Scratching out success

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NORFOLK | Craig Wilkins was not sold on playing football at Old Dominion by a string of playoff appearances.

Nor by a gleaming weight room.

Nor by any sort of tangible evidence.

The defensive back out of the District’s H.D. Woodson High School saw a video depicting what the nascent, built-from-the-ground-up program might look like once he arrived at a school fresh off the decision to revive a program from a long slumber.

Wilkins imagined the sensation of tugging on his crisp new jersey, stepping out of a freshly constructed locker room and rushing through a tunnel from the locker room to the end zone of a packed stadium as the Monarchs made their return to the sport.

On occasion, he and teammate Chris Burnette will drive to the top of the parking garage adjacent to Foreman Field, a Depression-era stadium that served as Old Dominion’s home the last time it fielded a team.

The summit offers the best view as each piece of a football future is installed.

The turf is in. The scoreboard is on the way. And come a Sept. 5 game against Division II Chowan, the Monarchs will resume play as a Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) independent.

“The video is real now. It’s just about done,” Wilkins said. “Honestly, it’s better than the video. It’s the real deal.”

It’s precisely what administrators and coach Bobby Wilder hoped it would be at this stage. For Wilder, hired in February 2007, the opener can’t arrive soon enough.

Others might be less patient. The school, after all, last fielded a football team 69 years ago.

Starting from scratch

As Jim Jarrett commences his final year as Old Dominion’s athletic director, he recollects the chatter when he first started the job.

The question was simple: When would the Monarchs bring back football?

“My answer was, ‘When we can afford to,’ ” Jarrett said.

Sounds familiar, right? The only twist: He was hired in 1970.

From time to time, the theme would come up. Interest grew in the 1980s and 1990s, but there was never a simple answer to the financial question.

“The dollars just didn’t come in,” Jarrett said. “It’s always been all about money. I was able to make the point, and people listened to it, that we didn’t want to take what money we had in our program and put it all into football and then have horrible basketball teams and other sports teams. If we were going to do it and it was popular enough as a sport, we had to get new money to make it happen.”

All the while, things grew rapidly in Hampton Roads, a sprawling series of cities in Virginia’s southeastern corner. That growth was reflected at Old Dominion in the mushrooming on-campus population and the construction in recent years of more dorms.

“The interest is certainly there, and one of the reasons is they’ve done so much to the campus,” said Tony Mercurio, a longtime host on local sports-talk radio station ESPN 1310. “They’ve added so many more beds and dorms and the Constant Center and really changed the campus drastically in the last 10 years. It’s great to have all these extras, but if you don’t have anything to do, they’re going to get bored to death and not stay there.”

Still, the dreams of local fans and the relative boredom of students weren’t enough to make a program a reality. Students would need to make some financial sacrifices, but much of the money needed to come from elsewhere.

That, it turns out, wasn’t much of a problem. The Monarchs long ago sold out the 16,000 seats available to the public, and fans quickly claimed the 24 luxury suites as well.

The Monarchs also needed to find an on-field leader for their program and chose Wilder, a former Maine assistant, more than two years ago. In Wilder’s spacious office sit two shelves of binders, 34 in all, detailing every facet of the team’s construction.

Everything in his year-old building, the Powhatan Sports Complex, bears Wilder’s imprint. He was ecstatic to earn one of the rare start-up jobs in college football, but he couldn’t entirely fathom the scope of his new responsibilities when, just a week into the job, he met with architects, contractors and other athletic department officials.

“They’re saying, ‘OK, coach, now tell us what you want,’ ” Wilder said. “It’s kind of one of those things where I’m sitting there thinking, ‘This is a joke, right? There’s a camera around here somewhere.’ I was just trying to keep my poise at the time and thinking, ‘OK, can I have a copy of these blueprints?’ ”

Wilder did more than help design a building. He picked the minds of South Florida’s Jim Leavitt and Coastal Carolina’s David Bennett, spending two days with a pair of coaches who piloted start-up programs and learning he would be wise to recruit junior college players to provide an element of experience.

He decided to aim high - and chose those two words as the program’s motto. Reminders are everywhere, right down to the three glistening conference title rings he earned at Maine sitting on the edge of his desk.

“This program has our blueprint all over it,” Wilder said. “Good or bad, whatever happens, it’s ours. We started it.”

Grabbing attention

On a steamy July morning, some bricks, construction equipment and a filing cabinet sat at the entrance to Foreman Field, where workers are wrapping up a nearly $25 million renovation project. The workers spray metal bleachers, scrub sinks in a new concessions area and add touches to the spacious luxury suites.

Elsewhere in town, discussion about the program mounts. Jarrett hears about it from fans on the street. And everywhere Wilkins, a defensive back, walks in town while wearing Old Dominion gear, attention inevitably follows.

“If we had a nickel for every time someone pointed us out, we’d have a lot of money right now,” Wilkins said. “It’s crazy.”

Much of it stems from a market starved for a high-profile team beyond distant Virginia and Virginia Tech or the Washington Redskins. Mercurio recalled discussions earlier this decade to lure the Montreal Expos to town. Hampton Roads’ lack of a population epicenter and its snarled traffic over a series of bridges and tunnels did not help matters.

“People can talk about it, but we have as much of a chance [for a pro franchise] as I do of becoming an astronaut,” said Mercurio, who mentioned a Mark Cuban-style billionaire as a possible exception.

Therein lies the Monarchs’ appeal. They’re local, situated in a healthy recruiting basin and potentially a source of civic pride. Yet there is the matter of quickly becoming competitive. Wilder eschewed a payday and declined to play a major-college program but also opted to play just two Division II schools to ensure postseason eligibility. The unwillingness to accept early mediocrity trickled down to his players.

“I want to win,” said Burnette, a defensive lineman. “I don’t want to be another start-up team that loses every game. I want to be that team that steps out of the gate and wins everything and just be better than everybody else.”

The losses might be hard to avoid. Even South Florida - arguably the biggest start-up success story in recent years - went 5-6 in its first season. It’s uncertain how losing would affect the fervor of the fan base, which Mercurio noted was shrewdly asked to commit to season tickets before the economy faltered.

Still, Wilder is already thinking long-term, well past the point Old Dominion joins the CAA in 2011. And he’s especially ambitious, particularly in a league that features regional heavyweights James Madison and Richmond.

“I’ve said since I’ve been hired I want to be the third-best team in the state behind Virginia and Virginia Tech,” Wilder said. “There’s 10 teams total in the state that are playing scholarship football, so that’s a pretty lofty goal.”

There’s already a sound foundation. Old Dominion will bring 90 players to camp next month, including ex-Virginia defensive end Jason Fuller, the Monarchs’ first transfer from a major program. Wilder has made more than 300 speaking engagements since his hire, selling his program to an intrigued public.

He isn’t quite sure what he has to work with as camp commences, an uncomfortable feeling for any coach accustomed to settled details. But in less than seven weeks, a vision and a video will give way to something tangible.

“I’m driven to lead this school to a championship,” Wilder said. “That’s why I took this job. I didn’t do it to build an OK program or start it for somebody else. I want to win.”

And the sooner the better, especially after a nearly seven-decade wait for the Monarchs’ football dreams to come to fruition.

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