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Benedictine football coach Larry Wilcox notches 40 years of success on the field . . . and off

Head football coach for Benedictine College, Larry Wilcox has been impacting generations of players for more than four decades. LEAVEN PHOTO BY LORI WOOD HABIGER

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.

The revival

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.

Larry Wilcox was a pre-dentistry student at St. Benedict’s in Atchison before the school restarted its football program and changed his life forever. LEAVEN PHOTO BY LORI WOOD HABIGER

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. 

According to Benedictine president Stephen Minnis, head football coach Larry Wilcox is “intense without getting too emotional.” LEAVEN PHOTO BY LORI WOOD HABIGER

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.”

Logan Harris, a senior wide receiver and captain of the Ravens, is one of many players inspired by coach Wilcox. LEAVEN PHOTO BY LORI WOOD HABIGER

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?”

Benedictine first

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.

Defensive coordinator and athletic director for the Ravens, Charles Gartenmayer has witnessed coach Wilcox’s calm manner and impact on the entire Benedictine College community. LEAVEN PHOTO BY LORI WOOD HABIGER

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.

Coach Wilcox describes the game day experience at Benedictine as something “very few small colleges have” and the tailgating experience as “second only to the Kansas City Chiefs.” LEAVEN PHOTO BY LORI WOOD HABIGER

“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.”

Larry legend

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.”

Coach Wilcox is known to have goals for his team to be successful on and off the field. LEAVEN PHOTO BY LORI WOOD HABIGER

“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.”

The future

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.”

About the author

Todd Habiger

Todd has been the production manager for The Leaven since 1995. Under his direction The Leaven has won multiple design awards from the Catholic Press Association. Prior to working at The Leaven, Todd was an award-winning writer for The Catholic Key newspaper in Kansas City, Mo. Todd is married to Lori Wood Habiger, a former Leaven employee herself. They have two children — Paige and Connor, and one dog — Joli.

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  • Thank You Coach Wilcox for Showing Us how to Give from only the Heart, how to be Determined in a Kind Manner, Equal Respect for Student Athletes and for Showing them how to be Successful after Football Career with Benedictine College and the most Important Lesson of All how to Love Thyself and All Those Around Them Today, Tomorrow and Always.

    Coach Wilcox Thank You for a Positive, Humble Example to the Student Body at Benedictine College. Because of You there are so Many Successful Young-men in the Benedictine World Today.
    With Love & Sincere Prayer

  • Larry is a man who sees a problem and dr doesn’t ask why, he goes out and finds a solution and moves not. No fuss no muss just “let’s get the job done the 1st time and move on”. I’m proud to be his Classmate and friend for over 50 years

  • I will never forget Larry asking me how my brother was. Larry tried to recruit my brother but unfortunately he chose to play somewhere else. But he still cared to ask about him a few years later.

  • Coach Wilcox has been a guiding force on the field and off the field to our students over the years. He is an authentic man, who conveys that to his players.

  • Larry and I played rugby which was an experience. I graduated and went out and made money, not a lot but enough. Larry is making the future, by molding young boys into young men with the ability to create the future from what he taught them on and off the field. He also can throw a mean left hook.
    Leo Miceli 72

  • Coach Larry and I arrived on campus the same day in August 1968 as Illinois boy’s who both loved Football and Poker (3 card stud) and now 51 years later we are still enjoying each other and both still love Football…He is one of kind and Raven Nation is eternally grateful…Marc Saenz-Class of 72’…

  • I have always admired and respected Larry as a colleague and friend. Much of what he has done for Benedictine College remains in the background, but those of us that know him, could see his hand at play. There are not many members of the BC family that can claim to have achieved as much as Coach Wilcox in or out of the classroom.

  • Larry is a Man for others! Dedicated and driven he is an example to us all on how to live life to its fullest.

    Thanks Coach!