A group of Gophers cross country runners appear out of nowhere as they ascend to the peak of a hill. Right along side them is a man in a golf cart shouting encouragement to the athletes as he keeps pace. That man is Gary Wilson, Minnesota’s women’s cross country coach.
“I got too damn old to run after them,” said Wilson, who turns 50 this month. “It gives me a better feel for the race because I can see what’s going on, and I can follow them.”
Wilson is entering his 19th year in collegiate coaching. He has been named NCAA coach of the year three times — in 1989 with the Gophers and in 1983 and 1984 at Wisconsin-La Crosse, which is a Division III school.
While with the Eagles, Wilson led the women’s cross country team to national Division III runner-up honors three consecutive years from 1982 to 1984.
Still, with all his coaching honors at La Crosse, Wilson was desperate for a chance to coach at the D-I level.
“I’ve never regretted (leaving Wisconsin-La Crosse),” Wilson said. “We had a great run there. It was the easiest place to recruit kids to, but I always wanted to take a shot at Division I.”
Another reason for Wilson’s departure from La Crosse after eight years was that the school tried to convince him to get a doctorate degree to continue coaching.
“I don’t want to be an administrator,” Wilson said. “I want to be out on the field with the kids.”
In his 11 years at Minnesota, he has guided the Gophers women to the NCAA cross country meet twice — in 1989 and 1991.
Wilson has coached 11 All-Americans in women’s cross country over his career, including recent graduate Lori Townsend.
His newest project is sophomore Anna Gullingsrud, a transfer from Purdue.
“He cares a lot about us as people, not just as runners or horses,” Gullingsrud said.
Wilson stresses academics, as well as athletics to his runners to make his athletes more well-rounded.
“The biggest thing is that I’m an educator first,” Wilson said. “My coaching philosophy is to give everyone a fair shot. You have to be accountable in our program.”
Since 1994 he has been the president of the Women’s Intercollegiate Cross Country Coaches Association, and he remains one of the most respected coaches in the country.
As if that wasn’t enough, he is also the Gophers women’s track and field coach.
His 1995 cross country team finished in the middle of the Big Ten pack at 5th place. So far, this year’s youthful cross country squad has looked impressive, turning all eyes towards the future.
“I think our recruiting class is really strong,” Wilson said. “Our long-term goal is to consistently be in the top three in the Big Ten. Another one of my goals is to place in the top 15 at the NCAA meet.”
Wilson’s teams at Minnesota have not strayed too far from those goals.
They have placed in the upper division of the Big Ten every year except 1987 since he has taken over the program.
Wilson’s 1991 cross country team was the first Gophers team to place in the top 20 at the NCAA meet since 1983.
Despite all the achievements and victories that Wilson has contributed to this program, it seems his greatest achievement is his rapport with his athletes.
“I love to coach,” Wilson said. “I love seeing them grow from high school kids to college graduates.”