Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Georgia Gwinnett College's Athletic Director Darin Wilson poses for a portrait in front of the new 25,000 square feet GGC athletic complex in Lawrenceville. Wilson who has been the Grizzles athletic director since August 2011 has over seen much success in the school first year of athletics.
Following the completion of the first season of athletics at Georgia Gwinnett College, athletic director Darin Wilson sat down in the department's new office complex with Daily Post staff writer Ben Beitzel to discuss the Grizzlies' first year in NAIA competition and the work it took to reach and pass the point of competing in college athletics. Wilson discusses his vision for the future and the challenges facing and already overcome by the young department.
BB: Let's start with where we sit. This new building seems to epitomize the growth here at GGC. Like the facilities surrounding it, a year ago, this was just empty land. Can you even put into words how much you've seen done, how much work you've done and seen in just this past year?
DW: It's been extremely busy. We had our final staff meeting with our head coaches and our administrative staff and we just talked about really the last year that they've been here. Some of them haven't been here a year and that's really hard to believe. When you look at tennis and, really, softball, they were able to put their seasons together and not be here a year yet is pretty remarkable. From a facilities standpoint, there is no doubt it's been a very, very fast track. We've worked extremely hard and a lot of long hours to put this all together and certainly that's not just been me. This is a showplace for college athletics in my opinion, from the building to the fields as well as the tennis facilities. Yes, it's been a lot of hard work, but we are looking forward to this next year, being able to get into this building and settle in and really see how this is going to function and ultimately see how it's going to benefit our student-athletes.
BB: It feels like next year will be the first year where this will be an athletic department that can focus on athletics over construction.
DW: You're right. It will be the first year we will have our facilities for a full year. Our softball team (played home games at Collins Hill High School's home field). We were very thankful to Collins Hill High School to letting us play softball there, but our softball team had to play almost all their games either there or on the road. Baseball was on the road for the first 19 games. Both of our soccer teams opened up on our intramural fields here. This will be the first year that we are able to play right here at our home facilities as well as compete for postseason play (NAIA doesn't allow first-year programs to compete in postseason). I am not used to sitting around this time of year and ... not competing in something. Really looking forward to that next year.
BB: How different was that for you and your coaches to just end a season and to play one with no hope of winning on a larger level?
DW: It's been two years for some coaches. Our baseball coach, Brad (Stromdahl) was here, I guess, two falls ago, so he's had two years where he hasn't been able to compete in postseason play. It's been different. Really it's been two years for me as well. Last year, obviously, I was here and we didn't have our teams up and running and then this year we were ineligible for postseason play.
You start to itch. You get ready to be able to compete. That's one of the things we want to do here. We want to compete at the highest level of NAIA, across the board in all sports. To do that, you are competing not only for conference championships, but national championships. That's our goal.
BB: Your coaches have found some success in recruiting, how much will this facility, the brick and mortar help attract the type of NAIA talent to meet that goal?
DW: It's huge in terms of recruiting. You think of the teams that did pretty well this past year (only one team finished under .500), they were being recruited to a vision. They were being recruited to documents that showed what this was going to look like and architecture renderings, not the actual grass and dirt and fields that are out there. To be able to bring recruits in now and see this going forward, that's going to be very beneficial not just this year but even for the following year and the following year after that. Once we get established as an athletic department not only here but throughout the country it's going to continue to be a great recruiting tool.
BB: These are not only new, but they are compact and close to campus, with baseball, softball and soccer all surrounding this building.
DW: A lot of new facilities look nice, but not only do these facilities look nice, but they are extremely nice. They are extremely well put together and well thought out. What you don't see under our baseball and soccer and softball fields are just as important as what you see on them in terms of the drainage, the sandcap that both softball and baseball have.
Everything that makes this facility what it is, including the dugouts and stands and scoreboards and press box and everything that kind of brings it all together.
BB: Tell me what it was like developing the vision. You were tasked with the job of leading this. That's more than just an athletic director.
DW: That's certainly one of the things that attracted me to this job was to get to come in and put my footprint on it and expand on the vision that the institution had in place for athletics. It's been very gratifying to this point. It's also been great to see the kind of support that Lawrenceville has given, that Gwinnett County has given, that our faculty has given, our staff, as well as the student-athletes that come in here. What they really represented for us, not just on the field, but off the field with their community service and their grade point average with how they represented themselves on campus and in the community. All of that is important to me. At the end of the day there is no question we want to win, and again, we want to compete for championships, but for me it all goes together. You have to start at the top and you go to your administration and your head coaches and that all filters down to the athletes.
BB: You knew what you were getting into, but what didn't you know.
DW: I am not sure looking back anybody knows what you are getting into unless you've done this before. There are a lot of things that you deal with in a first year or two that maybe you haven't thought about or you haven't encountered before.
One of the things that's been unique on this campus has been everything that we've had to do from an athletics standpoint, for the most part, somebody on this campus has had to do from another standpoint because the institution is only seven years old.
There have been a lot of firsts here and a lot of new things here. But to come into a campus that has never had athletics and really educate the campus as to how athletics touches each piece of the campus from admissions to financial aid to the registrars office to development to the president's office to the academic dean's office, it touches each part of the institution.
The great thing is we have super people here at Georgia Gwinnett College from a faculty and staff standpoint that have really embraced us. That's huge and you don't see that very often across the country.BB: It has been supportive? There can be pushback from faculty that don't like sports.
DW: It's been wonderful. Our faculty have been extremely supportive. (Berkmar grad) Ian Potter, our assistant athletic director for compliance and academics, has done a wonderful job communicating with our faculty and we've really tried to do a great job with our faculty as well letting them know that we are here to win, we are here to compete, but our students are also here to get a degree. That's first and foremost why we are here.
BB: Are you surprised at the success your coaches had to get players here and to find success in the first season?
DW: As I look back on the winning percentage, and really the quality of play that we put out on our fields and courts, I am pleasantly surprised.
I certainly thought there would be times where we would struggle more so than we did this year. I think it's a testament to the coaches that we have here, the hard work they put in, and I also think it's a testament to the type of student and student-athlete that we have here.
We should continue to get better. Each year should bring in a better quality student and a better quality player. But I couldn't be more pleased for a first year of competition then what we did this past year.
BB: What was the biggest challenge?
DW: It's definitely been a lot of work. That's the most challenging piece of it. There are a lot of late hours, a lot of late nights and a lot of early mornings and a lot of decisions that had to be made, especially with a project of this size that came together as quickly as it came together, that have to be made very rapidly. That becomes challenging at times. To put it all together at once. To try to compete and to make sure you have your compliance issues down and you have your academics piece in place and you've got your schedule in place and your logos and your uniforms are they way you want them to look.
Everything that goes in to a first-year program, certainly brings its own set of challenges.
BB: You may not have a sense of this, but have you noticed an impact of athletics on campus?
DW: I certainly hope we've brought a lot of those aspects to the institution. I think you certainly have a greater sense of school pride here.
A team to cheer for. From our standpoint, we certainly want to be the Grizzlies. We want to be one department. I think it brings name and brand recognition throughout the state, throughout the region and, certainly, throughout the country and even outside that nation ... that Georgia Gwinnett is becoming more of a household name here but also around the country because athletics helps get that message out there.
Hopefully that's part of it. People start to recognize our G and our G claw. We are in a state with a lot of Gs and a lot of important Gs, but certainly our G is extremely important to us.
BB: Tell me when you had a wow moment. A time when you surprised yourself with how much was done here so quickly.
DW: There have been several of those, probably, at certain junctures. For instance, when we first got the turf field done. That was a wow moment, we turn the lights on, the turf shines, we play our first game down there, we have a great crowd. Sort of a wow moment.
As the baseball and softball fields started to take shape and come online and the grass greens up, again another wow moment. Now as the building takes shape and to get to bring people in here and show them what's here, especially those that have driven up and down Collins Hill Road for years and this was a big kudzu field. This really, again, is a showplace.
It's very satisfying. But just as I told our coaches (at the year-end meeting), 'This year is over.' We've got, as we had our student-athletes banquet, I said, this is the last of the firsts. We had a lot of firsts this year. We had the inaugural year, we had the first soccer game, first baseball, softball, tennis matches. We've celebrated all of that, which has been wonderful.
But now that's over. Now it's time to compete and compete for championships. I am not one to sit back and enjoy what we have. We are looking for the next thing, we are looking for how we can, again, make this the best department in the nation from an NAIA standpoint.