NORFOLK, Va. , That Blaine Taylor remains immensely popular at Old Dominion was evident shortly after 11 am on Thursday when a press release went out announcing that Taylor was returning to ODU.
Twitter and Facebook blew up as ODU adherents celebrated. My phone also blew up with text messages and phone calls from people pumped that Blaine Taylor was coming home.
Little wonder that people are excited. In his 12 seasons as ODU’s men’s basketball coach, Taylor won 239 games, the most in school history. He also took the Monarchs to the NCAA Tournament four times and once to the semifinals of the NIT.
And it wasn’t just winning that made him popular. It was his irrepressible, irresistible personae. His personality is larger than life and he has an uncanny ability to rattle off one-liners that leave an audience in stitches.
He’s returning to ODU as a major gifts fundraiser for the Old Dominion Athletic Foundation. And his popularity undoubtedly will help him.
“Everyone loves Blaine,” baseball coach Chris Finwood said.
But while Athletic Director Wood Selig made it clear that he also loves Taylor, he said that had nothing to do with hiring him.
It was, he said, purely a business decision.
“This comes at a critical juncture in ODU’s and ODAF’s, history,” Dr. Selig said. “Never have the stakes been higher for ODU athletics.”
He then rattled off a litany of needs and challenges ODU faces. ODU needs help to compete with bigger schools when it comes to Name, Image and Likeness and the transfer portal.
ODU’s impending membership in the Sun Belt Conference – the Monarchs become official members on July 1 – will force the football, men’s soccer, baseball and other programs to play in a much more competitive environment.
A proposed, $20 million makeover of Bud Metheny Ballpark, which Selig called “a tired, 40-year-old baseball stadium,” is badly needed. For baseball to compete in the Sun Belt, the renovation has to be done.
Football and men’s and women’s basketball also need more resources, as does every team on campus.
Led by Executive Director Jena VirgaODAF is already one of the most successful fundraising organizations in the Group of 5. ODAF has raised more than $100 million over the last decade and raised $11 million in calendar year 2021.
That’s far more than any school in Conference USA or the Sun Belt.
“And that’s cash money, not pledges,” Virga said. “That’s a really strong number coming off the pandemic.”
But if ODU is to successfully compete in the Sun Belt, it has to raise even more. Virga said ODU’s goal is to raise $12.5 million in 2022 and more in 2023.
“This is a critical time, and we need the best team we can possibly assemble to propel ODU athletics forward,” Selig said. “Blaine Taylor makes us better.”
Taylor is ideally suited for this role. He has many contacts from his 12 years in the community and was a bodacious fundraiser as a coach.
He raised missions of dollars, including most of the money that built the $8.4 million Mitchum Basketball Performance Center for both the men’s and women’s programs.
“Blaine has raised a lot of money everywhere he has been,” Virga said. “He has so many qualities you look for in a fundraiser.”
Selig began his comments by quoting from Thomas Wolfe’s 1940 masterpiece entitled “You Can’t Go Home Again.”
“Obviously, Thomas Wolfe never met Blaine Taylor,” he said.
Certainly, few have the determination and Grit Taylor has displayed over the last nine years.
Jena Virga with Blaine Taylor
He was fired at ODU in 2013 because of alcohol abuse. His dismissal was announced in the same room, the Carol Hudson media room at Chartway Arena, where he was introduced to the media as ODAF’s latest hire.
As Selig noted, that was 3,383 days ago, or nine years, three months and one week ago. “That was one of the most difficult days in ODU’s rich athletic history,” Selig said.
It was even darker for Taylor, who addressed the subject head on Thursday, with humbleness, thankfulness and a bit of wisdom.
Alcoholism runs in my family, so I have an idea of what Taylor went through. Alcoholism is a disease, not a personality weakness, that more than 15 million Americans struggle with daily.
Many fall and some pick themselves back up. But the difference between Taylor and most of the other 15 million is that his struggle played out nationally in the media.
Asked how difficult it was for him, Taylor replied: “You don’t do it alone. And you need a little divine help.
“It’s easy for people to believe in me when I was on top. But the people who believed in my when I wasn’t, boy, there’s a lot of people I owe a lot to. It makes you feel more inclined to give back to others.
“I say sometimes that I had one foot in the grave and one on a banana peel. It was kind of nip, and tucked as to whether I was going to decide to get where I am now” or never recover.
People told him he would never coach again, but he did for four seasons as a successful assistant at UC Irvine.
“And I’m sure at the time nobody thought I could cross the bridge back to a place I love and a place I love living.”
Taylor recently visited his 96-year-old mother and used an anecdote from her to explain how important it is for him to remain sober.
“When I was a boy, I wanted my mom to be proud of me,” he said. “Well, I’ve been to the NCAA Tournament at four schools and won games at three of them. I’ve seen the sun go up over the Atlantic Ocean and go down in the Pacific. I’ve traveled the world recruiting.
“And the thing my mom is most proud of is that I don’t drink.”
Taylor was born in Butte, Montana, a hardscrabble community where, he jokingly said, “the life expectancy for men was about 42 years at one time because you either died in the mines or the bars.
“You think I’m kidding, but I coached Evel Knievel’s grandson at the University of Montana. There was a certain amount of pride that came from being raised in that rough-boned environment.”
He was raised in Missoula, home of the University of Montana, where he was a star player and a standout coach.
His father was a welder who, when World War II broke out, moved to a west coast shipyard where he worked until he turned 18. He then shipped out of Pearl Harbor to fight in the Pacific. His mother was the valedictorian at her high school, but because of World War II, could not go to college.
Jay Haeseker with Blaine Taylor
Blaine Taylor was all blue collar, and that’s how his teams played. He sought out under-recruited players who had a chip on their shoulders and outworked other teams. He is also brilliant – he was headed for law school after college but changed course after being bitten by the coaching bug.
Taylor’s blue-collar roots were evident in his choice of attire for his first press conference in nine years — he wore jeans, some stylish tennis shoes and a blue blazer with a blue tie. That might sound like an odd combination but on Taylor, it looked good. The guy has so much charisma.
He said his parents tried to instill a love of education, as well as a love for basketball, in their seven children. “As a kid, I went to every state tournament every year whether I wanted to or not,” he said.
Taylor said he learned his first fundraising lessons at Loyola Sacred Heart, a Catholic school in Missoula where he first coached.
His team’s uniforms turned pink when washed with girls’ basketball uniforms, whose color bled into the wash. He went to his athletic director and asked about new uniforms. He was given the information on how and where to order them.
“As I’m walking out, he says, ‘by the way, you have to find the money for that,'” Taylor said.
“That was my first education in going out and raising money. I got a guy from the north slope and a truck driver and a guy with a failed business down by the railroad tracks and we had new uniforms.
“The lesson was the look on those kids’ faces when they got those uniforms.”
Taylor was visiting family members in Hampton Roads last winter when he ran into Selig and Virga at an ODU basketball game.
He told Selig that UC Irvine had asked him to accept a role as a fundraiser. But Selig didn’t seem to react. Instead, the wheels began turning in his head.
“I wondered if I’d said something that upset him,” Taylor said.
Selig talked with Virga, and then sat next to Taylor during the game.
“There was a constant interruption while we were watching the game from a steady stream of ODU fans coming up throughout the entire game to Blaine for high fives, hugs, handshakes, pats on the back, and many were requesting to have their picture taken with Blaine,” Selig said.
People were “genuinely welcoming him back to ODU and telling Blaine how great it was to see him again.”
Blaine Taylor with Athletic Director Dr. Wood Selig
Shortly after the game ended, Taylor was walking toward an exit with his 5-year-old grandson, Mylo Montana.
But he found Selig and Virga waiting for him. “They pulled me aside and Wood says, ‘If you’re going out to California to raise money, Jena and I have discussed it and think you should come here and raise money,'” Taylor said.
“Sometimes when you get nervous and emotional, you’ve got to hide behind humor. I didn’t know what else to say, so I said, ‘but you’re the guy who fired me.’
“Then it hit me, could this really be possible? I always thought I could come back here to live. But to come back to Old Dominion to work?
“I’m a treasure chest guy. I don’t carry a lot of bad memories with me. I carry the good ones.
“I will hold that as a treasure chest moment that someone, someway, Old Dominion was open minded enough to think about having me come back.”
Taylor’s four daughters and five grandchildren live in Virginia and North Carolina. Several months after that conversation, Virga contacted Taylor with a formal offer.
He shared the offer with his daughters. “They all texted me back saying, ‘accept the offer’ in all caps. They were so excited when I did.”
So is the staff at ODAF. Once Thursday’s press conference ended, staff members surrounded him and they laughed and joked. Clearly, the chemistry between Taylor and the young staff members at ODAF is outstanding.
Asked what will be his first priority, Taylor said it will be to listen and learn.
“The first thing I want to do is get current on what’s going on here,” he said. “I want to reconnect and listen. My phone has been blowing up, so I know I’m going to have the chance to reconnect with so many friends.”
Complete the press conference, he referred to Loyola Sacred Heart, where his education in coaching and teaching began.
“My job there was to make my superiors’ and work mates’ jobs easier and that’s what I intend to do here,” he said.
“This is familiar but new. I will be a student first and a teammate second and hopefully a contributory third.”
He reflected for a moment before recalling a memory from his youth.
“I got a fortune cookie when I was a kid that said your life is going to be a bold and exciting adventure.
“And it has been.”
And I suspect will continue to be.