Learning experience: Indiana's Kevin Wilson didn't fare too well as a high school football coach

Ask Bradley Seese who the best football coach he ever played for was, and the former offensive lineman will say without hesitation it was the one who didn't win a game.

Ask Jon Beaver which of his football coaches had the shrewdest offensive mind, and the ex-wingback will quickly nominate the guy calling plays for a team that failed to score a point in its homecoming game.

Ask Dwayne Finger to name the most organized, detail-oriented football coach he ever worked under, and the longtime defensive coordinator will immediately identify the man who got outscored 304-82 in their lone season together.

Twenty-four years after an 0-10 season at Fred T. Foard High School in Newton, N.C., served as Indiana University football coach Kevin Wilson's ignominious head coaching debut, many players and coaches from that team insist they're not shocked by his subsequent rise. They sometimes bristled at his authoritarian leadership and emphasis on discipline and they couldn't always execute his complex offensive schemes, but they also suspected even then that he might one day be successful at the college level.

"He was extremely intelligent, he was well-prepared and he knew football up one side and down the other," said Beaver, a junior during Wilson's lone season at Fred T. Foard. "Even though we went 0-10, I couldn't have asked for anything better. If he had stayed three or four years, Foard would have been playoff-bound every stinkin' year. It just was going to take a while to change the culture."

If a winless season at Fred T. Foard was a humbling experience for a young coach with big dreams, Wilson still doesn't regret the decision to dabble as a high school coach for one year. The 51 year old views that season as a learning experience that taught him he was far better suited for a level of football in which players were more committed and more driven, parents didn't drop by every week to ask why their sons weren't playing more and other coaches on the staff were as knowledgeable as he was.

Soon after his lone season at Fred T. Foard mercifully ended, Wilson accepted a job as an offensive line coach at Miami (Ohio) University and persevered through nine seasons there despite modest pay. He eventually parlayed his persistence into higher-profile jobs as an offensive coordinator at Northwestern and Oklahoma before jumping to Indiana, where he'll open his third season as head coach on Thursday night against Indiana State.

"What I learned from my year at Foard was patience and persistence," Wilson said. "I tried to go back home and coach at a high school in my backyard, but I think I realized it wasn't me and the college world was where my passion was. When I was at Miami (Ohio) the next nine years, instead of getting frustrated I hadn't moved on to the Big Ten or the ACC, I had the perseverance to hang in there when I was making $28,000 or $32,000 a year and I was a long way from home because I knew I was doing what I wanted to do."

Coaching football in college rather than high school was indeed a better fit for Wilson, and the challenge of trying to rebuild Fred T. Foard only reinforced that in his mind.

Since Fred T. Foard was a perennial basketball power with little football pedigree at the time, the school's best athletes typically gravitated toward hoops and avoided football out of fear of injury. The team Wilson inherited had a sophomore who had never played a varsity game at quarterback before, a senior at running back known for fumbling too often and a handful of undersized starting offensive linemen who weighed less than 200 pounds.

Modest talent alone wouldn't have doomed Fred T. Foard to a winless season, but lack of effort and dedication was also an issue. Previous coaches often didn't penalize top players for showing up late to practices and film sessions or skipping them altogether, forgoing discipline to try to put the best roster on the field for games.

"The best players had been given prima donna status because of their talent and skill," Seese said.

Added Beaver, "[Wilson] was dealt a very ugly hand. There was very little talent and probably less commitment."

Considering the environment in which Wilson was raised, it's no surprise he grew frustrated quickly that so many players at Fred T. Foard didn't share his passion for football.

Wilson grew up in the North Carolina foothills in football-crazed Maiden, a three-stoplight town that bills itself as "The Biggest Little Football Town in the World." Banners displaying pictures of Maiden High School's top football players still hang from the town's lamp posts each fall, team posters decorate store windows and even the community's baptist church typically has a sign on its marquee during football season that reads, "Go Devils!"

"Football games were the social event of the week in Maiden when we were playing," said Maiden football coach Butch Parker, a longtime friend of Wilson's. "At the old stadium we moved out of six or seven years ago, the players would run out of the tunnel onto the field and little kids would line up just to touch the players. At times, the away bleachers would be full for our road games before our bus even pulled in."

Since Wilson lived in a house across the street from Maiden's football stadium throughout his childhood and served as a waterboy during practices or games before he was old enough to play himself, he became immersed in the sport at an earlier age than most of his peers. Not long after he got called up to varsity as a high school sophomore, he was already savvy enough to help his teammates with their assignments in certain formations or to call out the opposing team's plays before they ran them.

Wilson started at center and middle linebacker at the height of longtime Maiden coach Tom Moore's heyday, leading the Blue Devils to the school's second Class 2A state championship in 1978. Though he was a good enough offensive lineman to earn scholarship offers from a handful of smaller schools, he chose to walk on at the University of North Carolina because he believed learning from the Tar Heels staff would make him better prepared to coach once his playing days were over.

In the six years after his playing career at North Carolina ended in 1983, Wilson worked as a graduate assistant for the Tar Heels and as an offensive line coach at North Carolina A&T and Winston Salem State. By the time he agreed to become Fred T. Foard's football coach and athletic director in 1989, he had developed an innovative yet uncompromising coaching style that borrowed from coaches under which he had previously played and worked.

Players at Fred T. Foard had to have their hair trimmed to a certain length before the season began. Assistant coaches received detailed minute-by-minute itineraries before practices and meetings to make sure no time was wasted. And weight training and film sessions that once were voluntary for players became mandatory.

To compensate for his team's lack of size on the offensive line and middling speed in the backfield, Wilson also implemented a Wing-T offense, which enabled his linemen to block via angles instead of having to manhandle bigger, stronger defenders across from them. Wilson was relentless in teaching his players the scheme, sometimes stopping practice to have an offensive lineman redo a play 10 or 15 times if he stepped the wrong way initially coming off the line of scrimmage.

"If Kevin did anything wrong, he probably threw too much at them," said Finger, Wilson's defensive coordinator that season. "Kevin would have built a great program if he had stayed a few more years at Foard because he was doing the right things, but his expectations were probably a little high for what the program was capable of that year. He came in and made all these changes for a school that wasn't ready for them."

The combination of an over-ambitious coach and a team with subpar talent and inconsistent work ethic not surprisingly produced very little success. Fred T. Foard lost its opening game of the 1989 season, 58-6, and came within 10 points only three times all year.

As the losses piled up, frustration among some players also mounted.

They grew tired of Wilson berating them during practices and games. They bristled when he benched players who showed up late for film sessions or didn't work hard enough in weight training. And they fumed when the team's top running back quit rather than participate in a drill in which Wilson tried to instill toughness by having him stand defenseless in front of a mattress and endure brutal tackles from a series of teammates.

"I don't think Kevin was well-suited to coach high school kids. I think he was much better-suited to coach people who were more grown up," said Jon Reep, who played six positions that season as a result of injuries or attrition. "You can't yell at kids every day and tell them that they suck because kids will eventually say, 'I'm not playing for this guy anymore. I'm getting yelled at every day. It's not fun.' Most of the kids on the team weren't going on to play in college. They were just trying to have fun, get laid and be football players."

Wilson might not have phrased it the same way, but he essentially came to the same conclusion. He couldn't stay at Fred T. Foard. He needed to return to the college game.

It's seldom easy for any coach to jump from a high school job to the college ranks, but Wilson leaned on his ties to Randy Walker, the newly hired Miami (Ohio) coach who previously recruited Wilson to North Carolina.

Wilson talked Walker into hiring him to coach the offensive line, an idea the RedHawks coach only reluctantly agreed to after two other candidates turned down the job. Walker had faith in Wilson as a coach from their time together at North Carolina, but he was concerned that hiring an out-of-state high school coach coming off an 0-10 season would aggravate Ohio high school coaches with greater pedigrees and better knowledge of in-state recruits.

"I almost messed up because I really missed the college environment but it's hard to get back because of the perception of hiring a high school coach," Wilson said. "When Coach Walker got the Miami (Ohio) job, he really didn't want to hire me at first. By grace, a couple guys he offered didn't want the job, so I was very, very lucky."

Though Wilson isn't close with any of his ex-Fred T. Foard players, he hasn't tried to distance himself from the winless season either. He displays a football signed by the entire Fred T. Foard team in his office at home and he frequently cites that dismal season as proof of the value of persevering through adversity when lecturing his Indiana team or speaking to high school coaches.

Most of Wilson's former Fred T. Foard players now have jobs well outside the realm of football, so it took many of them awhile to discover the success their former coach was enjoying in the college ranks. Beaver remembers flipping on an Oklahoma football game almost a decade ago and making the shocking discovery Wilson was the offensive coordinator for one of college football's best teams.

"I'm watching Oklahoma play, and I'm like, 'Holy cow,'" Beaver said. "It was a shock to see him at one of the dominant programs in the country, but then once you think about it, you're sort of like, 'I'm not that surprised.'

"When you're 0-10, I think the natural reaction is, 'That coach sucked,' but I remember arguing with some of my teammates that he was a good coach. To see him where he is now, it's sort of redemption for me. It's like, 'Told you he was good.'"