Wilson leaves legacy at VU


Bob Wilson began a lifetime in athletics as an All-Colorado high school quarterback, point guard and second baseman — basically, as the Dude.

When he walks off into retirement this weekend after 21 years as athletic director at Vanguard, the culmination of a career in coaching and administration that spanned nearly five decades, the same is essentially true.

Wilson, who turns 69 in September, was a notable men’s basketball coach before he fortified Vanguard athletics and forged a culture of excellence and a model of intention of which schools throughout the country have taken bits and pieces, if not the entire playbook.

But most of all, the legacy Wilson leaves is one of universal affection — from colleagues, rivals, parents and thousands of student-athletes, who always knew his place in the stands and his interest in their lives went beyond the job description.

“I think what is amazing is when you see Bob’s impact across the country,” said Rhett Soliday, who will assume the job of athletic director at Vanguard while continuing to coach the Lions’ men’s basketball team. “He has had an impact on the national level, either through the NAIA or other associations he has been affiliated with. And you magnify that 10-fold with people here at Vanguard. Bob has not only been an incredible leader for his people, but he has been an incredible leader for the student-athletes.”

Vanguard baseball coach Rob Pegg had just arrived on the Costa Mesa campus (then known as Southern California College) as a junior transfer baseball player in the fall of 1995, when Wilson came from Hawaii-Hilo to oversee Lions athletics.

“Bob is sort of like Vanguard’s version of John Wooden,” Pegg said. “I remember the first time I met him, I was like ‘This guy is a cool dude, man.’

“First off, Bob is a competitor,” Pegg said. “He gets after it. And he cares about people. He cares. Every coach under him feels like you are his favorite team.”

Wilson hired Eryn Leja as women’s volleyball coach when she was 23 and now, entering her sixth season at the helm, she finds it difficult to imagine Vanguard without him.

“Bob is the best boss I will probably ever have,” Leja said. “When you think of Vanguard athletics across the country, Bob Wilson comes to mind. He kind of defines the athletic department.

“The way we view Bob here in athletic department is that he’s our coach. We’re his team and he is just an excellent coach. What was really special was knowing that he always had our backs.

“And he isn’t someone who is working nine-to-five. He’s [on campus] and he’s diving into the lives of the student-athletes. He probably knows the first name of every athlete here.”

Wilson has the rare ability to balance a firm hand with a soft touch. His sense of humor is part of his legend and he has inspired generations of athletes who offer comic impersonations, often to the delight of Wilson himself.

Wilson’s contributions begin with his initial vision of hiring full-time coaches to help athletics become more than after-school sports.

With the help of school administrators, the advent of full-time coaches added both stability and the leverage to impact the lives of student-athletes in more meaningful ways.

Bringing coaches on campus is one of the three things of which Wilson is most proud.

The second is amplifying the NAIA’s Champions of Character program, initiated in 2000, that spawned the creation of a Champions of Character class for all Vanguard student-athletes. As well, there was the Gold Pride initiative that, similar to Wooden’s famed Pyramid of Success, outlines ways Vanguard athletes can cross over “from the sideline, to the sidewalk, to significance.”

A third source of pride for Wilson is the competitive ascension of Vanguard on a national level, including national championships in women’s basketball (2008) and men’s basketball (2014). This came despite a significant gap in scholarships with other NAIA schools outside the Golden State Athletic Conference.

“It all started about 2003, Wilson said of the culture that is in place at Vanguard, and the principles of which have taken root and are spreading currently to many other schools at all levels of college athletics. “We are a little different [than most colleges] in that we use spirituality to initiate a ripple effect. We make our athletes leaders. We call them LIONS, [an acronym that stands for] Leaders Influencing our Nation’s Sports.”

The culture that resonates throughout Vanguard athletics is something Wilson will attempt to spread through a consulting business he and some colleagues have already begun.

“It’s something we’ve done everywhere we’ve been,” Tammy Wilson, Wilson’s wife of 47 years, said of establishing a mindset of service among student-athletes. “I think Bob has always had vision. He never goes into a place without envisioning what he wants it to look like at the end of his time there.”

Before his vision was limited to the sidelines and behind a desk, Wilson was a versatile and talented athlete who starred in three sports at Denver’s Thomas Jefferson High.

He chose basketball over football when accepting a scholarship to the University of Wyoming, where as a 6-foot-1, 160-pound point guard, he was integral to the Cowboys’ significant success.

“We won the [Western Athletic Conference] twice and we made the NCAA Tournament my sophomore year, back when just 16 teams made it and you had to win your conference,” Wilson said. “We played UCLA in the first round when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar [then Lew Alcindor] was a sophomore. They beat us, 107-60.”

Wilson played against LSU scoring sensation Pete Maravich (“holding” him to 40 points … in the first half, according to Vanguard women’s basketball coach Russ Davis, who related the story) and twice played in the NIT (the second time as a senior, when conference co-champion BYU earned the NCAA berth by virtue of a tiebreaker).

In his final collegiate game, Wyoming lost in the NIT to an Army team coached by Bobby Knight and led by point guard Mike Krzyzewski.

“He was super intense [as a player],” said Tammy, who met him at Wyoming. “He always got the most out of his ability and, as a point guard, [his teammates] were better players because of him. He was very unselfish.”

Wilson’s coaching career had stops at Nebraska at Omaha, Northern Colorado, Colorado State, and 11 years as the basketball coach and AD at Phillips University (which closed in 2000) in Enid, Okla.

He spent 10 years at Hawaii-Hilo, before coming to Vanguard, where his tenure included more than a dozen years as assistant commissioner of the GSAC, as well as work on several regional and national NAIA committees.

He was NAIA Athletic Director of the Year for the 2011-12 athletic year and has been honored multiple times by students, colleagues and former players since he announced his retirement. His trademark phrases are known on campus as Bob-isms.

Wilson, who plans to continue to live in Irvine and attend an occasional Vanguard athletic contest, said he does not have a hobby. But he and his wife will travel and enjoy their two daughters and their five grandchildren, some of whom live in Illinois.

“I think he’s as fired up about his grandkids as he’s ever been about anything,” said Soliday, for whom Wilson has volunteered his services as a sounding board for anything involving the transition.

“He had so much foresight in planning the direction of our department and he moved people to take ownership of the things he had built and what he thought an athletic department should stand for,” Soliday said. “There was so much trust in him here. No one ever doubted that Bob just knew the right thing to do. And he did it.

“I’m hoping he gets all the quality time with his family he can hope for. But he will still have a presence here and we’re going to welcome it.”