By Jerry Briggs
Life for Frank Wilson changed dramatically some 31 years ago. UTSA’s first-year football coach was in fifth grade in New Orleans when his father died in a car accident. His mentor was gone. “It was devastating for me as a young boy,” Wilson recalled.
As one of six siblings, Wilson ultimately survived the heartache, finding comfort in his faith and in a family that pulled together.
“I didn’t always understand, when the holidays came around, why my mother would get sad,” the 42-year-old New Orleans native said in a recent UTSA athletics-produced video. “She wanted to do more for us. The gifts weren’t there, but it really didn’t matter, because we had each other.”
Just maybe, it’s a lesson that could serve the Roadrunners well as a team this season.
If their new coach can overcome so much pain and uncertainty in his own life, then why can’t they turn the corner on two straight losing seasons? Why can’t they pull together themselves and start to challenge for a Conference USA title in coming years?
Wilson, who leads UTSA into its season opener Saturday night at home against Alabama State, said he thinks they can.
“I’ve just watched so many people (whose) dreams get deferred, for various reasons,” the coach said. “(A champion) is truly that person who is the most persistent, is the most consistent, and is wanting to achieve something. They drive for it, and they don’t allow anything to deter them from that (goal).”
Wilson competed in multiple sports as a child -- baseball, track and football. Eventually, he advanced to high school varsity and college football in the New Orleans area.
After hanging up the pads, Wilson moved into coaching at the high school level, notably at New Orleans’ O. Perry Walker as a head coach from 2000-03.
But for most of the past 11 seasons, he made a name for himself as a college assistant in the rugged Southeastern Conference, serving at Ole Miss, Tennessee and LSU.
“He’s an unbelievable administrator that can plan and put the whole program together, and he can coach,” UTSA athletic director Lynn Hickey said. “He’s just a real package.”
Wilson comes to UTSA after six years as an LSU running backs coach/recruiting coordinator. During his time working under Tigers head coach Les Miles in Baton Rouge, LSU won at least 10 games four times and lured five top 10-rated recruiting classes.
At LSU, Wilson’s work in building the program’s talent base not only opened eyes to his potential as a head coach, but it also served as a poignant reminder that values learned at the kitchen table at an early age can lead to success – even in the face of adversity.
“When I reflect on it as an adult, I can now recognize the challenges that may have been before my parents,” he said in the school’s video. “Growing up, I never saw those challenges, because it was an environment that was love. It was an environment that was spiritual.”
Wilson idolized his father, the late Frank Wilson, Jr., a railroad conductor for Union Pacific.
He watched closely as his dad coached his children in youth sports, toiled in the local ministry and occasionally stirred the pot as a community activist. Without going into detail on what the activism entailed, Wilson said his father sometimes would “make sure city officials fulfilled their obligations when it came to blighted property.”
When his father died, it left a massive void in the family. Wilson’s widowed mother, Gail, was forced in her early 30s to take charge of family affairs. “Being thrust into the role of care-giver, as the (financial) provider, as the (role) model, she did that in an amazing way,” the coach said. “She is such a strong woman.”
Gail Wilson remains as a New Orleans resident. Her son, who will get his first chance as a college head coach at UTSA, writes her a check every month out of respect and gratitude for her sacrifice. Frank Wilson still talks about his late father in reverent tones.
“In my eyes, my father was iconic,” Wilson told San Antonio Magazine (LINK) earlier this summer. “He was my first hero, the first person I ever wanted to be like in every regard, because I watched him be a husband, to my mother, and treat her with dignity and respect.”
Wilson doesn’t shy away from talking about his journey in life. About the good times, as well as the hard times. About how it defines him as a person and how he relates to people.
Besides, sharing the story can only help him connect with young men in the locker room who are looking for leadership. “At the end of the day, when you’re able to show someone your scars, it allows them to open up to you,” Wilson said. “When they open up to you, the relationship continues to blossom.”
UTSA running back Jarveon Williams, a senior from Judson, said Wilson can be calm, relaxed and laid back. But the team’s leading rusher said Wilson can also be tough and blunt.
“He’s definitely an honest guy,” Williams said. “He’s definitely going to bring the best out of you. He doesn’t accept mediocrity. He doesn’t accept not giving your best effort or putting your best foot forward. He’s always going to demand the best out of you.”
Williams said the coach can get animated in trying to make a point.
“He gets a little fired up at times,” Williams said. “For the most part, he’s outspoken. Sometimes, he’s more laid back. Other times, he’ll light the fire up under you.”
Roadrunners defensive end Kevin Strong, a sophomore from Cleveland, Texas, admitted he was “a little nervous” in his first sit-down meeting with Wilson last winter.
“But once we got to talking, I felt like I knew him forever,” Strong said. “He sat down and he was telling me, ‘I know you got a dream.’ He told me, ‘Protect your dream, and never give up on it.’ “
From the day he was hired at UTSA in January, Wilson cited relationship-building as a key to building the foundation of his program. He started with the players from the previous year’s squad and then fanned out to meet boosters, high school coaches and recruits.
Wilson knows that it’s critical for UTSA’s future to rejuvenate recruiting in the local area. “Everywhere I’ve been (in college coaching) we’ve tried to put a fence around that area,” he said. “We have a tall task in front of us, (but) I think we’re making the right strides to do so.”
Tall tasks are nothing new for Wilson.
Reflecting on how he and his siblings moved on in life after their father died, he said “we didn’t know what we didn’t have” because of so much support and togetherness at home. The coach said he doesn’t believe he is different from many others, in that respect. “I was just a young man in New Orleans,” Wilson said, “trying to find my way."