McNeese State got a new head football coach and there is no doubt the university hierarchy believes they found the right one.
The Cowboys also hired a philosopher, master of metaphors, recruiting guru, super scout, expert evaluator of football talent and a dash of Sunday preacher with the fire and brimstone to match.
The full scope and range of Frank Wilson were on display when he was introduced as the Cowboys’ 17th head coach before an anxious and accepting crowd of fans, supporters, boosters, politicos, a number of players and a few current assistant coaches who turned out in mass inside McNeese’s End Zone Club Room.
The fact that Wilson is the first ever black head football coach at McNeese and only the second in the history of the Southland Conference can’t be discounted, as the Cowboys enter a new decade that begins with a recently announced NCAA academic probation and a dire need for program stability.
“It just lets you know how far we’ve come,” proclaimed McNeese President Dr. Daryl Burckel. “We want quality. The package of this man had nothing to do with race. But as an example for young African-American students and athletes to say that you can achieve, this is a great win. [Race] was never even a contemplation. We just said Frank Wilson is our man. This is just a great add on to it — our first African-American head football coach at McNeese.”
Wilson’s resume and coaching background is vast and catches your attention. There’s his role as associate head coach and recruiting coordinator under Les Miles at LSU; his assistant coaching positions under Lane Kiffin at Tennessee and Larry Fedora at Southern Miss. Wilson was actually Ed Orgeron’s first hire while the current LSU head coach was at Ole Miss.
He left LSU after five years in 2016 to try his hand at being the head man at Texas-San Antonio, a newcomer to FBS football in Conference USA. There was early success. A bowl game season. But injuries to quarterbacks and coaching staff turnover meant the wins were harder to come by, and Wilson was staring at a not so sparkling 19-29 overall record after four years.
UTSA decided last December a change of direction was needed and Wilson was let go.
While enjoying some family time and the holidays, Wilson says he was entertaining opportunities in the college ranks and NFL. And then the McNeese job caught his attention.
During his public introduction, Wilson spoke of calls with his agent who kept gauging his interest in the McNeese job and repeated questions and concerns about salary, budget and facilities. But Wilson said he responded repeatedly … “I want it,” and pretty soon his agent got the message.
With his success and reputation as of the country’s top collegiate recruiters, Wilson could have had his pick of numerous jobs at larger FBS programs and maybe in the NFL. But something drew him to the Cowboys. He spoke of his “envy” of McNeese during his playing days at Nicholls State; of his opinion that it was one of the “premier” programs in Louisiana and the Southland Conference; that it had the university administration that “bleed blue and gold and believe in it.” These were all reasons for Wilson to decide to seek and accept the job.
His philosophical nature and tendencies are strong and were evident in his explanation of why McNeese was right for him at this juncture in his coaching career.
“We started a book and we were right in the midst of our chapter before there was a pause (his departure from UTSA). We weren’t finished just yet; there were still more chapters to this book, and (we hoped) to build something very prominent. This job, unlike the one I just left, has something very unique. Rich tradition. Extreme amount of pride. Things that you don’t necessarily have to invent. It’s here. It’s been done here before (winning). It’s been done here at a very high level and consistently,” Wilson said.
“This football program is the front porch of our great university. As our football program goes, so does our university. When a president (Burckel) looks you in the eyes and says to you, ‘I’d like you to be the face of our program,’ it’s endearing and special and an opportunity that I could not pass by — to get back to the great state of Louisiana to do what we do best.”
When you do this media and reporting work as long as I have, you develop a pretty keen B.S. meter when it comes to dealing with coaches — from high school, to major colleges and the pros. I like to think I have a sense for truth, sincerity and genuineness.
Wilson is all of the above and more.
If you follow college football, you know of his reputation as a top-level recruiter honored with numerous national awards for his talents. Wilson has not only recruited a massive list of star players everywhere he has gone, but his ability to work with and develop these special players to reach even higher levels of achievements is undeniable.
Wilson points to former LSU star safety and current Kansas City Chief Tyrann Mathieu and New Orleans Saints first-round draft pick defensive end Marcus Davenport (who was recruited by and played for Wilson at UTSA) as two players destined for FCS level schools before Wilson put his eyes on them.
His process involves extensive evaluation, assessment and projection of where the player will be down the line. “I think it’s important that you have a trained, discerning eye that has the ability to see the student athlete, not necessarily of what he is now but what he is going to be in years to come.”
Imagine what Wilson can do with raw and maybe below-the-radar type athletes that he can attract and sign to wear the blue and gold. That innate and special coaching skill has been missing at McNeese for a while now. Good players come in, but many haven’t elevated to being great players. When a coaching staff hasn’t established a consistent protocol of evaluation, projection and enhancement of players’ skills, your rosters will always have talent voids in critical positions.
You can compensate and mask some of that well enough to win conference championships, but that’s where it usually ends. That’s why the Cowboys have not been able to secure a playoff berth in four years, and haven’t won a post-season game since 2002.
Burckel and athletic director Bruce Hemphill did not give a second thought to Wilson’s losing record at UTSA. Burckel, a former player at McNeese, said his head coaching experience and his many intangibles were more important. These intangibles are Wilson’s unique ability to connect with players and their families.
The 46-year-old Wilson has proven he can find star talent, sign it and develop many of these players into All Americans and NFL stars, including Leonard Fournette, Darius Guice, Devin White, Tyrann Mathieu, Odell Beckham, Jr., Jarvis Landry, Jeremy Hill and Spencer Ware, to name a few.
Wilson puts his heart and soul into his players both on and off the field; during their collegiate playing career and after they have left. To a man, these players speak about the love and trust they have for Wilson and the impact he has had on their lives.
That trust and loyalty are rooted in Wilson’s DNA and how he seeks to first build a relationship with the players and their parents and allows that to evolve in their recruitment. “I think it’s important when you talk to a student athlete and their parents that you are a keen listener and allow them to tell you what they desire. And then (you must) be able to map out a blueprint of this is how we will achieve all the things you desire from an academic standpoint, from a social standpoint and an athletic standpoint, (and in) post-graduation as well,” explained Wilson.
“We know how to do this. We’ve done it and have a blueprint so all your dreams and desires can become a reality.”
Wilson wasn’t behind the pulpit and didn’t have a choir behind him. But his message and belief were clear when he explained what happens “when the coach recognizes how profound, how powerful it is with the power of the tongue. To impact lives. To shape lives. To change lives. And in some rare cases, to save lives of young men.”
Frank Wilson – Inspire to Aspire — Relationship and Recruiting 101. He spoke with an impassioned delivery, layered with tone, emotion and the perfect preacher’s rhythm from behind the podium at his introduction while casually seated at a table with the assembled media.
His presence and ability to capture the room are qualities that Burckel noticed early in the interview process and obviously gravitated to. Burckel says Wilson’s resume rose to the top among the 30 or so applicants he and the four person search committee reviewed.
Burckel, who has now fired one head coach and hired two more in less than 18 months, said the administration “will now have to keep up with his (Wilson’s) vision and mission because he has a big one.” But that mission can only be attained if the new coach is committed to staying and not jumping at the first job offer that may come along.
“I looked him in the eye and I said, ‘We need stability.’ If you are not going to be here and if you use this to go somewhere else, please don’t come, because our kids can’t take it. He said, ‘I am here’ and committed. So I am taking him at his word. I think he is a man of character and integrity,” Burckel continued.
We got a glimpse of that character when Wilson admitted that he “owns” the results of his four years at UTSA that obviously did not go as he wanted. His Roadrunners were 7-17 over the last two seasons.
Wilson seems to have come to terms with the struggles from his first head coaching stint and vowed he has learned from it, is better for it and is motivated for the next step. “I am a better coach today than I was four years ago. There were many things that happened that you don’t always understand why they are happening, but you come out of it; they are no longer wounds, they’re scars. You are able to move forward and take that next step.”
The New Orleans native doesn’t feel he needs to prove or restore his coaching credibility, but instead is ready to move on with renewed confidence. “Not necessarily a redemption, if you will, but better. Better because of that experience. And better and more readily prepared to take the next step to elevate our program where it rightfully should be.”
That is similar to Orgeron’s experience as a first-time head coach at Ole Miss, where Wilson worked with Coach O, focusing on the running backs and specials teams from 2005 to 07.
Orgeron has talked freely about his failures and mistakes in Oxford after he was fired with a losing record. Some years of hard self-examination and realizations helped Orgeron learn from his errors. He adapted and evolved into a better football coach. And you see how that turned out.
Burckel says Coach O, who has become close to the McNeese program ever since son Cody joined the team as a walk-on three years ago, endorsed Wilson calling his hire a “home run” for the Cowboys.
He’s a home run hire who does not come with the knock it out of the park size salary Wilson is accustomed to. Reportedly he has a three-year contract for $200,000 annually. By comparison, UTSA paid Wilson a base salary of $975,000, with supplemental bonuses and incentives that put him well over $1 million a year.
Wilson showed his lighter side when he admitted he didn’t accept the McNeese job for the money. That brought the room filled with media, along with Hemphill and Burckel, into a full-throat laughter, with Wilson laughing the loudest.
“This was not a money move job for me,” Wilson said as the chuckles faded. “It was one that was pure. It was one that is genuine and sincere to be a part of a great university. To be a part of a great administration and lead a program back to what we have always been.”
And he will lead McNeese into a new era — one beginning with academic and recruiting uncertainty. All the while, he will be blazing a historic path as the school’s first African-American head football coach.
If there is anyone ready and suited for that role it’s Frank Wilson. “I allow myself to be used to inspire the next generation; the next young minority coach who has those same hopes and dreams and desire of being a head coach, much like the Tony Dungys and Denny Greens of the world have done for me. They were the giants, the trendsetters, and I hope only to walk minuscule in those guys’ footsteps. To be used as an inspiration for other young minorities is something I take pride in.”
I couldn’t help but notice how often Wilson referred to his new team as “we” and “us,” and not McNeese or the Cowboys.
He is smart, thoughtful, articulate and measures his words carefully for meaning and impact. He met with the team and the remaining coaching staff on the same day he was introduced as the Cowboys’ new head coach.
Part of his first message to the players was about the fact that “you don’t have to look for love and caring in all those places; that you will receive it here.” Those comments were primarily aimed at any athlete thinking of transferring or worried about the program’s leadership. Wilson said, “that love will happen on the football field, in the class room and in their everyday lives.”
Wilson believes when you start with that, everything else will take care of itself.
Rick Sarro’s perspectives and commentary can be heard on Soundoff 60 Monday through Sunday evenings at 9 pm on Suddenlink cable channel 4 and Saturday and Sunday on CBS Lake Charles/KSWL. Check local listings.