Minium: Bobby Wilder acted quickly and decisively to address major concerns with ODU's football program
By ODU Athletics
By Harry Minium
It was obvious after Old Dominion finished its worst football season ever with an embarrassing, 27-13, loss at Rice that change was needed.
But the need for change first occurred nearly three months earlier to coach Bobby Wilder following a 52-10 loss at Liberty on Sept. 1.
A senior oriented team that vowed to get back to a bowl game, ODU generated little offense and didn’t score in the second half. Meanwhile, the defense had no answers for the Flames, who ran away with a game that ODU was a 7-point favorite to win.
“We took a punch in the mouth that night, and spent the rest of the season trying to fix it,” Wilder said.
“Obviously, we didn’t get it done.”
Wilder didn’t waste any time shaking up things. On Sunday he fired four assistant football coaches, including defensive coordinator Rich Nagy and offensive line coach Chris Malone, the former Virginia Tech standout.
He also fired two defensive back coaches: Kermit Buggs, the former Norfolk State star and Penn State assistant, and Sam Perryman, a Lehigh graduate who coached three seasons for ODU.
On Monday morning, he fired Ryan Martin and Joe Makovec, ODU’s strength and conditioning coaches. Both have been with ODU since its first season in 2009.
These were not easy decisions to make, he said at a press conference Monday afternoon. All are good coaches and good men, he said.
Coach Bobby Wilder said his decision to fire six people from his staff was painful but necessary.
“It’s been an extremely emotional 24 hours,” Wilder said. “These are six good men, six good people who loved and cared about Old Dominion and our players. I will be forever grateful for their time, their energy and their friendship.
“But when you have back to back losing seasons, you need to look at everything. I made the changes I think we needed to make.”
He said he has tasked offensive coordinator Brian Scott with also coaching the offensive line, in addition to running the offense. Scott coached ODU’s offensive line in the early years of the program.
“He’s a good football coach,” Wilder said. “We’ve been fairly consistent here offensively with his leadership.
“I want to go back to how our offensive lines were back when he coached. We need that ability up front.”
Malone will be replaced with a tight ends coach.
Before heading off on a recruiting trip, Wilder confirmed that all 18 players previously committed to ODU remain so, in spite of the coaching changes.
“We’ve got an excellent class,” he said. “And they’re all still in.
“They understand why I did what I did. They committed to Old Dominion because they want to be part of something special.”
He said his top priority is hiring a defensive coordinator and strength coach, and he will do interviews while on the road recruiting.
One potential candidate for defensive coordinator surfaced during the press conference: Brad Lambert, who was recently fired as head coach at Charlotte, and who has a background as a defensive coordinator.
Asked by Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press columnist David Teel about Lambert, Wilder smiled and said “I'm a big fan of Brad Lambert.”
Wilder received a rousing ovation from about 8,000 fans at ODU's last home game in spite of a disappointing record.
As usual, Wilder was upbeat and positive, calling this season’s 4-8 record a blip “that we’re going to turn into a positive.”
But clearly, he looked emotionally and physically drained. Such is the case when you fire six good friends.
Coaches spend most waking hours of a day together and travel not only to games, but on recruiting trips. Once a week during the season, ODU’s coaches and families gather for a community meal.
Letting Nagy go must have been particularly painful.
Wilder and Nagy coached together at Maine from 1990 through 1992. They were close friends. I got to know Rich’s wife and two daughters, because they often came to practice, and you can tell he’s a good father and husband.
Buggs hugged me every time he saw me. Malone and I sat down and talked about personal problems as much as football. I didn’t know Perryman well, but he also seemed like a good guy.
But college football is a tough business. Change was necessary. Whether this was enough to right the ship, we’ll have to see.
The firings addressed four concerns that I, along with a ton of ODU fans, have had about the program this season.
ODU’s defense has struggled, for the most part, since ODU moved up to the Football Bowl Subdivision in 2014, and at times even during the salad days when the Monarchs were a national power in the Football Championship Subdivision.
That wasn’t the case in 2016, when ODU’s defense was ranked 49th nationally under Nagy. ODU won ten games and the Bahamas Bowl. The defense has since regressed, and rarely ever was it as bad as this season.
The Monarchs finished last in Conference USA rushing defense (216.4 yards per game) and total defense (471.4 yards per game), 13th in scoring defense (36 points) and 12th in passing defense (255 yards per game).
Although ODU’s passing defense improved in the second half of the season, far too many times blown coverages by defensive backs left wide receivers wide open for touchdown passes.
The tackling was at times awful, especially in Saturday’s loss at Rice, a 1-11 team and that had lost 11 in a row.
When Wilder met with his team on Monday, he reminded the players that ODU led FIU, 17-0, in the second game of the season. But two blown coverages led to easy touchdown passes for the Panthers, who won, 28-20.
FIU, he told them, is 8-4 and is headed for the Bahamas Bowl.
“Why is there a new defensive coordinator? Because we’ve got to have an ability to play good defense,” Wilder said.
“If we’re in the middle of the pack on defense this year, I think we’re an 8-4 team. Just the middle of the pack. That’s the difference between 4-8 and 8-4.”
2. Offensive line
ODU’s O line has struggled for several years. Quarterbacks Taylor Heinicke and David Washington were so good, and so elusive, that some of the deficiencies were masked.
Quarterback Blake LaRussa had an outstanding season, finishing second in the conference with 274.1 yards per game. And who can forget his 495-yard passing performance in ODU’s 49-35 upset of Virginia Tech?
But Blake isn’t as agile as Heinicke or Washington, and took a beating this season.
Malone had three seasons to fix the O line, and that’s probably not enough time given how long it takes to recruit and develop linemen.
ODU’s rushing offense was 10th in the league largely because running backs could not find open holes. The good news is that Scott will have some very good, young players to work with.
ODU has not recruited particularly well in recent years. This year’s class is so far ranked third in Conference USA by the 247Sports recruiting service.
That would be ODU’s best finish since 2014, ODU’s first true FBS recruiting class, when the Monarchs ranked second.
Ranking recruiting classes is an inexact science, but that class in 2014 brought standouts Ray Lawry, Oshane Ximines, Travis Fulgham, Jonathan Duhart, Nick Clarke and Isaiah Harper to ODU.
In the four seasons since, ODU has been in the second division: 10th in 2015, 12th in 2016 and 13th in 2017 and 2018.
Recruiting is a group effort. It falls on every coach to recruit well. This is one area where ODU appears to have already improved.
Offensive coordinator Brian Scott will coach ODU's offensive line, in addition to running the offense.
ODU opens next season in a stadium undergoing a $67.5 million overhaul. That will not only provide fans with a comfortable place to watch a game, it has already helped recruiting, Wilder said.
Wide receivers coach John Allen, who should get credit for doing much to improve ODU’s passing game this season, is the new recruiting coordinator. He and ODU’s remaining coaches hit the road on Monday in anticipation of the early signing period begins on Dec. 19.
Expect Wilder to try to plug some holes with junior college players. ODU needs immediate help on defense.
4. Strength and conditioning:
I’m not expert in this area, but it was obvious that other mid-major teams, such as Marshall and Middle Tennessee, had stronger players than ODU.
Was that the fault of the conditioning coaches? That’s difficult for me to say. But Wilder said change was necessary here, too.
“I’m going to look for a guy who knows how to get our players bigger, faster and stronger,” he said. “And someone with energy and enthusiasm.
“We have a fairly young team and they need that kind of enthusiasm.”
Some fans on social media and message boards have been calling for Wilder’s head on a platter. But athletic director Wood Selig expressed confidence in Wilder and I think most fans agree.
On Nov. 17, when Wilder stood on a podium and spoke to about 8,000 fans at the celebration of Foreman Field’s final game, he got a thunderous ovation.
He’s been ODU’s only coach – he was hired in 2007 to start the program from scratch and quickly turned ODU into an FCS powerhouse. He then took the Monarchs into FBS and Conference USA, where more often than not, the Monarchs have struggled, but not nearly as much as other programs moving up.
ODU has had winning records in six seasons, but losing records in three of the last four.
Selig said Wilder is being given the resources necessary to fix what ails ODU.
“Bobby is addressing the areas of need within the program,” Selig said. “And he is making moves to put ODU football in position to have the type of success that we have all known and enjoyed for majority of first decade of football.”
Injuries played a huge role in ODU's record. So did storm delays in the first three games. A 28-25 loss at Charlotte occurred after the Monarchs have departed Norfolk two days earlier to avoid a hurricane. ODU received 24 hours notice that the game was going to be played two days earlier than originally scheduled.
There was also a 37-35 loss at East Carolina where the Conference USA refereeing crew blew a big call, ruling a Justice Davila interception with 50 seconds left an incomplete pass. His INT would have ended the game. Instead, ECU kicked a field goal that left ODU 1-4.
"I'm trying to avoid saying anything that sounds like an excuse," Wilder said, when asked about the injuries and storm issues.
Asked by The Virginian-Pilot’s Ed Miller to assess his own performance, Wilder acknowledged that in the end, his team’s record reflects on the head coach.
“A head coach is always, performance is always related to record,” he said. “And just like this football team, I need to improve. And that is the goal.
“I go back to the fact that we’ve won a lot of football games here. We have had a good football team, and we will again next year.”
ODU year by Year
2018, 4-8, 2-6 Conference USA
2017, 5-7, 2-6 Conference USA
2016, 10-3, 7-1 Conference USA, Bahamas Bowl champion
2015, 5-7, 3-5 Conference USA
2014, 6-6, 4-4 Conference USA
2013, 8-4, FBS transition season
2012, 11-2, 6-2 CAA; CAA champion, third round FCS playoffs
2011, 10-3, 6-2 CAA, second round FCS playoffs
2010, 8-3, FCS startup independent
2009, 9-2, FCS startup independent