campus, and he said he’ll make an effort Saturday to follow the game as best he can between other obligations.
He’s also tracked Old Dominion’s progress since that meeting with Wilder for that matter, and while he didn’t know the Monarchs would do quite what they’ve done these last few years, well, he said he’s not all too surprised.
“They’ve done maybe as good or better than any starting program,” Bennett said. “I knew they’d be good. I knew by the look in Bobby’s eye he was serious about it and driven.”