by Todd Habiger
ATCHISON — On a sun-drenched Saturday afternoon Sept. 7, students and fans pour into Larry Wilcox Stadium on the campus of Benedictine College here for the school’s home opener against William Penn.
An enthusiastic crowd, backed by the college band, gives a loud ovation as the Ravens, the No. 2-ranked team in the NAIA, are introduced with their head coach — Larry Wilcox himself.
As the football program at BC celebrates 50 years since its revival after having been shut down in 1962, Wilcox has been the one constant on the Benedictine sidelines — first as a player, then as an assistant and finally as head coach, a position he’s held since 1979.
Along the way, Wilcox has carved out a legacy for himself that can only be described as legendary.
Not bad for a guy who figured football was in his past the moment he stepped onto the college’s campus as a student in 1968.
In 1962, St. Benedict’s — as the college was called before the 1971 merger with Mount St. Scholastica — dropped football.
“A lot of private colleges discontinued football during that era of the ’60s,” said Wilcox, a member of St. Benedict Parish in Atchison. “For example, I think all the Jesuit schools, except for one, dropped football. Rockhurst dropped football in this area.”
Wilcox was a pretty good football player in the East St. Louis, Illinois, area. He considered going to St. John College in Minnesota to play football, but ultimately decided to stay closer to home and attend St. Benedict’s.
A pre-dentistry major, Wilcox focused on his academics and played rugby to fill the athletic void in his life.
But just before his sophomore year, St. Benedict’s president Father Gerard Senecal, OSB, decided to restart the football program, much to the surprise of Wilcox and the returning students.
“It was sort of a spur of the moment thing,” Wilcox said. “Students were coming back to campus that fall. They announced football was beginning and we would be playing a game in three weeks.”
Figuring “why not,” Wilcox tried out for the team and made it as a defensive lineman.
“If you tried out for the team, you were probably going to make it,” he said with a smile.
The new Ravens football team’s first game was in California against the University of Loyola of Los Angeles. Having never been on a plane before or traveled too far from home, Wilcox had a blast on the trip. Maybe too much of a blast.
“We went to Disney World, we went to the beach and we played a football game,” he said. “The only negative thing was on Monday, at 8 a.m., I had a biology test. I came back and didn’t do well on the exam.”
When his test was returned to him, Father Eugene Dehner, OSB, the biology teacher, wrote on his test: “Do you want to play football or be a dentist?”
“That’s when I decided to make the switch,” Wilcox said. “I had so much fun with football, I could see myself doing this.”
A football life
Wilcox spent three seasons playing football for Benedictine as football made its way from a club sport to a full varsity sport.
Wilcox describes himself as a “slow” defensive lineman. But the Ravens’ defensive coordinator and athletic director Charles Gartenmayer, who played with him, said Wilcox had a dogged determination and a willingness to work hard that made him a good player for the Ravens.
After graduation, Wilcox became an assistant football coach at Benedictine. Over the years, he’s also been its head baseball coach, head softball coach, head golf coach and athletic director.
But it has been as the head football coach that Wilcox has found his greatest success.
Wilcox is not a fiery guy. His sideline demeanor rarely changes — staying the same during the highs and lows of the game.
“He’s intense without getting too emotional,” said Stephen Minnis, president of Benedictine. “You don’t have a lot of highs and lows with Larry. No matter what happens, he is able to control his emotions.”
Gartenmayer echoes Minnis’ assessment.
“He doesn’t panic over things,” Gartenmayer said. “He never lets things overly worry him.”
As was the case against William Penn in the home opener. After dominating the game for most of three quarters, the Ravens allowed William Penn to creep within a touchdown. There were no sideline outbursts from Wilcox, just calm and simple coaching.
In the end, the Ravens dominated the rest of the way, cruising to a 47-11 victory.
“He just does things his way and it works,” said Logan Harris, a senior wide receiver and captain of the Ravens. “People gravitate towards him and you can feel the power that he has over people.”
The Wilcox way has worked well. He’s racked up 291 wins — second most victories in NAIA history and good for 14th all-time in college football.
He’s in the Benedictine College Athletic Hall of Fame and the NAIA Hall of Fame.
Despite all his accomplishments and honors, Wilcox downplays the whole thing in the most typical Larry Wilcox way.
“That just means you’re getting old, I guess,” he said. “What we do with the guy now?”
For all his wins and accomplishments, Wilcox has consistently put the needs of the college before the needs of the football program.
As Benedictine has grown, so has its need for new or upgraded facilities.
Minnis said that Wilcox has, on several occasions, redirected donors who want to contribute money to the football program to instead donate to other school projects.
“It’s never been about him; it’s always been about the college,” said Minnis.
Gartenmayer said that Wilcox sees athletics as a way to further the mission of the school.
“We are always talking about how we can make the program better, but also how we can make the athletic department better and how we can make the college better,” he said.
When Wilcox pushed for a new football stadium, his reasons weren’t solely for the benefit of the football program.
The old football stadium was located off campus. Wilcox felt strongly that the college needed a stadium on campus.
“People would come to our games, but the games were not on our campus,” he said. “They would come and leave without ever seeing the campus.
“I said, ‘We need a stadium on campus. It will help football, but it will be great for the college.’”
To make his point, Wilcox and his wife Janet looked at their finances — and donated a year’s salary to the stadium project.
“I tell people that it really wasn’t that much money,” Wilcox jokes.
But, then, more seriously, he explains.
“I felt that we needed this stadium,” he said, “and I felt strongly that I needed to do something dramatic to make it happen.”
Wilcox planned to make the donation anonymously. But word got out and it fueled others in the community to give to the project.
“Now we have a game day experience here very few small colleges have,” he said. “Our tailgating experience is second only to the Kansas City Chiefs. They have fun; we get a good crowd.
“They come on campus and they spend the day. The college has bought into that and they promote the home game environment that we have here to our alumni and our fans. It does a lot for the institution.”
Beyond the wins, beyond the honors, it’s what Wilcox has done though football that truly makes him legendary.
“He actually cares about us as people, not only as players,” said Harris. “He wants us to get an education. He wants us to be successful after we leave here.”
Harris said that Wilcox stresses academics above football. In his years as a player, Harris said he’s seen teammates struggle with academics only to be rescued by Wilcox.
“He finds people that can help them,” Harris said. “I have seen a lot of good players become successful after school because of that.”
Gartenmayer has seen the same thing.
“He wants players to be thinking about how they can use the skill sets that they have to take advantage of the environment that they’re in here at Benedictine College and to take that forward to be successful for the next 30, 40, 50 years of their life,” he said. “What we’re doing here, what he feels very strongly about, is that he’s creating that foundation for them to be successful.”
“Larry’s told me numerous times that he never has a goal of winning the national championship,” Minnis said. “His goal is to make young boys into men and to form them into great adults who will be great employees, great fathers, great husbands, great people.
“That’s what he cares about.”
Who knows what the future holds for Wilcox? One thing he does know is that, even after more than 40 years, he still loves what he’s doing.
“I look forward to coming to work. I like my work,” he said simply.
Time has mellowed him a little, but the same passion he had when he took over Raven football is still in him today. And it all comes back to his players.
“I enjoy the players — that’s the biggest thing,” said Wilcox. “Game days are fun, but it’s the things you do that lead up to the game that are even more fun.
“A lot goes on behind the scenes, helping young people become successful. Helping young people to hang in there during tough times. Giving them a pat on the back when things are going well, when they have some success.”
“We all need some motivation,” he added. “We all need some encouragement, we all need a little kick in the rump every once in a while.
“Where I get the most enjoyment is seeing a young man come in at this level and end up at a much higher level.”
Minnis sums up Wilcox’s tenure at Benedictine College perfectly:
“I think when you’re doing something you love, at a place that you love, with people that you love, well, you can do that for a long time.”