[Ed's Note: In the most recent issue of ESPN The Magazine, we watch as Bill Curry starts a new football program at Georgia State. Here we take a look at another program being built from scratch.]
Old Dominion's football players enter the shiny new football offices through a set of glass doors. Each young man offers a polite greeting to the administrative personnel at the front desk as he passes through, like a tenant to a friendly doorman. The two women behind the desks play memory games, whispering to one another "He's a quarterback. Number 16, I think." As the room clears, one says aloud, "What we need is a roster with photos on it."
As football season starts up across the country, most teams are welcoming 20-25 new players to their rosters—the typical haul. At Old Dominion University, located in Norfolk, Virginia, the FCS start-up program is made up of nearly 100% Freshmen. The whole team. A few of the 17 walk-on players, culled from the student body in open tryouts, are older, but most are fresh from high school. None have ever taken a snap at the DI level.
The Monarchs won't debut their spread offense against their first outside opponent until September 5th of 2009, when they host Chowan. They'll schedule independently before officially joining the Colonial Athletic Association in 2011. This year, everyone's a redshirt.
"They're all just trying to survive," says head coach Bobby Wilder. "They don't know each other, they don't know the system, there's nobody to follow. So they're just figuring it out."
Wilder has an engaging presence and he speaks about his team with a mixture of brutal honesty of what they are now—the team has a website with the full 2009 schedule, a roster and videos of the beautiful facilities being built—and enthusiasm.
Wilder is a native New Englander, with a direct approach and unflappable demeanor dictated by his Maine upbringing. His leadership style is built upon his experiences up North, where he quarterbacked the Maine Black Bears to the championship of the now-defunct Yankee Conference, amassing over 4,000 passing yards by the time he graduated in 1987. He spent two years as a graduate assistant at Boston College before returning to his alma mater as quarterbacks coach. Wilder spent the next seventeen years at Maine (now a part of the CAA's North Division), rising to the position of associate head coach before the Monarchs came calling. "We looked at some more experienced coaches with bigger names," admits ODU athletic director Dr. Jim Jarrett, "but my theory is that every successful head coach started as a player, then an assistant, and moved up. Somebody has to give them that chance."
Wilder's unrelenting positivity and outgoing nature may have served him as well as anything on his resume. Hired in February, 2007, he spent his first year coaching as both politician and salesman, convincing residents of this seaside city of 2 million that he was the right man for the job, and then trying to convince their sons to come play for him.
Norfolk, home of the Navy's U.S. Fleet Headquarters, is part of the vaunted Hampton Roads recruiting grounds, which annually turns out gifted Division One players in all sports. Allen Iverson and Michael Vick are the big names, but the local talent pool also produced Plaxico Burress, Alonzo Mourning, and MLB's David Wright, amongst many others.
"This area, for recruiting, is really tremendous; a nationally known area," says Wilder. "At first, I wasn't really interested in applying for a job at a start-up program, but that really piqued my interest." The school's all-in commitment to building a competitive program helped seal the deal.
Old Dominion has been without a football program since 1940, when the school was still a two-year branch campus of nearby William & Mary College. Debt and lack of interest killed the original program in its infancy, leaving venerable Foreman Field to host mostly high school games for the next several decades.
As interest grew, money was still hard to come by, and an attempt to revive football in 1987 failed. According to Dr. Jarrett, it was former president Roseanne Runte who finally solved the puzzle. "Dr. Runte pushed hard for this," he says. "She got student leaders involved, and they put through a student fee package."
With the student body behind the proposal, the university's Board of Visitors had no problem convincing other donors to contribute to what eventually became an $8 million football endowment fund. In addition, Foreman Field is undergoing a $24.8 million facilities upgrade, and the $17 million Powhatan Sports Center was built from scratch. The center houses the football offices and two fifty-yard practice fields, as well as facilities and offices for field hockey and lacrosse.
The commitment to all sports ensures that Wilder and his lion cubs won't get a free pass at Old Dominion. Monarch teams have won multiple national championships in women's basketball, sailing, tennis and field hockey. ODU's Anne Donovan earned a gold medal coaching the U.S. women's basketball team in Beijing, and alum Anna Tunnicliffe won her sailing race to earn more gold. Men's basketball is routinely atop the CAA standings. Dr. Jarrett says "We expect our teams to compete for championships and national rankings. We won't take money from established, successful sports to support football."
ODU's roots in the area are an immediate boon to recruting if a football history isn't.
Defensive End Andrew Turner grew up just down the road. "I'm from Virginia Beach, and all of the coaching staff at my high school went to ODU," he says. "Everyone really stressed that we could make history and do something special, and I was really excited about that."
That pioneering spirit will have to hold the team for some time. If this were a movie, the next year would play out in an inspirational thirty-second montage of weightlifting, sprints, studying and scrimmaging. But the coaching staff, which already includes eight position coaches plus a strength coach, and their 82 new charges will have to live every minute of it in real time. In an attempt to stave off monotony, coach Wilder has planned his schedule meticulously, as though the current season was the real deal. In addition to regular practices and academic study groups, there will be team-building functions and community events in which the Monarchs will get to know each other and their fans. There will also be simulated game weeks. "We project them into next year," says Wilder. "We choose an opponent, do scouting reports, practice for that team, and then kick off an intra-squad scrimmage at 6pm on Saturday night. It's the whole routine."
As the team takes to the practice field on an overcast day a week into the football season they all see unfolding on TV, all of that is still ahead of them. The team only has thirteen offensive plays right now, a small part of what will be a full spread offense by this time next year. They have just one defensive set down.
Special teams are limited to practicing punts and PATs in this first week of classes. Wilder watches everything closely, rarely raising his voice. He gives clear directions and claps encouragement. After an hour of drills and calesthenics with position coaches, the players run to the fifty yard line and group around the head coach. He says a few words, they rise together and huddle, right hands raised as they bark "O! D! U!"
Kickoff is only 372 days away.