Gary Wilson jokes around habitually.
The sarcastic coach calls one of his former assistants “Big Head,” his 93-year old mother a “piss-ant” and is usually ready with a playful insult.
But student-athletes, coaches and administrators closest to him say that beneath his extroverted, humorous layer is a compassion for others.
Wilson “loves to goof around, but when it’s a serious matter, he’s a rock to everyone,” said Merrily Dean Baker, the athletics director who hired Wilson to the University of Minnesota in 1985.
He has counseled student-athletes on overcoming eating disorders, dealing with pregnancies and handling relationship stress.
Those issues are all commonplace in Wilson’s office, the headquarters of a cross country and track coach who is as much a mentor as a coach to his student-athletes.
Wilson impacted many lives in his 45 years of coaching, 28 at the University.
The University plans to announce Monday that Wilson, who turns 66 in October, will step down June 30, 2013. Long-time volunteer assistant coach Sarah Hesser will take his place.
Even though his replacement is set, when Wilson walks away, it’ll leave a void in the program.
Purdue University’s head men’s track & field coach, Lonnie Greene, who was an assistant coach under Wilson for a year, said the “game, when he retires, is going to lose a real legend, a real giant.”
A young woman walked into her coach’s Bierman Field athletic building office. She was bashful at first, not wanting to interrupt a meeting. But student-athletes mean more to the coach. He stood up from his desk, gave her a hug and kissed her forehead.
“How ya doin’, baby?” he asked in his gregarious tone. She smiled.
“He has an absolutely irreverent sense of humor. It’s difficult not to develop a comfort level with Gary Wilson almost right away,” Baker said.
But on the course, he’s a serious competitor.
He’s been successful at Minnesota, a tradition he carried over from his time coaching at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
He wears a ruby red Big Ten-championship ring with a gold-colored Minnesota “M” in the middle. It’s one of the six in his collection — two from cross country championships, three from indoor track & field and one from outdoor track & field.
One of his keys to success has been his people skills.
“Gary is a people’s person,” said Greene (affectionately known as “Big Head” to Wilson).“I don’t think he would have survived in any other profession. Gary has got a heart to see people be better.”
Those people skills don’t just apply at the University and to athletes.
Each year, Wilson takes a few coaches under his wing.
One of his mentees, Greene, was hired in July as Purdue’s head men’s track & field and cross country coach after 16 years at the University of Arkansas. He also worked for Wilson at the University for a year as an assistant in 1995.
That year, Greene says Wilson mentored him “like a father would a son.”
“He opened up his heart,” Greene said. “In our profession today you don’t get that.”
Wilson has also mentored his successor, Hesser, for eight years. The pair has helped bring along graduate assistant Nikki Swenson, who will now fill Hesser’s old role.
Greene said he’s run into a small handful of coaches just this year that Wilson helped land a job in the profession.
After Greene chose to leave Minnesota and accepted the Arkansas job, the two tearfully exchanged their goodbyes. “He hugged me like a father would hug a son,” Greene said, breaking up in tears, “and said, ‘Do well. If you need me, just give me a call.’
“I’m a head coach today because of Gary Wilson.”
‘The shirt off his back’
One of the people Wilson connected with most was neither an athlete nor a fellow coach.
He was an equipment manager named Jack Johnson.
With his playful personality, Wilson befriended Johnson. And when Johnson was diagnosed with liver cancer in September 2005, Wilson stepped up.
Johnson’s parents were dead and one cousin was the closest family he had left.
So Wilson drove Johnson to his chemotherapy treatments and later opened his home to let Johnson live with him and his wife, Suzy.
As Johnson’s condition worsened, Wilson wanted to make sure he was remembered. Wilson named an annual race after Johnson and created a scholarship fund as Johnson’s namesake.
Johnson was able to attend the first race and hand out the inaugural scholarship award before his death in February 2006.
In serious matters, Wilson’s a selfless man whose essence is to help others.
Wilson was good friends with the former head coach at Iowa State, Ron Renko, who, on the way home from a meet, was killed when one of three team planes crashed.
“Gary was in my office with tears barely dry on his face and asked me if he could have some time off,” Baker said. Wilson asked permission to go to Iowa to help his friend’s wife, kids and the grief-stricken team.
“He responded immediately. I think he probably had a paternalistic representation for most of his student-athletes because he’s a very caring man,” Baker said.
Greene recalled a story at Drake Relays after a hurricane ripped through Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Teams welcomed the University of Alabama back to Drake Relays that year when someone recounted the devastation back home.
“The first thing that came out of [Wilson’s] mouth was, ‘Just let us know what you need. We’ll work something out,’” Greene said. “He didn’t have a game plan, but he automatically offered himself.
“He is the type of man who’ll give you the shirt off his back.”
Wilson took his first job in 1968 at a high school in Hannibal, New York, where he made his own grass track with railroad ties for curbing.
His dad told him if he wanted to coach in college, he’d need his master’s degree. Wilson rolled his eyes at first, but when his father offered to pay, Wilson took the opportunity.
On his office wall hangs a reminder of how close he was to never coaching track & field and cross country.
It’s a 1965 letter from physiologist and coach Dave Costill. The summer after Wilson’s freshman year, Costill included him in a letter to 10 potential student-athletes.
“Dear Gary,” it reads. “You are invited to return to school early, Sept. 7, for cross country practice. I am contacting 10 boys and hope you can be one of them … I’m looking forward to having you with us this fall.”
Wilson had planned on playing basketball that year. But the note drew him back to running.
“I thought I’d gotten a letter from God!” Wilson said. “This is what kept me in track.”
He later took the men’s job at La Crosse and transitioned to women’s after a year. He left the D-III powerhouse he created when Baker hired him to Minnesota in 1985.
His passion for coaching and recruiting bordered obsession. His time commitment swelled to 100 nights a year away from home.
His wife Suzy got used to going to company Christmas parties alone.
“[At] one of my jobs, they didn’t believe I was married — they called him the phantom husband because they never saw him,” she said. “He was always out of town when they had partiesso they didn’t believe I was really married.”
She’s looking forward to having him around the house more.
Gary Wilson will remain involved in coordinating the Roy Griak Invitational, one of the largest cross country meets in the nation with men’s, women’s and high school races.
He’ll spend more time with Suzy, his three children and his mother, who’s 93 and living in upstate New York.
His two sons work in New York at their video production studio.
On the family’s Stillwater property, a barn houses two classic wooden boats — a 1950 Chris-Craft and a 1956 Penn Yan he restored — that Wilson says will help fill his time.
He’ll pursue building a cross country course in the metro area. Currently, his team runs on Les Bolstad Golf Course, a notoriously challenging course. The hilly course weaves around fairways and small sand traps and water hazards.
But for several years, Wilson has worked to secure a new cross country course for the University.
He hopes a new course can fulfill a dream he’s had since 1982. Two years ago, Wilson made traction on developing a course in Hugo, Minn. He planned to build the course using fundraising dollars and gifts in kind.
But it faced some public opposition, so Wilson abandoned the site and has shifted focus. Joel Maturi, the former University athletics director, said he intends to help in the next venture.
“I hope that we find the energy to build a cross country course — how great a legacy that would be for him,” Maturi said.
Maturi said he’ll help raise money for it, and Wilson will put physical labor into it. But they still need a location with a 100-acre plot of land and a community willing to have the course.
The pair had a meeting Sept. 10 to discuss using land in Rosemount’s UMore Park.
Wilson began coaching women in 1977 at La Crosse and hasn’t coached men since.
Many believe the sarcastic New Yorker is a good fit for coaching young women, but it wasn’t his first choice.
When he was first offered a job to switch from coaching men to women at La Crosse, he balked.
“I’m not coaching women. Are you nuts?” he told the school. “I don’t want to coach women.”
He looked around at three or four other schools where he could’ve coached men.
But “something didn’t feel right” leaving La Crosse, so he stuck around and began coaching the women’s team.
“I’m sure when I started coaching they thought I was a chauvinist” for the hesitation to coach women, Wilson said.
He said he hadn’t even coached women a full week before he realized it was his calling.
By the time Baker hired him to coach at Minnesota in the mid-’80s, he had solidified his coaching preference. He told Baker he’d rather coach the women’s team because, in general, they were better listeners, more coachable and didn’t have competing egos.
Baker took a lot of flak from some corners for hiring Wilson. She was a female AD of a women’s department and had fought all her life to convince people it’s OK to hire female coaches and administrators.
“It didn’t sit well with many people,” Baker said. “Obviously he went on to prove that it was a wise decision on my part — he made it easy.”
State of the Gophers
Wilson’s leaving his team in good shape.
The year before he arrived, he said, the team scored 5 points at the conference meet. More troubling was the team’s nearly empty recruiting folder that had just one high school athlete.
Wilson changed that philosophy. Within a few years, he had doubled the size of the team.
At the onset with the University, his time commitments were onerous, especially in his first few seasons when he and assistant Kirk Elias hit the national recruiting trail hard trying to build a program.
He’s handing it off as a perennial contender — not the top team in the Big Ten, but frequently in the mix. His cross country teams have qualified for the NCAA championships each of the past seven seasons.
Maturi, who is not a voting member of Gophers Hall of Fame, said Wilson is a shoo-in. Wilson’s already received the University’s President’s Award for Outstanding Service in 2006 — an honor rarely bestowed on coaches.
Now, in Wilson’s last year, the team starts with 100 potential track & field recruits in that folder before whittling that number down to a signing class of about 15.