Get the Max With Minium: Let me Take You into the Locker Room After ODU's Biggest Loss Ever, and Then Its Biggest Victory
By ODU Athletics
By Harry Minium
This story has a Hollywood ending, but like War and Peace, it will take a while to get there.
The protagonists wind up losing badly during my 36-hour odyssey with the Old Dominion football team. But the storyline here won’t be complete until three weeks later, when the Monarchs shocked the college football world by upsetting Virginia Tech.
As ODU prepared for what would be a disastrous road opener at Liberty, Coach Bobby Wilder granted me unfettered access to the team as it traveled to Lynchburg. I was allowed to ride the bus, attend every team meeting, watch the game from the sidelines and go into the locker room.
This story will take you behind the scenes of what a road game is like, from beginning to end, for ODU football.
It was a fascinating trip, and a dream come true for a sports journalist. There’s a 12-year-old still lurking inside my 65-year-old body who thinks hanging out with football players and coaches is cool.
Sometimes, though, your dreams turn to mush. Liberty shocked ODU, 52-10, in a game that was likely the worst defeat in ODU history.
ODU lost, but it wasn’t for lack of preparation or work. I was amazed at how much coaches do to prepare their team, how much work is done by the equipment staff, trainers, strength and conditioning coaches and graduate assistants and how hard it is on players.
Even after 39 years as a Virginian-Pilot reporter, I didn’t have an appreciation for all that a college football team goes through just to play one game. Sit back and enjoy as I take you behind the scenes.
Aug. 31, 2018
Wilder granted me permission to embed with the team on the condition that I be invisible, that I not take pictures or have my cell phone out during team meetings. Given that I covered ODU football the last six seasons for The Virginian-Pilot, there was no such thing as invisibility.
As the team gathers for a 2:15 p.m. meeting just before departing for Lynchburg, veteran players greet me with handshakes or knowing nods as we enter ODU’s meeting room
“What’s up Harry,” Oshane Ximines said as he walked into the meeting.
It’s already been a long day for the players. They arrived at the L.R. Hill Sports Complex by 8:15 a.m. at the latest, some an hour earlier. A majority of ODU’s 115 players lifted weights before an hour-long practice at 9 a.m.
After class, they arrived back at L.R. Hill for a quick list of dos and don’ts.
Wilder reminds the players they represent ODU, and that means be courteous to everyone at the hotel.
No one leaves the hotel. If you want to go to 7/11 to get something, ask us. We’ll take care of all of your needs.
Players are instructed on what to wear when. Then they get a brief pep talk from Wilder, who reminds them this opening game is what they’ve worked for through winter, spring and summer workouts.
“We’re going down there to do a job,” Wilder said. “Everything you’ve done up to now, all the work and preparation, is going to pay off tomorrow.”
This isn’t a typical meeting of 70 young people. No one is looking at their cell phones or day dreaming. Everyone is focused on Wilder. When Wilder asks, do you understand, 70 players answer “yes sir,” in unison.
It’s something I will soon become accustomed to.
Box lunches of Jimmy John’s subs are passed out and players, coaches and support personnel, more than 130 in all. We all board four Venture Tour buses with ODU football logos. A truck loaded with football equipment and other gear left a half hour ahead of us.
We have a police escort off campus. As travel down 43rd Street, students wave and shout. We head through the Mid-Town Tunnel through Portsmouth to Route 460, which will take us all the way to Lynchburg.
I’ve driven this route hundreds of times – when my wife and I were dating, it was a long-distance relationship, and this was the route to her home in suburban Richmond.
As we pass familiar landmarks, nearly the all the players nod off, most listening to music on their headphones. I wonder why they aren’t enjoying the beautiful countryside, small towns and fields full of corn, cows and horses.
I will find out later that it’s because their night has just begun.
We pull into Lynchburg Holiday Inn right on time at 6:30 p.m. Hotel keys are waiting for everyone by name. The players go to their rooms, hang out for a bit then head down for dinner.
Did I say dinner? Meant to say it was a feast. Roast beef, lasagna, veggy lasagna, mashed potatoes, string beans, broccoli, fruit and buckets of water and Gatorade on ice. No soft drinks are allowed because unlike water, they dehydrate you.
It’s buffet style, and some players balance two plates as they had back to their tables.
After dinner, at 7, the team breaks up into position meetings. I go to the offensive meeting, where associate head coach and offensive coordinator Brian Scott goes over video of that morning’s practice.
Coaches have broken down film from the morning’s practice – when they had time to do this, I don’t know – and Scott goes over every play in which they found mistakes and many which they didn’t.
“I love this play Dewey,” he says to wide receiver Jonathan Duhart. “When you get down the field, it really puts them into a bind.”
The players are quiet and attentive. Assistant coaches stand next to their players, and whisper advice as Scott talks. In the next room, defensive coordinator Rich Nagy is doing the same thing. The Monarchs look focused.
At 7:50, everyone converges in the room for a special teams meeting, where they go over more film, and where special teams coach Charles Bankins quizzes players on their duties on kickoffs, punts, field goal attempts and returns.
At 8:20 p.m., there is a brief team meeting, in which Wilder speaks. What happens after a big play, he asks? Ximines and others respond you celebrate with your teammates.
That’s right, Wilder says. You don’t go off and do something by yourself. This is a team game. If you score a touchdown, it’s because the offensive line blocked for you. Go hug an offensive lineman.
At 8:45 the meeting breaks up and players head for a “snack.” It’s no snack. It’s a burger and hotdog bar, with French fries. The big guys load up.
Wide receiver Isaiah Harper assures me this isn’t for show. “It happens on every road trip,” he said.
Wilder puts a burger on a plate and hands it to me.
“Eat up,” he says, “we’ve got a big game tomorrow.”
Instead, I go into a nearby meeting room, where trainer Nik Turner and his staff have seven tables set up to treat injuries.
A training room – that’s something I didn’t know went on the road with ODU. Duhart gets taped, while others are getting sore muscles massages, being treated with machines.
Center Nick Clarke is getting his knees massaged. After years of playing football, they need it.
Even when the team flies to Boca Raton, Fla., and Houston later this season, the training room goes with them.
“We’ve got to take care of our players wherever we go,” Turner said.
The players still have studying to do. Every player, from wide receivers to long snappers, have been given a written test. They are asked to diagram plays and to write down what their assignment are on each page.
“It’s more of a teaching tool than a test,” Bankins says.
Players can wander around the hotel, and visit each other in their rooms, until 10:30. That’s when graduate assistant coaches do a bed check. Everyone is in bed.
They know the consequences for being late is a “Monarch Reminder,” which means an invitation to run wind sprints at 10 a.m. Sunday morning.
Wilder told the players to sleep in until 10 a.m., an absolute luxury for guys who are usually up at 7 during the week to begin preparing for practice.
“Tomorrow’s going to be a long day,” he said as the meeting ended. “The fans are going to be right on top of you tomorrow,” he added. “But that’s a good thing. We should look forward to an atmosphere like that.”
He warns the players to be prepared for a rain delay.
“There could be a delay,” he said. “But that’s OK, because we’re ready for it. If we have to stay there until 4 a.m. to win this game, we will.”
The players clap, hoot and holler.
Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018
Most of the players didn’t quite sleep in until 10. Their body clocks just aren’t set for that. No one is late for the 10:30 a.m. breakfast, which is again a feast. Eggs, turkey bacon, pancakes, breakfast potatoes, bread, orange juice and for the coaches and imbedded reporter, coffee.
Quarterbacks coach Ron Whitcomb eats while looking at film on his I-Pad. The coaches were friendly and talked a lot on Friday, but they’re now more focused. Some are sending Twitter messages to recruits, a Saturday morning ritual. Others have their noses buried in tests the players turned in.
The players gather at 11 a.m. for another special teams meeting. The meeting opens with players hooting and clapping for Joe Joe Headen. It’s his birthday.
“DYJ,” Bankins said. “What’s that mean? It means do your job.”
By that he means if you’re assigned to cover a receiver, cover him and don’t run up to make a tackle if you think the quarterback is running because he’ll throw to the receiver you left open.
Trying to do too much can hurt your team.
“I slept great last night” he said. “Do you know why? Because I know we’re focused on the process of winning. We have a hell of a plan. There’s not much they can throw at us that we haven’t prepared for.”
Wilder then enters and has Harper and Ximines stand up. They are the team captains. He asks Duhart and Daniel Appouh to also stand. “Each week we’ll have two other guys also serve as captains. The guys who are joining them this week just had outstanding camps.”
He has the coaches go to the back of the room, and that’s to signify that it’s now the players’ turn to shine. We’ve done all we can for you. Go out and play well.
“It’s going to be hot and it’s going to be humid. And that’s good for us because we practiced outside. They practiced outside, but also in their indoor facility. We want it to be hot, right? We want to embrace that because we’re better prepared for it.”
The defense and offense then break up and do what’s called a “walk through.” I’m with the offense again and Scott has the offense, working at slow speed, run the top 15 or 20 plays they will use against Liberty. There are no mistakes.
“If we don’t turn it over, we’ll be in real good shape,” he said. “If you’re a young guy playing in your first game, rely on the older guys who have done it. Obviously, we’re going to be nervous. Rely on the older guys. And let’s go beat the hell out of them.”
The players are energetic and upbeat, but also nervous.
As noon, the players head back to their rooms. They have a few hours to relax.
They return at 2 p.m. for another sumptuous feast. When they’re done they head upstairs, pack their bags and come down prepared to head to Liberty.
Bankins and I chat for a while – my bags are already packed and in the lobby.
“People don’t realize how hard football players work,” he said. “They have no idea the hours they put it, the dedication it takes to play big-time football.”
Nor do they know how hard coaches work.
“I got a text from a fan who wanted to know what plans I had later today,” he said. “It’s a big undertaking. The bowls are even more interesting because you move your whole operation, including your offices.”
As we speak, Scott is in the corner, meeting with quarterbacks and graduate assistants, going over the game plan just one more time.
At 3:20, there is prayer meeting. It’s led by defensive line coach Jeff Comissiong, who keeps a bible on his desk at the L.R. Hill Center. Wilder has made clear the meeting is not mandatory, and a couple of players remain in the lobby
Commish, as people call him, gives a sermon that would make Liberty President Jerry Falwell proud. He talks about Martin Luther, the German priest who sparked the reformation, and thus the breakup of Christianity into Catholics and Protestants.
“I love this game, I love everything about it,” he said. “The thing I love the most about it is watching you grow as men and see you accomplish your goals. When you got here, you couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time.
“Now here you are, you 22 seniors, and you are leading this team. It’s amazing to think about what you accomplished here.”
He quotes line from a song written by Luther: “A mighty fortress is our God.”
“No matter what happens in our life, no matter what is put in front of us, we always have God by our side, our mighty fortress. We get our strength from him. We are also protected by him. There’s nothing he will put in front of us that we can’t endure.”
Ironic words that, give what ODU will face in a few hours. But as he said, the Monarchs endured.
“We asked so much of you in the off season, we challenged you so much every day, and here you are standing strong together. Defend your fortress today. It was built the right way.”
The team than says the Lord’s Prayer and the few standing outside enter the room.
Wendell Mitchem, the team’s video coordinator, put together a 20-minute video that brings goosebumps even to my arms. It’s an inspiring montage of preseason practice, with shots from prior seasons, set to upbeat music.
The players stand and cheer when it’s over. They appear ready to play.
Wilder again warns the team about the weather. “Whenever we play, we play,” he said. ‘I don’t care how long we have to stay here to win. We’ll stay here.
“At some point tonight, we’re going to get punched in the mouth. There’s a great Mike Tyson quote in which he says everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth. The key to who we are, or who I think we are, is that we will punch back.
“If they make a big play, we know their crowd is going to get into it, and that’s great. That’s good for them. Then you turn right around and beat the man across the field from you.”
The team then departs for the stadium. It’s a short drive, but takes about 20 minutes because of traffic. Liberty just made the jump to FBS, and this is their first home game against an FBS opponent. But as a private school with 100,000 online students and a $1 billion endowment, Liberty has money to burn.
The bus passes a $29.1 million indoor workout facility, one better than similar facilities at Virginia and Virginia Tech. Williams Stadium recently underwent an expansion to 25,000 seats, and is a luxurious a facility as you’ll find at a mid-major school.
The buses finally pull up to the back of the workout facility, where the visiting dressing room is located. The equipment truck is parked there and was unloaded Friday night. Jerseys, pads, shoes and everything else are all in the locker room.
Like most visiting locker rooms, it’s nice but cramped. It’s tough for 70 guys and two dozen coaches and others to fit into. Typically, ODU players walk onto the field early, and get a feel for how the turf is, and get accustomed to the surroundings.
No such luxury tonight. Shortly after the team arrives storms begin to brew and everyone is told to return to the locker room because lightening is striking nearby.
The team waits, in a hot, cramped, locker facility, for two hours. Most sit on the floor.
Liberty players have a luxurious locker facility with a player’s lounge. This is part of the home field advantage.
Wilder has done his best to prepare the team for the delay, but in reality, this is out of his control. His team was fired up and ready to go when they arrived. Now, they sit and wait.
The wait reminds me a little of a scene from Das Boot, a German movie about a World War II U-Boat, as sailors sat and waited for British ships dumping depth charges to pass. The locker room is almost as claustrophobic.
Finally, the word arrives, we go out on the field in 20 minutes. Players dress and Wilder comes down and hurriedly tells them they will stay on the field. There won’t be a chance for them to come back and hear final words from him.
As they hit the field, about 2,000 ODU fans, including the band, cheer. But the noise is drowned out by the Liberty perhaps 6,000 Liberty students who are indeed, right on top of ODU’s bench.
Jerry’s Jokers, a group of students who paint their faces like clowns, and named themselves in honor of Falwell, have memorized the names of ODU’s best players. They yell at them by name. ODU players look up and smile.
The students are hooting and pointing and two ODU players as they approach their bench, but then stop and show respect as the players kneel to pray.
Warmups are hurried and the players look nervous. ODU is bigger and more talented than Liberty. But an ODU official walks by and says, “I’ve got a bad feeling.”
Everything that can go wrong does go wrong for ODU. Busted plays, passes hitting the dirt in front of open receivers, receivers dropping balls. A wide open receiver in the end zone has a pass fall 5 yards in front of him. ODU misses two field goals.
Starting running back Kesean Strong gets hurt and Jeremy Cox, his backup, who is suffering from sore ankles, can’t find any holes.
Liberty scores two quick touchdowns, but ODU trails just 14-10 at the half and the defense is getting to take control. Twice Ximines plants quarterback Buckshot Calvert to the turf. It’s apparent that unless something changes, ODU’s defensive line will take control.
“I don’t want to hear anyone say we should be up by three touchdowns,” Wilder said, echoing the thoughts of everyone in the locker room. “What I want to hear is a determined team that is going to get a look in his eye and dominate the guy on the other side of the line. We are going to attack every single play.”
Liberty abandons drop back passes in the second half, and instead, has Calvert sprint out. That gives him an extra second or two to find open receivers.
But the problem here isn’t ODU’s defense. It’s the offense. ODU doesn’t sustain a drive. Liberty scores twice more late in the third quarter, and when it’s apparent the Monarchs are going to lose, the defense lets down, and Liberty wins, 52-10.
A dozen or so ODU players gather with Liberty players to pray at the end of the game. Even if you’re not religious, you’d have to admit it was good to see that kind of camaraderie.
Dr. Ed Gomes, who is Liberty’s director of spiritual development, leads the prayer and thanks ODU’s players for taking part.
Wilder is emotional in his postgame talk.
“Everyone needs to ask themselves, what more could I have done,” he said. “We have a long season. And we’re going to take our ass kicking like men. If any asks whose fault it is, we’re all going to say it was my fault.
“They made the plays, we didn’t. They called the rights plays offensively and defensively and we didn’t. We’ve got do a better job as coaches. And you’ve got to execute on the field. Was it really 52-10? Yes it was.
“But I for one plan to get right back on the bus and get right back to work.
“Your confidence is shook right now. You are a good football team, who got your ass kicked tonight. We’re come to come right back and work and become a better team.”
After a pause he said, “take care of each other right now. Take care of each other.”
Afterwards, when he meets with the media, he gave Liberty “a lot of credit for how they performed in critical situations.”
But he added: “You don’t judge a team after one bad performance. There were so many game changing opportunities that we missed.”
Slowly, the players get dressed and put their stuff on the bus. Equipment manager Daniel Cornier is busy with his staff repacking the truck.
Some players mingle with about 200 family members waiting near the bus. As I enter bus two, Nagy is looking at the game stats and shaking his head.
There is complete silence as the buses pull out. Graduate assistants keep their lights on as they go over stats they are compiling for the coaches. Most players go to sleep.
We finally arrive back at the L.R. Hill Complex at almost 3 a.m. Players carry their bags to the equipment room.
I get into my car and make a detour and drive by Foreman Field at S.B. Ballard Stadium. I get out of the car and walk around for a few minutes, trying to process what I just saw.
I watched ODU practice in the summer and thought this was a good team with great leadership. That wasn’t the same team I saw against Liberty. I wonder what this will do for their confidence, and whether they can come back.
I take one more look at the stadium, unaware of the miracle that will happen in just three weeks.
Sept. 22, 2018
ODU has since lost two heartbreaking games, a 28-20 defeat to FIU in which the Monarchs led, 17-0; and a 28-25 defeat at Charlotte where they missed three conversion attempts and two open receivers were overthrown in the end zone.
Storms interfered with both games, and was a huge factor in ODU’s loss at Charlotte. The team left Norfolk on Tuesday, unsure of what they would return to. Tidewater was supposed to get flooded.
They bused to Charlotte and had a 16-hour day, including a practice at a local high school. Then they learned on Wednesday the game would be played Thursday.
They were on the road, worried about family and weren’t focused. Under the circumstances, it’s amazing the game was close at all.
That dropped ODU to 0-3 and many fans, especially those on social media, lament that the season is lost.
But the 70 players at the Renaissance Hotel know better. They gaze at a spectacular view of downtown Norfolk, and then head into Comissiong’s prayer service.
Comissiong quotes from the Psalms and his message is simple.
“God provides you opportunities in life. It is up to you to take advantage of these opportunities,” he said.
“There’s nothing worse in life than chances not taken. You’ve got to take this chance.”
And do they ever.
Sept. 22, 2018
Because the media contingent was so large, there was no room for me in the press box, meaning I had to watch the game from the sidelines.
Thank goodness. It gave me close-up view of what would be the biggest night in ODU athletic history.
Although they are cheering loudly, many fans at Ballard Stadium confide to me they don’t believe their team has a chance. Virginia Tech, the biggest, baddest, most popular team ever to come to play at ODU, is a 29-point favorite to make ODU 0-4.
ESPN gave the Monarchs 1.8 percent chance of winning.
But here it is, with less than three minutes to go, and ODU leads the No. 13 Hokes, 42-35. Incredibly, each time the Hokies punched the Monarchs in the mouth, ODU punched back.
Quarterback Blake LaRussa, a heretofore unknown backup, has come off the bench to throw for 495 yards and four touchdowns against a Bud Foster-coached defense.
Jeremy Cox then runs for one first down, and the game is essentially over. All ODU has to do to end the game is take a knee.
Instead, Cox runs inside, bounces off a couple of defenders, and then races 40 yards for a touchdown. In a sense it was foolish. Giving Tech the ball back technically gives the Hokies a chance to win.
But who cares? The record crowd of 20,532 goes nuts. I’ve never heard Ballard Stadium so loud. Tech fans begin to leave as an ODU prep rally that will last half an hour begins.
Fans are changing, “ODU, ODU, ODU” in unison. They know they are witnessing the grandest victory in ODU sports history.
The game ends with an ODU sack and a Tech fumble, and as the horn sounds, thousands of fans run onto the field to celebrate. Some players head to the locker room, but Wilder calls them back to celebrate with ODU’s students.
I see tears in the eyes of long-time ODU employees, including Jena Virga, who heads athletic fundraising; and Tina Price, associate athletic director, and Bruce Stewart, the associate athletic director who does football scheduling.
Debbie White, who retired two years ago after working at ODU for decades, is sobbing like a baby.
ODU’s Tim Ward kneels down in prayer. Some players lay on the field and cry.
As Wilder finally returns from “the mosh pit” at the 50-yard line, he stops in front the four-story suites in the south end zone, still full of ODU fans drinking in the celebration. He raises his arms as the ODU chant begins again.
I’m in the locker room as players come in, trying to be invisible, but Derek Wilder, son of the coach, gives me a sweaty bear hug, lifting me off the ground. “We did it,” he screams.
Wilder and the players chant in the locker room, then he quiets the players so they can hear from President John R. Broderick and athletic director Wood Selig.
Broderick buried his father that morning in Connecticut. I watched both him and his wife, Kate, during the game, and both their faces were a mixture of grief over their loss and stress as the game ebbed and flowed.
He told the players that his father surely watched from on high. “To come back and get this, I can’t thank you enough,” he said.
Selig tells the players to savor this moment. “You will remember this for the rest of your life,” he said.
Then Wilder speaks and although he praises them, he also cautions them to handle the win with dignity.
I captured the speech, and other highlights, on my IPhone.
“You’ll be remembered now forever,” he said. “This is the first time we’ve ever hosted Virginia Tech, the first time we’ve ever beaten a Power 5 team and we beat the No. 10 team in the nation.
“Now we need to be able to handle it Do you understand what I’m saying.”
“Yes sir,” they said in unison.
“There’s nobody right now that should get on their phone and say or do anything disrespectful to Virginia Tech, because all you do is take away from the win. All you do is take away from our moment together if you go on social media and say anything about what you did to someone on the other team.
“This was a team win. We’ll celebrate this. But now we’ve got to handle success because we’ve got to East Carolina and repeat this.
“Yes sir,” the players shout.
“I want you to be proud but I want you to be humble. I want you to be a humble individual about what you just did. I want to share this with your friends and family, but most of all, share it with your teammates.
“Because this was a hard week. Everything we went through with Hurricane Florence, the loss we just had, to get what did this is a special win.
“This was a special moment, not just for the history of ODU sports, but for the history of Old Dominion.”
The victory, of course, blew up on social media. ODU football was the second most trending topic on Twitter Saturday night.
Wilder did four interviews on Sunday, including one on NBC national radio. On Monday, he was on CBS Sports Radio, a station in San Diego, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN national radio.
On Tuesday, he was again on CBS Sorts radio, the Cathy Lewis Show and did a segment on ESPN College Football live.
LaRussa and Ximines, who had seven tackles and two sacks, were also interviewed by national media. Some media members put LaRussa on their weekly Heisman Trophy ballot.
Statistics gathered by ODU indicate that there were 1,988 stories written about ODU and nearly 2,500 mentions of ODU on TV and radio. ESPN mentioned ODU 255 times over the weekend.
ODU was compared to giant killers Appalachian State and UMBC, and Athlon Sports said it was the fifth biggest college football upset of all time.
From the Los Angeles Times to the New York Times, ODU was headlined in stories.
The total reach of all outlets was 2.3 billion people.
“There are people who weren’t aware Old Dominion even played football who’ve heard of us now,” Wilder said during his weekly press conference.
“It was,” he added, “a program-changing victory.”
But it did nothing to alter the work ethic among ODU’s coaches. At 11:30 p.m., someone in the press box tried to reach Comissiong. They found him.
Four hours after the greatest victory in ODU history, as fans continued to celebrate all over campus, he was at the L.R. Hill Sports Complex, still defending his fortress.
He was watching film and would be there well beyond 1 a.m.
As I said, I had no idea how much work went into coaching football until I hit the road with the Monarchs.
Email Minium: email@example.com