In Depth: Life coach - KMSP-TV

In Depth: Life coach

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His University of Minnesota teams have won Big 10 championships and some of the athletes he coached went on to become Olympians, but he doesn't measure success by trophies.

For Gary Wilson, coaching is all about helping his athletes become better people. His style is part night club act, part drill sergeant, and part teddy bear. It's a combination that apparently works well because his office looks like an award gallery and serves as proof of his remarkable 45-year coaching history.

Wilson is the coaching legend hat most people outside the track crowd have never heard of, but he's been described as a combination between Mark Twain and Robin Williams holding a stop watch.

In many ways, Wilson is a throwback during a time when college athletics tends to be obsessed with trophies, multi-million dollar contracts and buyouts.

"That, to me, is not success," Wilson told FOX 9 News. "It's what you're teaching these kids."

Wilson said he believes hugging his athletes is just as important as putting them through their daily workouts.

"It's all about people, caring about other people," he explained. "If you don't have that, you got nothing."

In fact, hugs are his written policy.

"It says that I can hug you, and everybody signs off on it if they want me to. I have one a year that says, 'No, I don't want you to hug me.' Okay, good. Then I don't want to hug you either," he said with a laugh.

Wilson has been coaching women's track and cross country teams at the University of Minnesota for a quarter of a century.

"He loves us like his own daughters, and that hug is more than like, 'Hey, nice run," said student Heather Brunn. "It's like, 'You are a great kid.'"

FOX 9 Investigator Jeff Baillon admits he knows it to be true because two of his own daughters were coached by Wilson -- and as a father, he appreciates that Wilson constantly tells the team "all boys are scum."

"When you're dealing with 18, 19, 20 year old guys, they don't think a lot with their brain," Wilson said.

As father pro tem, Wilson is just as much a life coach as a track coach. In fact, he's helped many runners who struggle with personal issues, like eating disorders.

"You'll have kids come in and talk to you and be suicidal," he said.

Wilson has even taken a troubled teammate to the hospital and visited them every day for two months until they got better.

His helpers are also treated like family. When the team's equipment manager, Jack, came down with terminal cancer and had no relatives to turn to, Wilson and his wife, Suzy, took him in during his final days. Every Tuesday, Wilson welcomed the team to their home to visit their dying friend.

Three months after Jack died the team went on to win its first Big 10 outdoor championship, and they say Jack was their inspiration.

"For sure, Jack was there," Wilson said. "For sure."

A few years later, the team saw another gut-wrenching cancer claim runner Gabe Anderson. Nobody knew if she would live, much less compete -- but the next year, she was running in the national championship.

"She went from like fifth, sixth or seventh and got second and almost won," Wilson recalled.

Through good times and bad, if there's one lesson Wilson wants his athletes to learn, it's this:

"You learn to come out here and fall down and get back up," Wilson said. "That's what I want to be remembered for, that I helped you get back up -- but most importantly, you helped yourself get back up."

That message can be metaphor for life, or in the case of former Gopher Heather Dorniden, in an actual race. She fell, got back up, and then went on to win. She also became a YouTube sensation.

Wilson hasn't done it all alone. Anyone who has spent time with his team knows that he has his own coach -- his wife.

"I love being a part of it," she told FOX 9 News.

Suzy Wilson is a second-grade teacher and she volunteers at nearly every event.

"Seeing those women and watching them come back as accomplished young women, I'm so proud of them and him being a part of their lives," she said.

Yet, the Wilson era is coming to an end.

"I always said, 'I am not going to be an old coach hanging around too long,'" he admitted.

In June, he plans to retire -- and hundreds of former athletes and their families are expected at the party, which will be like one big family reunion full of hugs.

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