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Virginian Pilot feature on Rob Wilkes and his Family

Courtesy: ODU Athletics
         
Release: December 30, 2008
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Dec. 30, 2008

Feature story by Rich Radford of the Virginian Pilot. Appeared on Dec. 30, 2008

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NORFOLK

There are forks in the road of life where people are challenged.

Do I do the right thing, the noble thing?

Or do I take the easy way out?

Rob Wilkes hit that fork in April 2005, a month before he was to get married. When his bride-to-be, Tracy Austgen, asked what he thought of becoming foster parents, Wilkes could have balked.

Wilkes, an assistant coach for the Old Dominion men's basketball team, wanted kids. But the plan had been for children of their own.

Austgen, however, had a 14-month-old nephew living on a foster farm in Vero Beach, Fla. The victim of a scuttled marriage, Johnny Austgen had become a ward of the state.

"The little guy was put in 'The System' when he was 14 months old," she said.

Tracy Austgen was preparing to give her heart to her husband-to-be, but on a fateful trip to check in on her nephew, her heart cracked.

This was the fork in their road.

A month before they were to marry, Wilkes and Austgen applied to become Johnny Austgen's foster parents. It was a process that would stretch 10 months.

During summer 2005, Rob went about diligently recruiting Keyon Carter. Meanwhile, Tracy maneuvered through the legal system in her chase for Johnny. Her background in law - she's a nurse legal consultant specializing in malpractice case work - helped.

By the time Johnny left Vero Beach to join his new family in Virginia, Tracy was three months pregnant with the couple's first child.

Or should that be their second? Now they have three.

After taking in Johnny in February 2006, Finley was born that July. Talan followed in July 2007.

In basketball terms, man-to-man defense no longer worked. Mom and Dad were forced to play zone.

"It's not like having twins or triplets, but it's not far from it," ODU head coach Blaine Taylor said. "Rob and Tracy waited until later in life to start a family, then it was 'Bang! Bang! Bang!'"

Wilkes went from being a high-strung, no-strings-attached assistant coach to the calm, collected guy with a plan, the coach with every minute accounted for. There is a gleam in his eye, a newfound accountability.

He always had wanted to coach and follow in his father's footsteps. Glenn Wilkes won 552 men's games in 36 years at Stetson, and the court there is named after him. And brother Glenn Jr. is head women's coach at Rollins College.

Rob Wilkes once coached simply because it was his first love and it was in his blood. Now, there are mouths to feed, and the desire to one day be a head coach has ratcheted up.

"I look at my brother and realize it's good to be the boss," Rob Wilkes said. "He practices his team at 6 a.m. Why? So he can be at home with his kids in the afternoon. Part of being a head coach is you get to set the ground rules."

Taylor has been a first-hand witness to Wilkes' morphing.

"There was a time when Rob never missed a tee time and was a free bird," Taylor said. "Now, he's dropping the kids off here, running them there. It's a busy, busy time. It's taught him to manage that time effectively and efficiently. He really had to sharpen his organizational skills."

Johnny's arrival came in the middle of the 2006 basketball season. ODU was on its way to a 24-10 mark and a trip to the NIT semifinals. It was a long run that would end near the end of March at Madison Square Garden.

Rob Wilkes was on the road a lot.

Turns out, it was perfect for Tracy.

"I had a lot of time to spend with Johnny one on one," she said. "When we got him, he was 2 years, 4 months old, still in diapers and didn't talk much. We immediately got down to learning our ABCs."

In the backs of their minds, though, was the baby on the way. The summer was going to be challenging. They searched for a preschool, but the foster-home experience had limited some of Johnny's early development.

"Not all preschools are willing to work with that," Rob Wilkes said."

July can be the most stressful month for a college basketball coach. The summer is about recruiting and finding that next special player.

Rob spends much of each July on the road, traveling to AAU basketball tournaments to scouting.

Finley was born July 9 and Talan, their son, arrived a little more than 12 months later.

The rapid-fire growth wasn't without its moments. Two months after Finley's birth "Johnny rebelled, big-time."

"One day he pulled out all of my bottles of fingernail polish and started painting the rug in one of the rooms in the house," Tracy said. "Then there was the time when he took all the cans of Finley's formula and opened them and just threw it everywhere."

Meanwhile, there was the awkwardness of dropping Johnny off at preschool.

"While all the other kids were saying, 'bye-bye, Mommy' or 'bye-bye, Daddy,' Johnny was still calling us Uncle Rob and Aunt Tracy," she said.

"One day, one of the teachers said, 'You know, there's nothing wrong with him calling you guys Mommy and Daddy. You can explain it all to him later when he can better understand it.'

"I went home that day and thought to myself, 'She's right. Everybody wants to have a Mommy and a Daddy to call their own.'"

Uncle Rob and Aunt Tracy were no longer.

Mommy and Daddy had arrived.

Johnny Austgen is now 5. The week before Thanksgiving, Rob and Tracy Wilkes signed the papers finalizing their legal guardianship. They want to adopt him, but his birth mother hasn't fully conceded her rights. Tracy's brother - Johnny's natural father - calls once a week to chat with his son, but his legal problems have him out of the picture for years to come.

The Wilkeses, meanwhile, consider Johnny to be their oldest son. This past summer, he regularly accompanied Rob to the Monarchs' workouts at 7 a.m., then would go to school at 9, where he'd say "bye-bye, Daddy" like all the other little boys.

"You become attached very quickly," Rob Wilkes said. "It's difficult and it's not a bed of roses. But it wasn't a hard decision to take him in. We absolutely love him to death. We knew we were going to make a difference in his life. In reality, it was a no-brainer."

Some day soon, the whole family might make another appearance like they did when ODU played UAB at the Constant Center earlier this season.

That is, if Tracy ever gets up the nerve.

"It was crazy," she said. "Johnny's all into the game, watching the cheerleaders, watching Big Blue, dancing when the music plays. But Finley wanted to go left all afternoon while Talan wanted to go right. I was a little frazzled by the end."

It was chaos. Manic, blissful chaos. It's something to which Rob and Tracy Wilkes have become very accustomed.

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