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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Bobby Wilder stepped down as ODU's football coach with dignity and class

Harry Minium

It was an unusal and emotional event that left several bystanders, and one former Old Domiion University football coach, in tears.

After meeting with ODU athletic director Wood Selig and senior athletic director Bruce Stewart, who oversees football, coach Bobby Wilder announced he would resign Monday morning.

Coaches who resign rarely turn around and volunteer to stay on to help players, coaches and incoming recruits adjust to the transition. Nor do they follow their resignation with a press conference.

But anyone who was surprised that Bobby Wilder asked to help the program he founded and do a press conference just four hours after resigning doesn't know ODU's long-time football coach. He doesn't do anything halfway.

Wilder is fiercely loyal and unabashedly optimistic. He wanted to say farewell in the right way, and he did, with class and dignity.

No potshots as he headed out the door and no excuses for this season's 1-11 record.

He praised President John R. Broderick and former athletic director Jim Jarrett for hiring him and Selig and Stewart for supporting him.

He went on to make the case that ODU is a great job. He said he will counsel ODU football players, coaches and incoming recruits not to jump ship.

"I've advised them to wait until the new head coach is here and evaluate your situation then," he said. He went on to profess his loyalty and love for ODU.

ODU surely will always be grateful for what he accomplished here.

As ODU's losing streak grew to 11 games this season, it was easy for fans, the media, and a few hotheads on Twitter, to lose sight of what Wilder did for the Monarchs as the University's first football coach.

Wilder poured his heart and soul into ODU football. And was it ever a success in the beginning. ODU won 38 of 48 games as a startup program in the FootballC hampionship Subdivision.

The Monarchs twice went to the FCS playoffs and were twice nationally ranked - they were sixth in the final 2012 FCS polls.

Quarterback Taylor Heinicke, who led ODU's pass-happy offense and played a huge role in the fast start out of the gates, won the Walter Payton Award, the Heisman Trophy of FCS.

Wilder took ODU to its first bowl game in 2016 and defeated Eastern Michigan on national television in the Bahamas Bowl.

And let's not forget last year's stunning, 49-35, upset of Virginia Tech, which was almost certainly the finest moment in ODU athletic history, but the last three years haven't been the same as ODU won just 10 of 36 games. The program was headed in the wrong direction and a change was necessary, no matter how painful.

"The reality is, that's why we're here today," Wilder said.

"There are about 7.6 billion people in the world and only 130 are FBS head coaches. That's pretty rarefied air and there's an expectation when it comes to wins in losses.

"The last three years we've been 5-7, 4-8 and 1-11. That's not good enough for an FBS program and I take full responsibility for that. As the head coach, it was my responsibility to win more games and I didn't."

Wilder entered the weekend hoping to keep his job and said he fought and clawed to convince ODU to give him one more season. He met with Selig and Stewart twice over the weekend.

Then Monday morning, during an hour-long meeting in his office, Wilder said he realized it was time to step aside. He has long preached to his players the virtue of being unselfish, and so he did the unselfish thing.

"We went through every detail of the football program that I love, that I built, that I dedicated the last 4,373 days of my life to," he said. "And I realized that it was time to turn the program over to new leadership and a new direction."

Stewart has worked with Wilder for 13 years and was at times emotional on Monday.

"You really see someone's character in times like this," Stewart said. "And Bobby's character is shining."

ODU President John R. Broderick had something of a special relationship with Wilder. He was on the selection committee that hired ODU's first coach and they have been friends for 13 years.

"He represented the school from his first day until his last press conference with nothing but class and dignity," Broderick said.

Wilder, a native of tiny Madison, Maine was nostalgic as he looked back upon the highlights of his career.

"I'm so grateful that Old Dominion took a chance on a nobody from nowhere," he said. "I take tremendous pride in the fact that we built and we ran a first-class program. There were no NCAA violations. We did it the right way. Our players went to class and represented ODU well.

"There are a lot of programs that don't always necessarily do it that way. We take great pride in knowing we did that here."

His favorite moments? Running onto the field in 2009 for the first game against Chowan. "Nobody tripped," he quipped, referring to the relative lack of raw talent ODU had at the time.

There was the 2011 season when ODU finished second in the Colonial Athletic Association after being picked to finish last, and 2012, when the Monarchs were banned from winning the CAA title because of their impending move to Conference USA but won it on the field anyway.

He said he'll never forget the 2016 Bahamas Bowl victory over Eastern Michigan when he exulted on ESPN hoisting the bowl championship trophy over his head.

Nor will he forget last season's victory over Virginia Tech. It was a huge step up from that first game at Chowan.

And he had a message for ODU's fan base, which has been contracting in recent years.

"My message to them is to come back because I truly believe this football team is going to be special next season," he said. "There are 104 players, including 72 players who played and 19 starters, who have the opportunity to return if they choose to."

He will meet with all 104 players this week to counsel them on their classroom work and to encourage them not to make any hasty decisions.

And he and his staff are doing much more than that to help ODU football. They are hosting a recruiting event this weekend and Wilder said his coaching staff has been busy on the phones, telling recruits to hold on.

"Our job right now is to try to convince those kids this is a great place to play football," wide receivers coach John Allen said. "We all know this team could be very good next year. This is a good situation for them."

That's incredibly admirable of ODU's coaching staff, most of whom will be coaching elsewhere next season.

What's next for Wilder? "A warm beach would probably be pretty good right now," he said. Instead, Wilder met with his agent, Dennis Cordell, Monday night and was briefed on what opportunities might be available.

Wilder said this was obviously the most frustrating season he's ever endured. ODU began strong, edging Norfolk State and playing Virginia and Virginia Tech on nearly even terms. ODU led UVA 17-0, but eventually lost.

Then the bottom fell out.

ODU had injuries and didn't have the depth to replace the injured players. The offense struggled all season, and only Auburn played more bowl teams than ODU.

"What was most hurtful was the inability to get the ship righted, to get it turned around," he said. "As competitive as we were all year, just couldn't get it done in the fourth quarter. We tried everything we possibly could.

"Truthfully, I'm extremely disappointed right now. To be leaving after going 1-11, that's not what I envisioned how I would leave this program. I completely understand why they want to make a change, that 1-11 is not acceptable . . . and I have no ill will toward anyone.

"But it's really disappointing to leave after 13 years and that this is the exit, leaving here 1-11.

"That's why I so badly want to help them with the transition. I don't want to see that continue. This is always going to be a part of the fabric of me, part of my being is this program.

"I'll always be a Monarch. Today doesn't change that."

With that, he ended the press conference with familiar words. "Thank you all for coming."

Upwards of 150 people were there, including players, coaches and staff members, far more than the usual gathering of a dozen or so reporters who usually show up.

He received a 45-second standing ovation as he stepped back from the podium. Then the tears began to flow. Wilder rubbed his eyes and walked away, right into the arms of his son, defensive end Derek Wilder, who hugged him tightly.

It was one of the worst days of Wilder's life and definitely his toughest press conference ever. Somehow, he managed to turn it into an uplifting event, one that left you optimistic about the future of ODU football and grateful to the man who founded the program.

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