Guerin: Can Kevin Wilson reshape Tulsa football by coaching with a softer edge?

Guerin: Can Kevin Wilson reshape Tulsa football by coaching with a softer edge?

Can a coach as old school as Kevin Wilson adapt to changing times? Can a coach with a harder edge soften some? Or maybe it’s must he soften some?

Guerin Emig

By Guerin Emig

| Sep 13, 2023, 6:00pm CDT

Guerin Emig

By Guerin Emig

Sep 13, 2023, 6:00pm CDT

TULSA — The first time I had a one-on-one chat with Kevin Wilson was August 2002. He was in his first season as Oklahoma offensive line coach and I was in my first full season covering the Sooners. I figured I’d make a good first impression by writing a start-of-preseason story on Vince Carter, OU’s returning Freshman All-American center.

Wilson and I exchanged introductions, I told him what I was doing, and without hesitation he  informed me, “You’re asking me about a backup center.”

I knew this immediately about Bob Stoops’ 40-year-old hire: He was all in all the time when it came to coaching football. His players had better be all in learning it, or he’d do his damndest to get them there. 

The last time I had a one-on-one with Wilson was Monday night. Now he was head coach at Tulsa and previewing the Golden Hurricane’s game against OU (2:30 p.m. Saturday, Skelly Field at H.A. Chapman Stadium, ESPN2) at his radio show near the TU campus. 

Wilson saw me after his first segment and walked over. He caught me up on his family, I caught him up on my job. We talked briefly about the old times. He mentioned about 10 of his OU linemen, Carter included (spoiler alert: Carter did get all in right quick, started the next three years and left Wilson as a Walter Camp/ESPN/CBS All-American). 

The conversation went well, so I asked him if he would stick around after the show for a 10-minute Q and A for this column. 

“No,” Wilson said. “Press conference is tomorrow. I’ll talk to ya then. Gotta gameplan.”

I didn’t feel spurned, just silly. Course he’s gotta gameplan. He’s been on task over the 21 years since we met, from OU to Indiana in 2011 for his first head coaching gig, to Ohio State as offensive coordinator in 2017, to Tulsa now.

But I also wondered: Can a coach as old school as Wilson adapt to changing times? It’s 2023, not 2002. The transfer portal and social media channels beckon for players fed up with the grind.

Tulsa Golden Hurricane head coach Kevin Wilson stands on the sideline during the fourth quarter of Tulsa’s 43-10 to Washington Saturday, Sept. 9 in Seattle. (Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)

‘Not a hard-nosed guy’

Wilson turned Indiana around, but he resigned when relationships frayed with then-IU athletic director Fred Glass and IU players who alleged they were mistreated while injured. 

Can a coach adapt not just to time, but place? Yell too loudly on the practice field of TU’s compact campus, the university president might hear it through an open window. 

Can a coach with a harder edge soften some? Or maybe it’s must he soften some? 

I’m of the belief that college football players are not as soft as some people want to make them out to be. I believe that players are willing to do what it takes to improve. I believe a lot of guys still want to be coached hard. That’s exactly what you get with Kevin Wilson,” said Gabe Ikard, who Wilson turned from a redshirting tight end into a Freshman All-American left guard at OU in 2010. “He coaches with a relentless demand from his players, but I’ve never seen a coach get more out of his players than Kevin.”

“He’s not a hard-nosed guy,” Stoops asserted. “Kevin’s a good coach. He relates well to the players, relates well to the staff. I’ll be surprised if the players don’t love him. His nine years here, players loved working with Kevin.”

What matters now is whether TU players love working for Wilson. 

“He’s bringing out a different side of each player, and bringing a different vibe to the team,” said Kendarin Ray, the starting safety in his sixth year at TU. “We’re straining every day to be the best that we can.”

“Everything’s been a process and a grind, but, you know, every coach has their different ways,” offensive lineman Darrell Simpson said. “He has stepped up to the plate and showed us we have a chance to be a great team.”

TU’s coach-player dynamic

I have no doubt Wilson will introduce the Golden Hurricane to a better version of football. It will be more intense and more orderly. That should bolster a program that’s spent too many years mired near the bottom of FBS penalties and special teams statistics, the easiest measures of coaching effectiveness.

How Wilson shows the Hurricane a better version of football is what I’m more curious about. 

Has he lowered his tone over 21 years?

I think we’re in a generation where these kids want to do well. I think a lot of them yearn for discipline and structure,” he said at his Tuesday press conference. “But you need to explain why we’re doing things, why this is acceptable and why this is not. 

The demands and what most people want and need haven’t changed a great deal. You look at the success at Colorado is having and we can talk about coach (Deion) Sanders and the transition of players. But people I talk to who watch them practice (say) they’re unbelievably demanding in how hard they practice and how structured their practices are. 

“I know for a fact that coach (Brent) Venables has a structured, hard, get-after-it practice. I know for a fact that at Ohio State they’ll have a very structured, disciplined, day today. And we’re gonna do the same thing here. 

“What’s different is that you have to communicate with your guys while you’re doing things and help them understand to buy into that. I think we’ve done a decent job of that. I think that’s why our guys are battling hard for us. And I’ve got a lot of appreciation and respect for the way our kids have embraced us.”

About TU’s coach-player dynamic… 

I spoke to several people closer to the Golden Hurricane than I am, people I trust to shoot me straight. A summary: Wilson has been demanding but he has not singled out any player harshly. He rides players hard but “atta baby”s them too. He has earned players’ respect when it comes to football, since the program now closer resembles a high-mid major than a low one in terms of day-to-day operations. 

When I asked Wilson Tuesday about things he’s doing better, or differently, than he did at Indiana, he started with: “First of all, the delivery with players… You’re talking about your communication piece.”

Then: “What I found differently is you’ve got to get everybody working together and it takes time to get everyone on the same page. And don’t get mad when you’re not, because if you get mad at someone, that’s actually probably a pretty good person that loves this school. So let’s don’t alienate good people that love their school, let’s educate them on how we can all work together to do what’s best for the players and then help the program get stronger.”

Kevin Wilson with his Tulsa football team before TU’s season-opening win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff. (Photo provided by the University of Tulsa)

‘The Eye of the Hurricane’

Wilson pivoted to a weekly meeting of extended staff he experienced at Ohio State, something he says he has brought to Tulsa. 

“Equipment, medical, nutrition, academic, psychological support,” Wilson said. “ Anyone touching the players sits in that meeting and we talk about every kid real quick. ‘How’s he doing in school? How’s his body weight? How’s he feeling?’ And if anybody’s got a problem everybody knows about it, so we can help that kid.”

Wilson calls that initiative at TU “Eye of the Hurricane.”

“The eye is calm. The kid’s in the middle,” he said. “Sometimes we, the support staff, are the hurricane, creating all the controversy. ‘Hey, you gotta get to this study hall, hey you gotta go over and get a treatment, hey you better get to dinner and make your body weight.’ We’re pulling them all over the place. 

“How do we keep them calm in the middle of all these things going on around them? That’s one of the things that’s helped us get off to a good start with communication in our program.”

If that sounds like new-age thinking for an old-school coach, the 61-year-old Wilson is still, at heart and soul, an old-school coach.

“I’ve popped in for 15 minutes at practice,” said Rick Dickson, the Tulsa athletic director who hired Wilson last December after vetting him with “no fewer than a dozen” sources ranging Stoops to Ohio State AD Gene Smith to an Indiana higher-up he won’t identify but says he trusts. “I’ll pull up to a players huddle where guys are kind of spread out, some standing, some kneeling. Kevin will blow a whistle and all of a sudden the entire team is organized and lined up and on a knee. It looks like a team picture. 

“It didn’t all fall into place that day. They’ve obviously practiced it, even that level of detail.”

The details for Wilson’s Golden Hurricane include tutorials on stretching basics and locker cleanliness. He’d better not see you leave a ball on the practice field – that flirts with the real thing on game day – and he’d better see you in class. 

“These guys had their best GPA in 16 years last spring,” Dickson reported. “And then surpassed that in both summer sessions.”

“His intensity level is contagious. Across the board,” said Clint Rountree, a TU safety from 2001-04 who worked for Wilson predecessors Philip Montgomery, Bill Blankenship, Todd Graham and Steve Kragthorpe and whose printing company now assists Wilson with mail-outs. “You gotta get goin’ or get out, right? Cause coach is goin’.”

That hasn’t changed a bit in 21 years. It shouldn’t. That’s Wilson’s core. 

Kevin Wilson autographs a fan’s shirt during a Tulsa spring football event. Wilson embarks on his second head coaching job aiming to strike a balance between his hard football core and softer touches sought because of both his past and his present. (Photo provided by the University of Tulsa)

‘A chance to paint a new picture’

The tweaks have to do with methodology or delivery, since we should all learn from our past. 

The way we’ve operated is we’ve got a chance to paint a new picture. This is gonna be that opportunity to do that,” Dickson said. “I feel like Kevin has come into it with that mindset. ‘OK, I got my chance again. And at a place and in an area I’m familiar with.’ 

“And if there were mistakes that were made, that he was responsible for, there is intent that we don’t have to repeat, we don’t have to go that direction again. That’s what I’ve seen and experienced in his seven or eight months.”

“There have not been any instances where I’ve questioned or doubted or found, heard or seen something that has made me feel otherwise,” Dickson said. 

It was a Rib Crib the last time I talked one-on-one with Wilson, not a football field like the first time. I’m a sportswriter he knows from his past, not one of his current TU players.  

Still, the conversation was breezy and genuine before Wilson landed squarely on football. I don’t know how or even if that translates to his coaching approach. It is interesting, though, at least to me.

It keeps me interested in Wilson’s approach with the Golden Hurricane 21 years later.

 

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Guerin Emig is a columnist for the Sellout Crowd network. Read his work at selloutcrowd.com and guerinemig.com. Reach out with feedback and/or ideas at [email protected] or (918) 629-6229. Follow him on Twitter at @GuerinEmig and Instagram at @guerin.emig. .

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