As Hesser steps in, team aims for smooth coaching transition

The Gophers are trying to maintain recruiting ties amid long-time head coach Gary Wilson’s retirement announcement.

Nickalas Tabbert

Longtime head women’s cross country coach Gary Wilson announced he will retire after the 2012-13 season, University of Minnesota athletics director Norwood Teague said in a press release Monday.

Volunteer assistant head coach Sarah Hesser will assume the duties of head cross country coach and assistant track coach next summer.

“I decided a long time ago that I wasn’t going to overstay my welcome, and I’m thrilled that we’ve been able to make this transition,” Wilson said. “And after 36 years of marriage, my wife Suzy deserves a bit of my time. Without her support, this program wouldn’t be where it is today.”

The change in leadership comes during the middle of a recruiting phase, said Hesser, who recently signed a three-year contract to coach through June 2016 with a base salary of $55,000.

Though both coaches have been in contact with this year’s class, Wilson said he wanted to stick to the transition plan.

“I don’t want the program to lose recruits because [the recruits’] assumption is that I’m going to be around or not going to be around,” he said. “You have to know when to say this is perfect. And this is perfect.”

Wilson, who has coached the Gophers for 28 years, will remain with the program as the executive director of the Roy Griak Invitational, scheduled to run for the 27th time this Saturday at Les Bolstad Golf Course. It has become one of the biggest cross country meets in the country since Wilson helped establish it.

Wilson stepped down as Minnesota’s head women’s track and field coach before the 2007 season. He is currently an assistant to head coach Matt Bingle.

Hesser said coaching at Minnesota has always been her dream job.

“If you asked me eight years ago, I thought I would have been coaching somewhere else and hoping to come back someday. Everything lined up to stay here.”

As a coach, Hesser has been a part of both of Minnesota’s Big Ten titles and all four of its track and field conference titles. Since she joined the staff in 2005, the Gophers have qualified for every cross country NCAA championships meet.

She has a Level 1 Track and Field/Cross Country Coaching Certificate and is the 2012-14 Midwest representative to the Executive Cross Country Committee of the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association, where she discusses how to move the sport forward.

As a runner, Hesser was a three-time letterwinner and was twice named a team captain in cross country. She lettered once as a member of the track team and was a captain her senior year.

In her seven years under Wilson, Hesser has done nearly everything related to coaching. But because of NCAA restrictions, she hasn’t left campus to recruit at meets or make home visits. She won’t get her chance to do that until next summer.

Hesser said she is confident about the athletes she has met so far.

“We’ve got a really strong group of Minnesota kids that I think feel very tied to the University and feel very tied to our team,” she said, adding that many of these recruits already know her or women on the team from camps.

“I’ve emailed them a lot saying, ‘Hey, you know what, this class is going to have a little special place for me because it will be really my first class of people,’”Hesser said.

Senior associate athletics director Marc Ryan said Hesser has paid her dues and is ready for the challenge.

“To get a chance to work alongside and learn from and be mentored by one of the great ones in the business in Gary Wilson is a huge plus,” he said.

About 35 athletes are interested in joining the team now, and the recruiting class will feature between 12 to 15 runners, according to Hesser.

Most athletes make campus visits beginning in December and don’t sign until February, Hesser said.

Wilson said the program is in good hands as he prepares to leave.

He also said he backed his point last year when a recruit said things were going to be different when Hesser took over.

“Do you think for one second that I would have come here in 1985, done all this work for this program and gotten the program where it is today with the help of Sarah and Matt [Bingle] and everybody else, and then hand it over and hand-pick somebody that’s an idiot? What’s the matter with you people?”

 

—Drew Claussen contributed to this report.