Dave Wilson just wrapped up his 30th season as the women’s basketball team’s head coach — quite an accomplishment, considering he almost lost the job after his first year.
Wilson — who signed a one-year contract in 1981 while he was still an undergraduate student — took the Gaels to the playoffs in his first season at the helm. But when he asked Queen’s Athletics for an extension during the summer, they wouldn’t give it to him. They said they had someone else lined up.
“They wanted to hire somebody that would be more stable and committed to the program … that sounds odd 30 years later,” Wilson said with a laugh.
Wilson waited around while Queen’s pursued their target. But after weeks without an official signing, Wilson gave Athletics an ultimatum.
“One Friday afternoon, I walked in and said, ‘You hire me today or I’m no longer on the table,’” Wilson said. “They said ‘OK you’re hired, because we haven’t been able to hear back from the other guy.’” But only three days later, Athletics called Wilson to tell him they were taking back the offer — their target wanted the position.
“I said ‘No way, you already gave me the job,’” Wilson said.
Athletics compromised and offered Wilson a position as co-coach. When he refused that arrangement, Athletics offered to make him head coach and keep the target around as his assistant. Wilson reluctantly agreed.
“But he ended up getting a job teaching in Ottawa and never showed up,” Wilson said. Aside from 1984-85 — when he acted as an assistant coach — Wilson has been head coach ever since.
On Tuesday, the Journal sat down with Wilson to discuss his career with the Gaels.
Your overall record is 266-264. Are you content with that?
Absolutely not. Is that my record? I’m not content with it by any means.
Am I proud that we have 100 per cent graduation rate? Yes, absolutely. Would I trade a few more wins for a few people failing out of school? No, I don’t think so. But do I think we could still do both? Yeah. But getting that right combination of players at an institution like Queen’s that has a significant number of [academic] restrictions in terms of who can get in here is a challenge.
How did you get started coaching at Queen’s?
I had been playing on the men’s team, and the reason I had turned the job down the first time was because I still wanted to play. But I had back troubles, and a couple weeks into that season, I basically couldn’t get out of bed other than to practice. Eventually, I couldn’t keep doing that, so that’s when I took the job coaching, as an undergrad student.
What type of player were you?
Headstrong and arrogant. I was a good defender and a very good shooter, but not a great passer. To me, that was my downfall in playing. I wasn’t a great passer.
When you took the coaching position in 1981, did you ever think that you’d be doing it for the next 30 years?
It didn’t take very long when I started coaching — I’m talking about a matter of weeks — before I figured out this is what I wanted to do. It was one of those things that once you get started at it, or at least once I got started at it, you get kind of hooked. I’m still trying to figure out how to do the job properly so when I get it right maybe I’ll retire … I really enjoy what I’m doing.
Are there challenges to being a male coach for a women’s team?
No question. In the early days, I was surprisingly attuned to the fact that I was a 21-year-old male coaching players on my team that were older than me, and the sensitivity and potential problems that could create. So I wore a suit and tie, I was very prim and proper, I didn’t want to do anything that anyone could label as inappropriate. Now, I don’t think that. I’ve got enough years behind me.
I remember my first year coaching, like I still do today, I squatted down to players during timeouts. You can’t even imagine it now, but once I tapped a player on her knee and she blushed. That was an ‘OK’ moment. I had to be careful for the first little while in coaching.
[When Athletics wanted to bring in a replacement in 1982], I was livid. I actually drafted a letter [explaining the decision] because I was so concerned that I coached girls for one year as a male at my age, was successful, and wasn’t going to be rehired. What’s the first impression people would get [about a young male coaching girls]?
I actually drove out to [the Athletics director’s house in Gananoque]. I said, ‘You’re going to sign this because this is going to kill my career.’
How many more years do you think you’ll still be hanging around?
One of things I get concerned about as I get older is making sure that I’m still relevant and still connecting with the players. Partly why I have [former player and assistant coach] Sarah Barnes in our program and [former player] Claire Meadows joining this fall is to keep that link going. I have no desire to stop coaching … I suppose I have to retire at some point but I don’t see it in the next little while.
What are your experiences with the Canadian national team like?
I’ve been involved with the national team for 12 years now. I discovered that I really like being an assistant coach — a little less pressure and I can focus on specific things and not have to worry about the bigger picture. I was very keen on gathering things that would help me here — that’s when I started the video program at Canada basketball … one of the most successful things we run [at Queen’s] is taken from film clips that I grabbed off [team] Spain.
Have you coached a player like Brittany Moore?
Yes. Claire Meadows was a heck of a player. There were a number of them, but each player brings different characteristics. I’ve had some great athletes come to mind in terms of scoring prowess … some scoring inside, some being three-point shooters, some being slashers, others being just total all-around scoring. We’ve had other players that scored in different ways but could still be a significant presence.
Besides her scoring prowess, what will you miss the most about Brittany Moore?
Work ethic, without a doubt. If you wanted someone to lead by example, that would be Britt. She competed hard. Why is Britt the best shooter on the team? It’s because she works the most at shooting. How does she lift the most? She works at it. For the longest time she bench-pressed more than anybody else on our team and this is a kid that’s 5’7.
She puts in the time and effort. Lots of people put the time in, but they’re not pushing at that time. Britt puts time in with effort, you put those things together and good things happen.
It’s been five seasons without a playoff win, is there any pressure to get better results?
To be honest, I haven’t considered it too much until Britt started weighing in a little bit — we haven’t had a playoff win in Britt’s time. That’s a tad annoying, and that’s got to change. But we’re going to be better next year and hopefully that will provide us with that opportunity that we’ll go by … the core of our team is first- and second-year.
Has your job ever come under threat?
I honestly don’t know ... I think we need to be better. We have to get back to where we were in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
We’ve started to do the right things to bring us back up. This year, we were over 20 wins [including exhibition games] this season, the first time since 2003. I think we’ll go higher than that again next year.
Which team do you think was a championship contender but kind of fell short of your expectations?
What I learned over the years is that the teams you have is not so much the calibre of the team overall as it is about playing your best basketball at the right time. The team that won the provincials and finished fourth in the country did not have a single All-Canadian on it.
But 2004-05 was personally [disappointing] because … I just thought we had a better team than we showed that year. I didn’t adapt our systems to our players. I misjudged what I thought would work best for that group of players. I really regretted that afterwards.
What are some of your ‘rookie blunders’?
I’ve blundered every year that I’ve coached. Luckily, I have a great memory for forgetting things that weren’t good. I probably [misjudged] players that went to other programs, where I didn’t recognize how good they were going to be. I still do that.
I’ve forgotten to put people in a game — I’ve had it happen where a kid plays great in the first half and I’ve forgotten to put her back in the second half. Now I don’t even do substitutions anymore, I’ve made that problem somebody else’s job.
I’ve forgotten clothes on a road trip — I didn’t bring any pants and had to go buy dress pants.
Who’s your core team going forward now?
We have actually 14 of our 15 returning. You don’t replace Britt with one person; you do it as a group. [Guard] Liz Boag and [wing] Jenny Wright will blossom a lot this summer. Gemma Bullard [who missed this season with an injury] was our second-leading scorer as a rookie in terms of points per game. Her scoring will pick up a bunch of the slack.
We’ll miss Britt, but we’ll be fine. We’ll improve our size … if we could get more inside scoring with our size, it will make our outside shooters even better, because they’ll be less contested when they take those shots.
Do you see Jenny Wright being the centre of the program for the next few years?
I think she has that potential. She has the right combination of size, athleticism, and the skill package. I think she could be an all-Canadian, if her health stays with her.
What do you think you will be doing when you do retire?
I have a place in Florida — I don’t like winter. That’s why basketball was perfect for me, because it gave me something to do through the months that I really didn’t care for. The ideal setup would be golf in the morning, I’m an assistant coach for a high school team in the afternoon and I’m on my patio in the evening.
The above interview has been edited and condensed.
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