Oct. 21, 2010
MADISON, Wis. -- UW athletic director Barry Alvarez has a clearly-defined reference point for what it takes to be successful from his own personal experience as a Hall of Fame college football coach.
So his words carried more weight when he was asked to list the strengths of Badger women’s soccer coach Paula Wilkins. Especially when he delved beyond the obvious. That is, she’s a winner.
That was established during her six seasons as Penn State’s head coach. The Nittany Lions, under Wilkins, a former PSU assistant, went 119-19-11 (.836) and won the Big Ten regular season title all six seasons, while advancing twice to the Women’s College Cup.
But what is the distinguishing characteristic of her coaching style? “She reminds me of a football coach,” Alvarez said without hesitation. “She’s all business.”
That, of course, would be the ultimate compliment from Alvarez. So that positive assessment was relayed to Wilkins who had a good laugh before conceding, “Business happens when it happens. I tell them (the players), ‘I’m always their biggest fan. But I’ll also be their biggest critic.’”
Wilkins prefaced that statement by admitting that her players would likely agree with Alvarez’ observations because some of them are still in the process of getting to know her, even though this is Wilkins’ fourth season at Wisconsin. “They’re starting to see the other side of me a little bit,” she said.
Her office door remains open to all. “But I still think they’re a little intimidated,” confessed Wilkins, who’s more than willing to “listen to the dreams and aspirations” of her athletes. But she does draw the line. “I don’t want to intercede in your life unless you want me involved,” she said.
Let’s not forget that Wilkins had to assume a certain role when she took over the UW program. “I was going to be the hammer that was going to change a lot of things and scare people,” she said. “As the players I’ve recruited have gotten to know me that relationship has changed a little bit.”
Change has to be the operative word. Wilkins was hired to change the culture here for women’s soccer. What did she find when she arrived in Madison? “I found some talented players without a direction,” she said. “They needed a little more discipline in what they were trying to do.”
They needed structure and a work ethic, and she was more than qualified to deliver. That was part of her own game at UMass, where she was named to the school’s athletic hall of fame on the strength of helping lead her team to three NCAA tournament appearances in four seasons.
Wilkins has her own historical footnote: After leading Penn State to the 2002 College Cup, she became the first person to both play and coach in a College Cup.
“I tried to show them what a good work ethic could create for them,” Wilkins said of her early approach to changing the UW culture, “and how the work ethic could create success. They were hungry for something different – not saying better – but different. That’s what we sort of provided.”
There was a feeling of exhilaration. And maybe a sense of relief, too, for Wilkins. The intersection of these two conflicting emotions was Wisconsin’s historic victory last Sunday at Penn State as the Badgers became only the third Big Ten squad to win at Jeffrey Field in State College.
“I was honest with the players, I was emotional,” Wilkins said. “It was difficult for me (to go home again) and I wanted them to know that. But I also wanted them to know that I was happy where I was (at Wisconsin) and I was excited to be with them. They had brought new life to my coaching.
“As we go along here, it will get further and further in the distance, so it won’t be so emotional. That’s why I said this victory was truly theirs … more than anything they had done things that other teams had not done. That is a stepping stone. As I told them, it can’t be just a small stepping stone, you’ve got to keep building on it.”
Last Friday night, the Badgers lost, 1-0, at Ohio State, the Big Ten leader. And Wilkins saw this overall effort as foreshadowing the success that they would have at Penn State. “You saw tears at the end of the game,” Wilkins said. “It kind of woke them up to what they needed to do.”
Wilkins recounted this story during her Monday press conference.
“When we were leaving the field at Ohio State, I was walking out with Kodee (Williams) and Catie (Sessions),” she said of her talented freshmen. “I said, ‘How does this feel? You’ve got to be part of changing the culture. You’ve got to make sure people coming in here understand how this feels, and how you don’t want to feel this way again, and how you want to compete for a Big Ten championship.’
“They both shook their heads and said, ‘Okay.’ I didn’t really know that they were going to have such an impact in the next game (at Penn State). I truly think those little seeds build and grow and it started with the first people who walked in when I was here.”
That first class that Wilkins inherited numbered 12. On Sunday, the two remaining seniors (and/or survivors) will be honored: Taryn Francel (San Diego, Calif.) and Darcy Riley (Akron, Ohio).
“Those two were willing to adapt to new players coming in and taking positions,” Wilkins said of Francel and Riley. “And what’s fantastic about them, they were both very instrumental in recruiting and getting good players to come here. We talked about that at the very beginning, saying the culture of the program was based on what they presented to recruits. They were on board and wanted success.
“She (Francel) was willing to fight through not starting at the beginning and becoming a cog in the back. The players buy into fighting for her on the field. She’s a little bit more quiet, more of a person who would be friends with everybody on the team. Not a hard captain, but the one who brings them all together and takes care of the details.
“Darcy is the personality of the team. She doesn’t see as many minutes. But she’s willing to go out of her way to help the team. The players play for her. If you talk to Catie Sessions, she’d say she’s playing every game for Darcy Riley to have a good experience. Building that relationship with new players takes time and a willingness to sacrifice a little bit of yourself and it really sets the tone for the team we could be in the future.”
Paula Wilkins had a number of mentors, starting with her father, Richard, who was her first club coach. “He knew nothing about soccer,” he said, “but he cared about his players.”
At Penn State, she assisted Patrick Farmer before replacing him after he left for a pro job in the Women’s United Soccer Association. Farmer is now a member of her coaching staff at Wisconsin.
Farmer has influenced her decision-making process and how she might handle certain situations with players. So has Penn State’s legendary volleyball coach Russ Rose, a very good friend.
“I think I’ve been evolving for about 10 years in my coaching career,” Wilkins said. “In some ways, Penn State was more talented than we were (last Sunday). But what makes me proud as a coach is maximizing the players you have and bringing out their strengths.”
Business, as usual.
“When it’s time to work, it’s time to work,” Wilkins said. “And when it’s time to relax, we’ll relax. I’m very adamant about having a balance. But I’m always thinking about the next thing (the next challenge, the next opponent). So it doesn’t really ever stop for me.”
Except if you stop by her office, you might get a glimpse of that other side of Wilkins to which even her friends say “it takes time to know me.” Check out the pin board on the wall; a collection of keepsakes, some more meaningful than others, all special in their own unique way.
“They’re a bunch of different pictures of different things; they all represent memories for me from different teams,” Wilkins said. “Little things matter to me. There’s no rhyme or reason (to the board) but whenever there is a personal connection of some sort I put it up there.”
That would include the Penn State scoreboard.