Pitt foe Old Dominion faces new challenges in transition to Division I-A

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On Bobby Wilder's first day of work as Old Dominion's football coach in 2007, he wasn't worried about game plans, film study or hitting the road recruiting.

The school's board of visitors had voted two years earlier to restart the Monarch's football program, dormant since 1941, and Wilder was still more than two years away from coaching his first game at the school in Norfolk, Va.

In other words, he needed to start small.

"When I first got here, I had to order the pens, the pencils, the notepads, hire a staff," Wilder said.

Old Dominion, which will visit Pitt Saturday at Heinz Field, has come a long way from those program-building days. The Monarchs are in the process of reclassifying from Division I-AA, where they compiled a 38-10 record over four seasons, to Division I-A and Conference USA next season.

Technically, the Monarchs are a I-AA independent this year, ineligible for the I-AA playoffs and I-A bowl games. Senior associate athletic director Bruce Stewart, though, said the Monarchs are more of a "hybrid" in between the two divisions.

While most I-AA teams are allowed 63 scholarships, the Monarchs can have up to 85 in preparation for their move next year. Stewart said they have around 75 scholarship players on the current roster.

"When we play the likes of [I-A teams] East Carolina, Maryland, Pitt, Idaho and North Carolina, we will count as an FCS [Division I-AA] team for them, for scheduling purposes," Stewart said. "However, why I say we're a hybrid is we just came off a gauntlet of four FCS teams that we played and trust me, they don't look at us as an FCS team, they look at us as an FBS team and rightfully so."

With the transition looming and no conference schedule, putting together the 2013 slate was a unique challenge for Stewart.

The Monarchs' schedule this year is comprised of six road games, five against I-A teams, and six home games against I-AA competition.

The only game on the schedule that is part of a long-term agreement is a road game at Norfolk State, which will make a return trip to Old Dominion in 2015.

"Everyone else is pretty much a one-shot deal one way or the other," Stewart said. "We're either getting money from them or all our home games are FCS opponents and I'm paying them."

Saturday's game against Pitt will be the third I-A team the Monarchs play. They lost against East Carolina and Maryland to open the season.

With no postseason options this year, Wilder said he's treating the team's five road games against I-A squads as bowl games. They're also a proving ground for the players who want to be part of Old Dominion's first full-fledged I-A team next season.

"We've tried to present all five of those as the step-up games," Wilder said. "This is the level that we want to play to."

Only one class of current Monarchs was recruited as a Division I-A recruiting class, but Wilder said the jump has had a significant impact when he hits the road recruiting.

"It's changed everything here in terms of the type of player, the quality of athlete that will now look at Old Dominion," Wilder said. "When you start telling high school student athletes that you're FBS, Conference USA, bowl eligible, it changes everything."

For Wilder, it's especially gratifying to see the fruits of his labor dating to 2007. He signed a five-year contract extension in August that will keep him at Old Dominion through 2017. That new deal can buy a whole lot of pens and notepads.

"I feel like I'm living the dream every day that I'm on this job, and I mean that sincerely. It's an incredible feeling and experience," he said.

"It's been incredibly gratifying for me to be a part of what's happened here and what's been established and what football has helped to do for the profile of the entire university."


Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @SWernerPG. First Published October 17, 2013 8:00 PM


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