At Old Dominion, It's Being Built to Sell

February 10, 2008
By ODU Athletics

Feb. 10, 2008

NORFOLK The short, white picket fence surrounding Foreman Field, a 72-year-old stadium in a corner of the Old Dominion University campus, is chained shut. But inside workers are building new end zone luxury boxes, locker rooms and training rooms.

The stadium's artificial turf, installed as part of an early 1980s renovation, is worn. But a new state-of-the-art surface will replace it next year.

Across campus, planned football practice fields currently exist as mounds of dirt. But beside them cranes have hoisted steel beams for a building that will house the school's football offices and workout facilities.

The construction of the Old Dominion football program, which moved from proposal to reality last year, adds a human element this week when Coach Bobby Wilder, an energetic 43-year-old former college quarterback, signs the school's first recruiting class to letters-of-intent. Tomorrow is the first day high school seniors can formally accept college football scholarships.

"We're hoping to sign a team," said Wilder, whose team will play its first game in fall 2009. "Eleven on offense, 11 on defense, punter, kicker. That's the goal."

So far, 20 players -- six from the Washington area -- have told Wilder they will sign with the Monarchs. "Trying to sell them the dream, trying to sell them what we want to be," Wilder said.

Wilder's pitch includes YouTube clips and architect's renderings of what the practice facilities and the renovated Foreman Field will look like in 2009. He talks about the spread offense, predicated on speed, he wants to run. On a recruiting landscape that already is jumbled enough, with schools trying to get every advantage, Wilder's principal recruiting tool is his vision.

"I will be starting history, rather than just being a part of it," said Carlos Davis, a wide receiver at Friendly High School who has told Wilder he will sign with the Monarchs tomorrow. "That's a big factor."

Old Dominion is the 11th college to start a division I-A or I-AA football team since 1991. Some, like South Florida, set ambitious schedules to compete at the highest levels in the sport. Some, such as Fairfield and La Salle, disbanded. Others, including Old Dominion, mainly want football to enhance campus life. The Monarchs don't have designs on moving up to division I-A and don't seem concerned that football at most schools loses money.

Wilder and his staff of six work a few hundred yards away from the practice facility construction, crammed into what used to be a conference room in the university's athletic administration building.

In roughly the space of a two-car garage are make-shift cubicles, with pieces of wood laid over two-drawer file cabinets, laptops open atop the makeshift desks. Hung on a wall is a large, magnetic dry-erase board with names of prospective players listed, with notes on where each stands in the recruiting process. On a divider separating the front of the office from the coaches' tight quarters are the renderings of what things could look like in another 1 1/2 years, when thousands of fans pack the renovated stadium and players, having trained in new facilities, take the field.

Their job will not be easy. ODU is entering a crowded marketplace. The better high school players tend to be more interested in division I-A programs such as Virginia, Virginia Tech and Maryland -- and these three schools work hard to recruit in the Tidewater region. The next level of prospects also have plenty of options -- the Colonial Athletic Association, one of the nation's top I-AA leagues, already has three football members in Virginia: nearby William & Mary, 2004 national champion James Madison and Richmond, a national semifinalist this season.

"There are [eight] I-AA choices in this state," said Virginia Tech assistant coach Jim Cavanaugh, perhaps the best recruiter in the Tidewater area. "So it's tough."

With only two recruiting classes before ODU begins play in 2009, each scholarship is crucial. Although the NCAA division I-AA limit is 63 grants per school, the Monarchs expect to have about 40 scholarship players when they take the field on Sept. 9, 2009, to play Chowan University (N.C.). As a result, any recruiting mistakes will be magnified.

Old Dominion believes it is prepared for the challenge. University administrators see the team as a key element of a renaissance in campus life for its enrollment of 20,000 students. Although two attempts in the late 1980s to revive the school's football team -- disbanded in 1940 -- fell short, a study commissioned by the school and conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers last year showed widespread support for a team, particularly among alumni.

Fans "want us to have scrimmages next year that are like games so they can practice tailgating," Wilder said.

The city of Norfolk reached an agreement to provide the land for the Powhatan Sports Center, the $17 million complex set to open this summer that includes athletic offices and training facilities, a new stadium for the school's field hockey and lacrosse teams and football practice fields.

To remain in compliance with Title IX, the federal law requiring gender equity in athletics, Old Dominion is adding three women's sports programs: crew, which began competition this school year, softball in 2010-11 and volleyball in 2014-15. There also are plans to start a marching band.

Putting it all together takes time. Wilder, previously an assistant coach at Maine, his alma mater, was hired one year ago. Wilder intends to hire three more assistants this spring. The first recruiting class, joined by walk-ons from a campus-wide tryout next month, will spend all of next season practicing; the players will redshirt, then have four years to complete their four seasons of eligibility.

Other schools can sell recruits on their facilities, their tradition and their atmosphere. When Wilder hosts a potential player, visits include a trip to Foreman Field and a stroll past the practice facility construction site. More important are short video presentations showing what ODU hopes things will look like once $24.8 million is spent to renovate Foreman Field.

Instead of getting to meet veteran football players and talk about their experiences, ODU recruits have been introduced to members of the school's basketball and baseball teams.

It's quite different than trips to other colleges, said Langley All-Met lineman Will Wilson, who has yet to make his college choice. "Most places, you're pretty much with players the whole time," he said.

Wilder knows the identity he wants to create with his team. The offense will run from a spread formation, the defense will be based on creating pressure. "Everything we're doing, right down to the [artificial] field surface, is designed for speed," Wilder said.

To get that speed, Old Dominion's plan is to hit the "757" area -- slang referring to the Tidewater's area code -- as well as the District and Prince George's County, which Wilder calls his program's "next biggest area" for getting players.

For the Tidewater kids, Wilder's pitch is simple: Stay close to home, where everyone already knows you. Wilder acknowledged, however, that many of his Washington-area targets aren't aware of Old Dominion, so he talks up a town 25 miles away.

"We mention two words: Virginia Beach. Those kids have heard of it before," Wilder said. "It's three hours away and some of them have never been. But when you mention that to a lot of those kids, they can relate to it. Everybody associates Virginia Beach with good times."

When it begins play, the football team will be a division I-AA independent for two seasons -- making it immediately eligible for NCAA playoff consideration, Wilder perkily notes -- before competing the CAA in 2011.

By then, the players that sign with ODU tomorrow will be seniors (in their third year of athletic eligibility). So far, that first class includes Urbana All-Met lineman Erik Saylor, C.H. Flowers safety DeAnthony Jones, South River quarterback Bobby Cooper, Westlake lineman A.J. Wills, H.D. Woodson safety Craig Wilkins and Friendly's Davis. By choosing to come to Norfolk, this class is taking the longer view.

"The appearance right now is that of an old school," said Saylor's father, Scott. "But once they get done, it's going to be very nice."

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