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A Year of Good Intentions for Monarchs' Recruits

Courtesy: ODU Athletics
         
Release: February 10, 2008
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Feb. 10, 2008

NORFOLK, Va. -- Old Dominion's football coach, Bobby Wilder, has recruited players for a team that does not yet exist.

While others invited promising high school players to homecoming games, Wilder used his computer to show recruits a virtual game day. While others gave tours of practice facilities, Wilder pointed to a construction site. And while others told recruits about rivalries, Wilder told them that his team would not play any games next season.

"That part is going to be a little bit weird," said Devon Simmons, a defensive back from Denbigh High School in Newport News, Va., who is part of Old Dominion's first recruiting class since the team disbanded in 1940. The resurrected team is not scheduled to take the field until 2009, meaning that every new recruit will start out by sitting out.

High school football players throughout the country will make their college choices official when they sign letters of intent Wednesday. For many, it will end a long and taxing process that began several years ago.

In a sport in which tradition and recent success are among the most important springboards for recruiting, Old Dominion is trying to establish its program without benefit of either.

"There aren't a lot of chances in life to be the first at something," Wilder said. "You try to convince the kids they can be part of building a legacy."

For the recruits, the campus visits at Old Dominion, a 20,000-student public university, were unlike the others. There were no veteran players for them to speak to. The coaches offered no memories of bowl games, playoffs or conference championships. There was not much to show off.

A $24.8 million renovation of the 72-year-old football stadium, Foreman Field, is still in its early stages. The same goes for a new $17 million practice facility that will also hold the football offices.

"When I visited, everything was under construction," said Stephen Meadows, a senior at James Monroe High School in Fredericksburg, Va., who rescinded an oral commitment to the Monarchs last week. "It was all right, but all they could really do was point and say: `That's where the practice field is going to be. That's where your football dorms are going to be.' "

Still, Old Dominion expects to sign at least 20 scholarship players on Wednesday, several of whom were also recruited by universities in the N.C.A.A.'s top tier.

This group will eventually be joined by walk-ons. Next season, they will practice and go to meetings and study film, but they will play games only against one another. Every player will be a redshirt, turning the team into one giant practice squad.

"We're basically going to just be beating up on each other for a year and a half," said defensive back Ricky Nichols, who attends Maury High School in Norfolk. "It will feel strange for a little while."

In 2011, after two seasons as an independent, Old Dominion will join the Colonial Athletic Association, one of the top conferences in the N.C.A.A.'s Football Championship Subdivision, formerly Division I-AA. The Monarchs are members of the conference in other sports.

Wilder focused much of his recruiting effort within a 25-mile radius of Norfolk. Looking for good high school players in the area is like looking for shoppers at a mall.

The N.F.L. players Michael Vick, Aaron Brooks, Ronald Curry and Plaxico Burress all played for high school teams in the region, as did current college stars like Florida wide receiver Percy Harvin and Virginia Tech quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Nine of Old Dominion's 20 commitments came from the area.

Wilder has 63 available scholarships to spread over the next five years. The rest of the roster will be filled by walk-ons.

On Thursday, the team will hold an open tryout for current students. Wilder made certain that he was specific about the requirements in the advertisements for the tryout.

"I talked to the coaches at South Florida, and they said when they started their team and had a tryout, 600 people showed up," Wilder said. "And these were people that weren't even in college. It was just guys of all ages looking to live the dream."

Despite the university's excitement surrounding its new team, 576 days remain until the Monarchs open the 2009 season. For Wilder, the challenge will be building and sustaining the program's momentum, as well as keeping the incoming freshmen from becoming discouraged by the practice-only setup.

To spice up the monotony, he said, the team will not practice as often as a full-time team and will go on short trips to make some practices feel like away games.

He is eager to get started.

In his office is an Old Dominion game ball that has not been used. On the wall is a computerized illustration of what the renovated Foreman Field will look like. In the illustration, the stadium is packed with fans, the cheerleaders are performing near an end zone and the players are at midfield for the coin toss.

"It will look just like that before we know it," Wilder said.

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