Catching Up with former Bulldog Barry Wilson
After throwing for a region record number of touchdown passes as a senior at Benedictine Military School (Savannah, Ga.), Barry Wilson was a highly touted quarterback entering college in 1961. Switching to end at Georgia, Wilson was a standout on offense and defense for the Bulldog varsity from 1962-1964. As a senior at Georgia, his playing career culminated with him leading the Bulldogs in interceptions, earning All-SEC recognition, and being named team captain of head coach Vince Dooley’s first squad.
Wilson was a long-time college and professional football coach through the late 1990s. His stops as an assistant included at Georgia, Ole Miss, Georgia Tech, Duke, Florida, and the Tampa Bay Bandits of the now-defunct United States Football League (USFL). Wilson was the head coach at Duke from 1990-1993.
UGASports caught up with Wilson from his home in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he has lived for the past 20-plus years.
UGASports: Barry, to start off, how did you go from a relatively highly touted quarterback in high school to playing end, of all positions, at Georgia?
Wilson: “In those days in college football, it wasn’t uncommon for schools to sign a lot of recruits as athletes. It wasn’t so position-specific as it is now. Georgia’s 1961 recruiting class included 13 signees who been quarterbacks in high school, including myself. Plus, by that year, Georgia already had some really good quarterbacks on varsity—guys like Larry Rakestraw, Jack Saye, and Dale Williams. When I came in, I was recognized as a good athlete and a good competitor, while standing at 6-foot and 185 pounds. So, I was told I was a good candidate to play a different position. The coaching staff asked me if I would be willing to try another position other than quarterback. Well, I was actually kind of flattered, so I had no problem moving to the end position.”
UGASports: Please explain your “end” position while at Georgia.
Wilson: “On offense, the end would line up at tight end or split end. On defense, the end was more like a defensive end or outside linebacker. For three years, I played both ways in that capacity. But, for my junior season (1963), confusing regulations on substitutions were implemented, which I guess you could say was a transition to two-platoon football. For example, you could only partially substitute—not substitute entire units—and at only certain times. By the time Coach Dooley came in (1964), all those crazy substitution rules had ended and it pretty much went to full two-platoon football.”
UGASports: Speaking of Coach Dooley, in a way, he was your third head coach at Georgia, right?
Wilson: “Yes, I was recruited out of high school by Wally Butts and his staff. After I signed, Coach Butts retired and one of his assistants, Johnny Griffith, took over. I played my first three years under Coach Griffith and his staff. After my junior year, Coach Dooley replaced Griffith—and obviously, that was the beginning of an unbelievable era of Georgia football.”
UGASports: To that point, what made Dooley so different? How was he able to immediately succeed after Georgia had experienced such a tough time for so long? (In the 15 seasons prior to Dooley’s arrival, the Bulldogs had achieved only five winning campaigns.)
Wilson: “This is not to reflect negatively on the previous staff. Coach Griffith and his assistants were all fine men and football coaches. It’s more to praise Coach Dooley and his staff. But, beginning in 1964, we worked hard at practice, yet we worked objectively, as well. We could see what we were doing and why we were doing it. We had been so used to being in full pads and beating the crap out of each other for the first practice. So, for Coach Dooley’s first practice, we were so surprised that we didn’t have full-speed contact. Coach [Jim] Pyburn was a tough, hard-nosed coach, and my position coach. At that first practice, I remember even him saying for us to ‘back off’ of one another, and ‘Rome was not built in a day!’ After a couple of days, Coach Dooley must have thought we should pick up the pace. By the third day, we were getting after it pretty good and Coach Pyburn was really getting onto us. But, a difference between Coach Dooley’s staff and the previous staff was you could cut up with Coach Dooley’s staff a little bit—but only if you were working hard. So, during that third practice, as we were getting after it and Coach Pyburn was getting onto us, I said to Coach Pyburn, ‘Coach, did they build Rome in three days?!?’ We did heavy-duty stuff (heavy hitting), but only if it was required. We weren’t just hitting for the sake of hitting—and it paid off, obviously.”
UGASports: It’s often been said another reason for Coach Dooley’s success was his ability to surround himself with a great staff. Do you agree?
Wilson: “Definitely, yes. And until I became a head coach myself, you realize how important it is to surround yourself with a great staff. And keep this in mind, Coach Dooley was only 32 years old for his first season as head coach at the University of Georgia, which hadn’t had long-term success in quite a while. Yet, he had the good sense and lack of ego to surround himself with coaches who were actually more established in the coaching profession than he was—like his brother, Bill Dooley, the offensive coordinator; Erk Russell, the defensive coordinator; and Hootie Ingram, Frank Inman, and others. Coach Dooley was like a very successful CEO of an organization or corporation, which he could have been if he hadn’t gone into coaching. He was very detailed but intelligently detailed. Some coaches are so detailed it wastes time. Coach Dooley was also highly organized, but not so structured to where everyone was handcuffed, so to speak.”
UGASports: You mentioned Erk Russell. What do you remember about a legendary man you not only played under but coached with, as well?
Wilson: “Erk Russell was not only a great coach but a great human being. In fact, he was one of the finest human beings I had the pleasure of being around. It seems like everybody has 1,000 Erk stories. But what I remember most is he could get the most out of everybody, yet he never criticized, belittled, or cussed out anyone. If he had to get onto somebody, he’d walk up beside them and talk to them quietly and individually. But if that same player did something good, he was going to praise them so everyone at practice would know it. Erk Russell was just an unbelievable example of a coach I tried to emulate as much as I could for the 30 years of my coaching career.”
UGASports: For your senior season, Georgia opened up by getting badly beaten at Alabama (31-3) but rebounded for a shocking 7-3-1 final record. Against a lot of odds, how did that team fare so well?
Wilson: “Although we might have played poorly and was beaten pretty good by Alabama, we didn’t get brutalized the next Monday at practice. We reviewed the film and analyzed why we didn’t get the job done. But there was no panic among the coaches, no arguing among the players or staff. The next week, we defeated Vanderbilt (7-0) and started to build confidence, build camaraderie. That right there might have set the tone for something positive. I don’t think it was necessarily something singularly which resulted in us having a surprisingly good season. We just took each game one at a time.”
UGASports: After you graduated, you were an assistant coach for the Georgia freshman team before deciding to enlist in the U.S. Army. Describe your military service.
Wilson: “If I was to pick the three things I’m most proud of in my life, it’d be 1) my family; 2) being elected captain by my teammates at Georgia; and 3) my military service. I was in the Army Infantry assigned to the Third Infantry Regiment in Arlington, Virginia, a combat-ready infantry unit that also handles all the ceremonial duties in Washington, D.C. At one point, I made the U.S. Army Honor Guard, which does all the ceremonies at the White House. Within the Honor Guard Company, there is a small section of guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I was selected as a Tomb Guard and did that for about six months and then was promoted to Relief Commander. I really enjoyed the military. About two years in, Coach Dooley offered me a position. I really debated whether to go back to Georgia to coach or stay in the military. I decided to coach football.”
UGASports: After coaching at Georgia through 1973, and then Ole Miss for three seasons (1974-1976), you were an assistant at Georgia Tech for six seasons (1977-1982). We’re guessing that’s when your close relationship with Steve Spurrier began? (Spurrier was Tech’s quarterbacks coach for one season, 1979).
Wilson: “Yes. I left Ole Miss for Georgia Tech to get closer to home in Savannah. I was an assistant under Pepper Rodgers for three seasons, followed by Bill Curry for another three seasons. In Pepper’s final season, I met Steve and we hit it off pretty darn well. When Steve got a job (head coach of the Tampa Bay Bandits) in the new spring football league, the USFL, he contacted me and asked if I’d come down to Tampa with him. We were down there for the formulation of the league (1983) until it folded three-and-a-half years later.”
UGASports: What was it like to suddenly be coaching professional football—and in a new league at that—after years of coaching college ball?
Wilson: “And, for my first two seasons, I coached the defensive line, which I had never done before. Still, it was a great group of guys. We got along great, and it was a lot of fun. At Tampa Bay, we operated like a college staff more so than most pro staffs of the time. Also in Tampa, we had some really good players—guys who, when the league folded, went on to play many years in the NFL. Being part of the Bandits was so colorful. [Actor] Burt Reynolds was one of the three principal owners, so we got to associate with Burt and [actress] Loni Anderson (Reynold’s girlfriend at the time) and go out to Hollywood to Burt’s house. Owner John Bassett was a master at marketing. So, we had all kinds of fun things we’d put on for the people who came to the Bandits games. For those three years, we were the toast of Tampa and St. Pete, you could say. During that time, we actually outdrew the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers in attendance.”
UGASports: After the USFL folded, you coached again with Steve Spurrier as Duke’s defensive coordinator. When Spurrier left for Florida, you became Duke’s head coach. In four seasons, you compiled a 13-30-1 record. However, it was said that you and your staff often ran into bad luck, like the fact you won only four of 15 games decided by a touchdown or less.
Wilson: “Yeah, we had a tough time with injuries and such. We had more injuries than the average team suffers. I can look back and think of probably 100 things I might have done differently as the head coach of Duke. But one thing I know I did right was the way I treated the players and tried to uphold the dignity of Duke University. But the bottom line is you have to win—and regardless of any reasons and excuses why you don’t win. And we didn’t win enough games.”
UGASports: With two games still remaining in the 1993 season, you decided to resign from Duke as its head coach effective at the end of the season. Why did you resign early instead of waiting to be asked to step down or getting fired?
Wilson: “I resigned early and effective at the end of the season so the athletic director, Tom Butters, could go ahead and start planning for the next head coach. I highly respected Tom Butters and wanted the best for the Duke football program. Tom could not have treated me better both personally and professionally. I loved him as my boss and as my friend. He was not that much older than me, yet, to some degree, I could call him a surrogate father. He was a tremendous leader and a great man.” (After resigning as head coach, Wilson served as an assistant to Butters in various capacities for a couple of years.)
UGASports: You left Duke in the mid-1990s and went to coach again with Steve Spurrier at Florida for two seasons (including the Gators’ 1996 national championship campaign). Where did you go from there?
Wilson: “While at Georgia, I had gotten to know Nelson Bowers, who had been a Georgia player before severely injuring himself. We stayed in touch and Nelson wound up owning many automobile dealerships. He sold off a lot of his dealerships and got involved in at least a half-dozen different entities. For example, he owned some drug and alcohol treatment facilities and owned three NASCAR race teams at one time. Nelson called wanting me to come work for him. I told him that all I knew was just football—nothing really when it came to the business world. He said that the business world was like the sports world. If you’re honest and good to people, while treating them right, most things work out just fine. So, I went to work for Nelson and was involved in his business entities. I did that for 11 years before I finally retired.”
UGASports: Since you have been retired for a decade or so, what have you been up to?
Wilson: “I’ve always done my own yardwork and landscaping. I love to fish and I hunt a little bit. I grew up on the water and that’s always been my escape from the pressures of football—to be on an ocean or lake. I’m always doing things around the house too. Our daughters and grandkids are all in Birmingham, so we go there frequently. We spend a good bit of time with all of them. I stay busy enough. If I ever get a little bored, I always find something to do.”
UGASports: Briefly, tell us about your family.
Wilson: “Kay, my wife, has been my sweetheart since she was going into the eighth grade and I was going into the ninth grade. We got married about a month before I got out of the Army. We have two daughters: Tricia and Barrie. We also have three grandchildren: Greer, Wilson, and Crawford.”
UGASports: Barry, you have seemingly lived your life to its fullest. Finally, what are your thoughts if you were to reflect back on the life you’ve lived thus far?
Wilson: “If I drop dead tomorrow, I’d consider myself unbelievably lucky. First off, I had great parents, who gave me lots of love, while any discipline I received was applied intelligently. I’ve been extremely blessed. There is nothing mystical about me. I feel like I’ve worked hard to earn at least some of the things which have benefited my life. But, at the same time, I realize there are a lot of people who could do just as well at many things I’ve accomplished. Still, with God’s blessing, I’ve had opportunities. Yet, for the most part, I think I’ve done well with the opportunities I’ve been given. Sure, as a head coach at Duke, I regret that I didn’t win more games. But, at my age, I look back on that time and I’m more proud of the positive messages I receive via Facebook, email, and such, from my former players at Duke. Football is a game you undoubtedly want to win. But, at the same time, when you treat people right, and are recognized for doing so, the winning or losing part doesn’t quite matter as much when you look back on your coaching career. To answer your question, long story short, I’ve had a blessed life—and I’m very, very appreciative of that.”