Benedictine football coach Larry Wilcox greeted players by name as they dropped by the Amino Center, the complex where the coaches’ offices and meeting rooms are located.
An everyday occurrence on any college campus as the countdown to game day reached less than a week for the Ravens, who opened their NAIA season at home on Saturday with a 24-14 victory over Evangel.
(This story is part of The Kansas City Star’s Football 2015 special section that publishes Sunday, Aug. 30. Pick one up and check out more here.)
What might contrast Wilcox’s personal hello from other coaches is these were two of 205 players in the Ravens’ program, a total that represents more than 10 percent of the student body. They suit up for the varsity, junior varsity and freshman teams.
Big numbers have never fazed Wilcox or Benedictine, which graduated 42 seniors from last season’s team and announced a recruiting class of 68 in February.
But the figure that defines Benedictine football is 37, as in the number of consecutive years Wilcox has served as coach. Tack on seven more as an assistant coach and three has a player and Wilcox is approaching a half-century of service on the same campus.
He couldn’t imagine himself anywhere else but at the Catholic liberal arts school that sits on the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River.
“I felt I could have more of an impact here than going elsewhere,” Wilcox said. “As I look back over time, the majority of guys who made the move found themselves in two, three or four years doing something else not in coaching.
“Here, it’s not the biggest place, we’re not going to get the most attention. But if it’s the right fit, why look somewhere else?”
Because Wilcox never did, he has climbed the list of career victories by NAIA football coaches. He ranked fourth entering this season with a 253-136 record. He picked up No. 254 on Saturday and with three victories Wilcox will move into third, and there’s a good chance of that happening soon.
The Ravens, coming off a 7-3 season and second-place finish in the Heart of America Athletic Conference, are ranked No. 25 in the NAIA preseason poll. They’ve appeared in the NAIA Tournament in two of the previous four years, and Wilcox’s teams have had just two losing records in the previous 24 seasons. Two have his teams have reached the NAIA Final Four.
The milestones are meaningful, Wilcox said, but a higher satisfaction for him and assistants such as Charlie Gartenmeyer and Dennis Murphy, who are part of the original staff, is gained from the relationships.
Sending players to NFL camps isn’t the objective at schools the size and scope of Benedictine, although the Ravens have had a good one, Jamie Mueller, a Buffalo Bills fullback who played in the Super Bowl against the Giants.
“We have a chance to impact lives in a substantial way, often with them not realizing it at the time,” Wilcox said. “But five, 10 years down the road, something clicks. They’ll say, ‘That’s what they meant, that’s what they wanted from me.’
“We’ve been lucky. We’ve won a lot of games. But I tell our guys that 10 years from now they’re not going to remember the scores. They won’t remember a tackle or how many passes they caught. We’ll sit around and lie about how good we were.
“But if 10 years from now if they’re living the lives they’ve wanted for themselves, if they’re happy, then we’ve been successful.”
Those feelings keep Wilcox, who will turn 65 in October, in coaching. They helped get him through quadruple bypass surgery five years ago this month. Doctors told him to take 10 weeks off from coaching. That, Wilcox replied, would kill him. He was on the practice field in a golf cart a few days later.
Get-well notes arrived from Tom Osborne and Bill Snyder among others Wilcox has long admired. He did miss the opener that year, listening to the Ravens defeat William Jewell on a radio broadcast from his bed at University of Kansas Hospital.
About five years earlier, Wilcox’s bank account underwent a procedure. He returned one year’s salary to help pay for the expansion of the Amino Center. That made it easier to ask former players, alumni and friends of the college to chip in a week’s or day’s pay.
Here, Wilcox said, Joe Paterno was an influence. Paterno’s charitable contributions to academics at Penn State included millions for a library that continued to bear his name after his dismissal as football coach.
Wilcox has no plans to stop contributing or coaching. Benedictine sponsored football for decades before dropping the sport in 1962. When it resumed in 1970, Wilcox was a sophomore on the team, having arrived on campus a year earlier from East St. Louis, Ill. He never left, and now coaches in a stadium that bears his name.
“Why do people retire?” Wilcox said. “Because they go on and do something they like to do. I’m already doing that. And I get paid to do it.”
Most career victories by NAIA football coaches
Anderson (Ind.), Georgetown (Ky.), California (Pa.), St. Francis (Ind.)
Dickinson State (N.D.)
Parsons (Iowa), Lee (Minn.), Pacific Lutheran (Wash.)