State berth culmination of long journey for coachNovember 29, 2019
By JONATHAN SAXON
INDIANAPOLIS ― Todd Wilkerson wasn’t quite sure what to tell his players after Heritage Hills’ 34-3 loss to Bishop Chatard in Friday’s 3A state championship game. He had gone over it in his mind many times, but he could only settle on one theme — be appreciative for the moment.
“It was a great experience,” said Wilkerson. “I’m proud of them. They made it to Lucas Oil Stadium on Thanksgiving weekend. I don’t know how you could ask for much more than that, other than winning your final game.”
Wilkerson was speaking about the team after the game, but the sentiment of his words could easily apply to his own journey to Lucas Oil, one that started as a man looking for a way to fill time as he headed off to join the Navy
When Wilkerson first volunteered to help out with the Heritage Hills football program in the fall of ’92, he initially thought of it as a fun way to spend his free time as he prepared to enlist. Wilkerson liked his first experience participating in the Friday night festivities so much that he took up the clipboard once again after leaving the Navy, but never imagined becoming glued to the Patriots sideline for more than 20 years, eight of which he’s spent as the head coach.
“I wasn’t thinking that at all,” he said when he started coaching on the middle school team in 1999. “I was a 29-year-old guy who liked coaching, so I was happy to get involved with the program.”
Wilkerson hit the sidelines when the Pats were going through major changes as a result of a long string of success. The Patriots went 11-1 in 1999, and followed that up with six consecutive seasons where they made it to at least the semi-state round. The 2000 and 2004 seasons resulted in state berths, with the Patriots winning their only title in 2000. Wilkerson assisted with the varsity team on Fridays after coaching the middle school team during the week, and he remembers it being the best kind of on-the-job learning he could experience.
“I was the guy that had a notepad with me,” he said. “I followed those guys around, wrote down the things that they said and I really became a student of our system.”
Indiana Football Hall-of-Fame coach Bob Clayton, who also coached Wilkerson when he played for the Patriots from 1984-87, took note of his dedicated and studious approach to his coaching duties and promoted Wilkerson to be the freshman coach in 2007. Wilkerson said he was always in-tune with the offensive side of the ball from his time playing as a quarterback and receiver for the Patriots, but coaching challenged him to become well-versed in all aspects of the game, especially with being assigned to the defensive line while he was a varsity assistant.
“I had never coached the defensive line,” said Wilkerson. “I understood the secondary and the linebackers, but (Clayton) made me a defensive line coach. That really made me learn a different position. It really pushed me and was great for me because it tied the whole defensive scheme together.”
Wilkerson was eventually elevated to the head coach position in 2012 following Clayton’s retirement, but it wasn’t all roses at the start. He only won seven games in his next two seasons and there were murmurs around the community that maybe he wasn’t the man for the job. Yet those rough times taught Wilkerson another valuable lesson about crafting a team’s identity.
“My first few years as a head coach we felt like we needed to change our offensive scheme,” he said. “We didn’t really know what that was going to look like. We tried a few things, and it really didn’t fit us. In the last few years, we’ve gotten back to that identity of doing things that fit the type of kids we have. We were never really blessed with really fast guys or huge linemen year in and year out. (But) you can have mid-sized linemen and hard-nosed kids and still run the football and play great defense.”
Sticking to those convictions worked wonders for Wilkerson, who won 12 games and made the semi-state game in his third year in 2014, a feat which he credits with saving his job, and he has since solidified his claim to the head coach position, where he is 63-27 overall.
Earlier this week, Wilkerson reflected on the two consecutive undefeated seasons and the excitement around the team of making it back to the state title game for the first time in 15 years. He said practice was great, and the team got a chance to work out in at Lucas Oil Stadium ahead of the title game. The Patriots fell short, but Wilkerson chose to look at the upside rather than stay still in the feeling of loss. He hopes that he and the Patriots can serve as an example of where your journey can take you, no matter where you start.
“Invigorating a community like they did was amazing,” he said. “That inspires some young kid (to say), 'Maybe if I work really hard I can get to Lucas Oil someday.'"
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