Frank Wilson faced off against late-night talk show hosts long before he tested his mettle against SEC defenses.
ABC’s Nightline first shined the national spotlight on UT’s first-year receivers coach in 2001.
Wilson was interviewed as part of a story about rebuilding inner city schools. Wilson had done that at O. Perry Walker High School in New Orleans, where one of his programs helped his team grade-point average rise from 1.5 to 2.6.
Millions of people saw the broadcast, including one energetic Cajun coach named Ed Orgeron, who recalled another “Frank Wilson” crossing his football path.
Orgeron, UT’s assistant head coach, defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator, was coaching linebackers at McNeese State in Lake Charles, La., while Wilson was a standout running back and defensive back, earning preseason All-Southland Conference and Division II honorable mention All-America honors before his senior season.
Orgeron had moved on to coach defensive linemen at Southern California when he saw Wilson go late-night national.
Soon after the broadcast, Orgeron flew to New Orleans to congratulate Wilson and promptly offered him a job — even though he didn’t have one to give.
“He told me ‘If I ever become a head coach, I’m coming to get you,’ ” Wilson recalled.
Wilson didn’t commit immediately. After all, he had interviewed with LSU and some smaller schools. Wilson also wanted to see if Orgeron was serious.
“I just thought that he had a great attitude towards football,” Orgeron said. “Everybody liked him. He was always smiling. He was very competitive.”
Sure enough, Orgeron kept his word. Wilson was the first coach Orgeron called when he was named coach at Ole Miss in 2005.
“To be his first hire was awesome,” Wilson said.
Wilson and Orgeron worked together for three seasons at Ole Miss, helping recruit much of the talent that helped the Rebels to a 9-4 record last season although neither was there to see it.
“He was my best assistant on the staff at Ole Miss,” said Orgeron. “He did things exactly the way I expected him to. He’s a fantastic recruiter. Players love him. He’s a fantastic coach and always eager to learn.
“People talk about five-star prospects; Frank’s a five-star coach.”
When talking to both, it’s hard not to imagine the recruiting chemistry. Orgeron is the aggressor. Wilson is the calming force.
“That’s my guy now,” Wilson said of Orgeron with a big smile. “He’s been fantastic to me. He’s been a mentor to me in many ways.”
Wilson said Orgeron mentors him much like he coaches his players. Detail, accountability and being the best are imperative.
“Our relationship is unique,” Wilson said. “I know his interest in me is sincere. He wants to see me be the best I can be and all that I can be.”
The two had to wonder how long it would be until their paths crossed again following their dismissals at Ole Miss. Now reunited, the two are enjoying every minute.
“I love him,” Wilson said, “and we’re having a blast.”
Who knows if all that would have occurred had Wilson not been forced to give up the game he adored.
Wilson kept having what he thought were stingers during his sophomore and junior years at Nicholls State in 1994 and 1995.
As anyone who’s been around football knows, stingers can burn, tingle or, well, sting. Usually, stingers are just part of the game. Not in Wilson’s case.
The tingling became so persistent that he consulted a neurologist.
Doctors found a partially bent spinal cord in Wilson’s neck and early signs of paralysis.
Wilson’s football career was over — three games into his senior season.
“It was devastating,” he recalled.
Wilson hadn’t been showing up on any NFL mock drafts, but he was fast. That was enough to give him hope that he could play professionally.
“You work so hard for so many years for that little crack (of opportunity),” Wilson said. “It felt as if it was snatched away.”
Wilson could have helped himself and his family had he played in the NFL and gained the riches that could have accompanied that dream. Another path allowed him to help many more.
“God had another plan for me,” Wilson said. “That was to go back to the inner city of New Orleans and make a difference in the lives of those young men.”
First, Wilson had to accept that destiny.
Football Kept Calling
Following the diagnosis of his spinal condition, Wilson stuck around football as a student assistant at Nicholls State. It seemed better than giving it up cold turkey.
Yet the game he loved to play didn’t hold the same allure as a coach.
“After that experience, I was like ‘I will never coach,’ ” Wilson said. “I knew I never wanted to coach.”
Wilson was determined to be a physical therapist. To do so he took some extra classes to boost his grades in order to be accepted into graduate school.
In the meantime, he earned some extra money by coaching at Edna Karr High School in New Orleans.
That was just short term — or so Wilson thought.
With his expertise and work ethic, Wilson rode the coaching career ladder like an escalator.
He went from junior varsity coach to varsity coach to coordinator to a historic position.
At 26 years old, Wilson became the youngest high school head coach in the history of Louisiana when he was selected to take over the football program at O. Perry Walker.
Wilson’s work ethic still impresses his coaching colleagues.
“He’s the hardest-working person I have ever seen in my life,” said Dave Johnson, who coached under Wilson at O. Perry and is now the coach at St. Augustine High.
Wilson didn’t have an all-star staff at O. Perry Walker. Quite the opposite. Wilson had some friends from the neighborhood who knew football but needed a good bit of coaching themselves.
With a modest coaching supplement to offer his assistants, Wilson kept his coaches happy by keeping them well dressed in coaching gear.
Wilson took whatever was left, which was often old and worn out.
“He did not want to fail,” Johnson said. “He’d get upset with us if we wanted to leave at 1 o’clock in the morning. I’m like ‘Frank, we have the best team in the state. We’re going to be all right. I’m going home to my family.’”
Wilson stayed, Johnson remembers, often until 5 a.m.
It’s that dedication that helped Wilson lead O. Perry Walker to a state title in 2002. Now, he’ll need that same dedication all over again.
Some questioned first-year UT coach Lane Kiffin when Wilson was hired away from Southern Mississippi to coach receivers. A quick glance at his resume reveals no mention of coaching receivers at any level (even though Wilson did so as an offensive coordinator in high school).
He was a longtime high school coach. Was he simply being hired for his recruiting connections in Louisiana and Mississippi?
“I’ve always considered myself a student of the game,” Wilson said. “To be able to (coach receivers) hands-on at this level is something that I was looking forward to. Spring ball was fantastic.”
Better than that, actually.
Wilson’s receivers were named UT’s most improved offensive group. Senior wideout Quinton Hancock was named one of the team’s two most improved players
To better prepare himself, Wilson met with NFL receiver coaches Curtis Johnson of the New Orleans Saints and Henry Ellard of the New York Jets.
“He’s going to do a great job, no matter what position he coaches, no matter what sport he coaches,” Johnson said.
There were whispers within the SEC that implied that Wilson’s lack of experience coaching collegiate receivers may have hurt UT’s recruiting, especially when the Vols lost out on a handful of top-flight wideouts leading up to National Signing Day.
“It never came up as an issue,” Wilson said. “I think I can speak to it and get on the board and clinic it just as well as anyone else at this level.”
He worked his way to that level by coaching in one of the most talent-rich football areas in the nation. It’s a part of his history he’ll never forget.
Where I Came From
Wilson’s career was exploding when Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana.
He was in the middle of his first SEC preseason camp at Ole Miss when the levees broke in New Orleans.
Now, Wilson uses his position to help those in need — especially those still struggling in New Orleans.
“Some people, they forget where they came from and they move on, whereas Frank is always coming back and giving,” said Emmanuel Powell, the coach at O. Perry Walker. “He’s always coming back and teaching. He’s always sharing the knowledge.
“We’re still rebuilding from Hurricane Katrina. It’s always valuable to have someone with Frank’s character, dedication and hard work to continue to help in the community.”
Such community ties have paid dividends for UT’s recruiting. Defensive tackle Anthony Johnson from O. Perry Walker committed to be a part of UT’s 2011 class.
Powell knows Johnson will be in good hands with Wilson.
“He’s not just about the 40 time,” Powell said. “He’s not just about football. He’s about making you a man.”
The loyalty and respect that New Orleans residents have for Wilson was evident during UT’s football camp this week when 60 prospects and several coaches made the nine-hour drive to Knoxville for a day camp.
They all know that if they commit, they’ll be taken care of — whether they like it or not.
“He’s going to make sure they do the things they’re supposed to do in the classroom,” Johnson said. “Sometimes with teen-aged kids that’s hard. They want everybody to tell them the right things. He’s not going to do that.
“That’s what I respect about him. He’s going to tell those kids some tough things. Some days they’re going to be upset but that’s all right with him because he knows later in life they’re going to respect him for it.”
Wilson didn’t have to sign a college coaching contract to help young men from New Orleans. He did so before he ever left — once with a certain amount of trickery, a case where the ends justified the means.
He handed Johnson the reins of O. Perry Walker minutes before the season-opening jamboree.
Wilson had accepted the Director of Athletics position for all of New Orleans Public Schools but had to be sure that his football team was left in good hands.
“He said I’m not going to coach this game,” Johnson said, recalling the conversation that occurred on the field just before kickoff. “These kids are counting on you. I need you to stay.”
Had Johnson had more warning, he would have left. He didn’t want the often-overwhelming responsibilities of being a head coach.
Wilson wouldn’t have it any other way. Thanks to his short notice, Johnson had no choice. He coached that team and is still coaching and leading young men in New Orleans.
From that staff, Johnson and three other assistants have become head coaches.
“The moral of my story,” Wilson said, “is whenever I’m fortunate enough to get a break, I always try to reach back and pull someone else in to help them get an opportunity.”