Born to be Wilde

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first_imgBRYAN FAUST/Herald photoWisconsin volleyball’s best team member, arguably, is hidden deep on the bench.Not as a backup player, a redshirt freshman or even on the disabled list.Nope, the most skilled UW volleyballer is assistant coach Rod Wilde. The short, red-headed legend may not at first glance draw a great deal of awe from the Field House faithful as an accomplished volleyball player, but he brings with him a strong résumé.”In my opinion — I studied him when I was a player — the guy was the greatest setter, I think, in the United States, the guy’s amazing,” said Washington head coach Jim McLaughlin. “He located the ball better than any setter I’ve ever seen, but he’s also just an unbelievable guy. I spent a lot of time with him and learned so much from him. I always tried to be like him, but I couldn’t be like him — he was too good.”Wilde was born in the state of Indiana — Hoosier country, where the sport of basketball reigns supreme.But Wilde opted to play a sport with a different ball and net when his family moved across the Midwest to Fort Dodge, Iowa. There, he started to hone his volleyball skills as a setter and was heavily recruited by a number of colleges.Wilde decided to attend Pepperdine University, where he made his mark as one of the best male volleyball setters in the country. He earned three All-American honors and led the Waves to the Final Four each of those years, winning a national championship his junior year, 1978, under head coach Marv Dunphy.It was Dunphy who Wilde took the reigns from as head coach at Pepperdine just six years later, but only on an interim basis as Dunphy had Olympic coaching duties from 1984 to 1988.Nonetheless, Wilde made the most of his opportunity and won a national championship in 1986, becoming one of the few to win a title as both a player and a coach — at the same school, even.”It was pretty exciting to have that opportunity to go back and coach a team to the national championship after having won it as a player,” Wilde said. “It’s more emotional as a player, just the high of winning it, but it’s more satisfying as a coach because you realize all the things that went into making it happen.”This was one opportunity Wilde cashed in on, as two years earlier he had missed out on playing at the 1984 Olympics.Six weeks before the Olympic Games, the United States had a match versus Russia where a player came under the net and accidentally bumped into Wilde, breaking his leg.Wilde remembers it like yesterday, but not just because of the freak accident.”We played a match and beat Russia for the first time on Russian soil in the history of the program, and we were all excited about it,” Wilde recalled. “When we walked off the court, the Russian coach walked up and shook the hand of our coach and said, ‘Congratulations, we just heard that the boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics has been declared by Russia.’ So here we were at the highest of highs, so excited about beating Russia because they were the world power at the time. The match was just deteriorated and really was a non-factor after that.”While the significance of defeating Russia may have dwindled, the worst part about it was Wilde’s injury caused him to miss out on playing on a gold-medal team, especially considering he hadn’t been able to play in the 1980 Olympics, either, with the U.S. boycott.”It was disappointing more than anything because I put seven years of my life into being able to do it,” Wilde said. “And then to miss it the way I did was so disappointing.”Controversy would come again for Wilde in the next Olympics he participated in, this time as an assistant — the 1996 Atlanta Games, with the infamous bombing that took place.Wilde served as an assistant once again in the 2000 Olympics, which he cites as the best Games he’s ever been a part of.”They’re all different,” Wilde said of his Olympic experience. “But Sydney stands out because it was just the most fantastic Olympics anybody will ever hold. The people were just amazing and it was a very comradely oriented Olympics.”Aside from the numerous national teams, Wilde has been extremely active on the volleyball circuit. Following his collegiate career, Wilde played for the Tucson Sky of the Pro International Volleyball League until it disbanded in 1983.The league was fairly popular, at least in big volleyball cities such as Tucson, Ariz. and Santa Barbara, Calif. It was also a rather peculiar league as men played front row and women played back with either gender as setter.The competition in the Pro International Volleyball League was strong, but one player Wilde played just a single time stood out for Wilde — former basketball player Wilt Chamberlain, a 7-foot behemoth of a man — an oak masquerading as a man, really — who holds nearly 100 NBA records to this day.Chamberlain played sand volleyball to help with his knee rehab and continued to play after he retired from basketball. While he was one of the most dominant basketball players of his time, it didn’t necessarily translate over to the volleyball court.”He’s a big man to start with,” Wilde said of Chamberlain. “He wasn’t a real skilled all-around player, but in that league he didn’t have to pass or anything — he hit and blocked, and he was pretty effective at that.”The league’s disbanding illustrated how volleyball isn’t as popular in the states as it is in some other countries, typically second best to soccer around the world. Wilde contemplated the thought of playing overseas, but decided to stick with coaching to help propel the American game.Fast forward to 2001, when Wilde caught on as assistant coach under Pete Waite at Wisconsin — initially, he took the position to pass time while looking for a head coaching job, but that is no longer the case today.”I was working a lot on the men’s side and I was looking at some of the women’s programs, but wasn’t getting a whole lot interest from athletic directors because they saw all the men’s background that I had,” Wilde said of his decision to come to UW. “So I thought I’d go put two, three years in with a good women’s program and then look at head coaching somewhere, but I’ve liked it so much here and haven’t had the real desire to go elsewhere.”There have been a few positions available, but nothing that has been a good fit and nothing I’d want to do more than being here at Wisconsin,” he continued. “It’s just really fun to be in this environment and it’s hard to match the crowds, fan base and support that we have.”After all, Wilde’s roots are in the Midwest and his wife is a Milwaukee native. However, he still ventures out to California, his second home where he played at Pepperdine and trained for national teams.Last weekend was a homecoming of sorts for Wilde as the Badgers traveled to the San Diego Invitational, but it was last month’s AVCA Volleyball Showcase right in the Field House that was a real pleasure for him.With Washington and Texas in town, it provided Wilde with a Pepperdine reunion. During Wilde’s head coaching tenure at Pepperdine, McLaughlin served as an assistant — as well as the best man at his wedding — and Texas head coach Jerritt Elliott played for the two.During the AVCA, the two former protégés had nothing but praise for their former boss and continually heralded him as one of the best setters of all time.”He gave me an opportunity when I was young to assist him, and I’ll never forget that,” McLaughlin said.Although it was McLaughlin and Elliott following in the footsteps of Wilde decades ago, now it may be Wilde following in the path of his former pupils.”Those guys have gone on to do some great things with the sport,” Wilde said. “They went the women’s direction early on and had opportunities to get into a top program, so maybe somewhere down the road I’ll do the same thing.”last_img

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