Swimming with the Sharks while flying high in the Clouds
Feb. 4, 2013
Knowing his Old Dominion University football program was about to make a hyper-leap from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision, head coach Bobby Wilder needed a way to level the playing field when it came to recruiting.
Six days after the Monarchs’ 2012 season ended in a disappointing loss to Georgia Southern in the quarterfinals of the FCS Championships, Wilder sat in his office staring at a TV screen. He had spent the previous five days on the road on recruiting trips to California and Texas. Wilder made the flight arrangements only hours after the loss, and was in the air Sunday morning, less than 24 hours after that loss.
He knew the Monarchs needed to significantly upgrade their talent pool and its depth because the Monarchs open next season with road games at East Carolina and Maryland. So here’s what he experienced during those five days:
- Long TSA security lines;
- Cramped quarters, and when you are 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, a commercial flight seat is pretty cramped;
- People who wanted to chat him up when his time would be better spent studying the profile of the recruit he was about to meet;
- Standing at baggage claim, watching the carousel circle while he waited for his luggage.
Flying “coach” isn’t optimum for a “coach.”
So as the DVD played and he watched the end result of what was otherwise a wonderful 2012 campaign (it ended with an 11-2 record and a No. 6 ranking), Wilder sat in silence. He was in need of a serious pick-me-up.
Steve Ballard provided it.
For those unfamiliar with Ballard, he’s the guy in charge of S.B. Ballard Construction. His name is on Foreman Field, as in S.B. Ballard Stadium at Foreman Field. Ballard’s company spruced up Foreman Field for ODU’s start of football in 2009, to the tune of about $28 million, give or take.
“Hey Bobby, meet me at Fellini’s for lunch,” Ballard said.
If there’s one thing Wilder has learned over the years, it’s that “Steve Ballard” and “lunch” usually means a pleasant surprise is in store. Wilder wasn’t expecting the surprise Ballard was about to unwrap, but here’s a couple of things you need to know about Steve Ballard. He’s a Norfolk boy and a Maury High grad, and he loves ODU football.
Knowing Wilder needed to make every minute of this recruiting season count, Ballard lent Wilder his private jet.
Ballard told Wilder he could use the jet for 25 flight hours leading up to National Signing Day, which is this Wednesday. And as they walked out of the restaurant, Ballard had these words of advice: “Go get us a defense.”
He may or may not have thrown in a colorful adjective somewhere in that statement.
Most of us can put a price on a 1996 Taurus with 110,000 miles on it. Or at least we can come reasonably close. But what’s 25 hours of flight time on a Beechcraft King Air B200 worth? Monetarily, it’s worth, oh, probably something approaching six figures. There’s fuel. And there are pilots to pay. And there are fees. And…it gets pricey. But that’s just the money part.
Besides, if Wilder wanted to get to the places he needed to get to, money was going to be spent anyway. That’s why teams have recruiting budgets.
What this gave Wilder was a way to close any perceived gap with the competition. And last week, Wilder had a day that embodied the new level ODU’s football recruiting has reached. He began the day in Trenton, N.J. From there, he flew to Greensboro, N.C., and from there he flew to Norfolk…which was weird because it wasn’t the day’s last stop.
“I flew into Norfolk to make a recruiting trip to Ocean Lakes High School (in Virginia Beach),” Wilder said. “I never thought I’d fly into Norfolk, where we are, to make a recruiting trip.”
By day’s end, Wilder had flown to John F. Kennedy International on Long Island. In twelve hours, Wilder had visited four states, four recruits and two other elite programs on the East Coast to say hello or try to land a recruit.
Wilder has always been pretty good on his feet. In other words, he can woo a recruit and close the deal. But having Ballard’s jet at his disposal also made him good in his seat.
While in the air, Wilder was able to spread out paperwork on a tabletop and get work done. Across from him sat offensive coordinator Brian Scott. While flying “Air Ballard” as Wilder refers to it, the duo developed strategies for face-to-face meetings that were on their day’s agenda, they completed scholarship paperwork, and they analyzed the positions they needed help at.
They got stuff done.
“The only time we had to lift our heads or pay attention to something else was when the pilot updated our itinerary,” Wilder said. “Ballard’s timing on offering this up was perfect. This is what I’ve referred to as our ‘second’ first class of recruitment. In 2008, we recruited our first class, but this is our first FBS class and to recruit a top class we needed a recruiting edge.
“This recruiting class is by far, top to bottom, our best overall class to this point. We brought in 11 recruits at midyear. We have 21 commitments from people we believe we will sign on Wednesday. We will have between 32 and 35 players signed in this recruiting class and we answered the needs of every position on our roster. In 25 years of coaching, that’s never happened and I’ve never felt like I do about this class.”
Wilder said the jet was an ace in the hole that he put to use.
“Saban and Miles fly on private jets to recruit football players,” Wilder said, referring to two of college football’s biggest personalities, Alabama coach Nick Saban and LSU coach Les Miles. “Bobby Wilder doesn’t do that. But I saw results in the eyes of the recruits when I told them I’d flown by private jet just to see them. Nothing says ‘big-time football’ like a private jet. And we needed to hang onto the kids we have and go get some others, because right now we are swimming with the sharks.”
Whether the jet that Ballard loaned Wilder put the Monarchs over the top in the last two months won’t be known for a couple of years. It takes time to reap recruiting rewards, although fans like to treat National Signing Day like college football’s equivalent to Mardi Gras (by the way, Mardi Gras this year is Feb. 12).
And here’s a little info you can throw around: The Mardi Gras parade falls on “Fat Tuesday,” the day before Ash Wednesday.
Maybe this Wednesday will be ODU’s Mardi Gras, for it appears the Monarchs might “Get fat” in a very good way with this recruiting class.