Hard work brings IU’s Wilbanks full circle

Ed Orgeron arrived early enough to the Ole Miss football offices, he wasn’t expecting to see Lee Wilbanks there.

It was 5:15 in the morning. That was mighty early for a volunteer assistant like Wilbanks. Even more disconcerting was Wilbanks’ attire.

He was dressed like a janitor.

“T-boy?” he said. That’s Cajun-speak for “petit” boy, like “lil boy.” Wilbanks isn’t sure Orgeron knew his name.

“What are you wearing? What are you doing?”

What “Coach O” didn’t understand is Wilbanks was, in fact, a janitor. He worked the 3-11:30 a.m. shift, using his 30-minute lunch break to squeeze in football tasks in the offensive line room. He just happened to be assigned to the football facility as a custodian, which made the transition easier from one job to the next. He’d clock out, be a coach, get a few hours of sleep, clock in, and get back to cleaning toilets.

Wilbanks will recall he married his wife, Caroline, soon after that 2006 season. That’s before paying his dues landed him a full-time job recruiting for Ole Miss from 2013-18 or his current job as Indiana’s director of recruiting.

“My wife should have done a test to make sure she wasn’t crazy,” Wilbanks said. “I have a college degree, I’m cleaning bathrooms and working as a volunteer the other half of the day. You have to love me to do something like that.”

Wilbanks has demonstrated his love of football. He’s done that via a long and winding road that leads to Saturday’s Outback Bowl, where his current team faces an Ole Miss squad stacked with players he helped bring to Oxford.

His journey started as a volunteer coach at Murray State, literally sleeping on a couch in a football office. At that point, he also worked at a popcorn factory, washed windows, and cut rubber tubing. He worked the coach-custodian combo at Ole Miss, then hopped over to North Carolina A&T for a season. Then, former Rebels’ tight ends coach Hugh Freeze called. He was taking the head job at Lambuth, and he wanted Wilbanks as his recruiting coordinator and secondary coach.

Tom Allen was Lambuth’s defensive coordinator.

“He may be the hardest worker I’ve ever been around in my coaching career,” Allen said. “I gotta, like, shoo him out. ‘You need to go home and go be with your family.’ Even when he’s there, he’s working. He’s relentless.”

That’s what a coach wants from a recruiting coordinator, an often thankless position, but vitally important. Wilbanks and his team pour through hours of prep highlight reels, trying to find under-the-radar prospects. They also spend hours managing logistics, getting recruits on the phone with coaches. They dream up graphics to send recruits, just to catch their attention.

As the Hoosiers try to capitalize off of a 6-1 season, it will be Wilbanks and Co. doing work behind the scenes. They have a track record, because Wilbanks was in a department that landed Ole Miss top-20 classes for consecutive years from 2013-16.

In 2018, Allen pitched Wilbanks, much like he does Hoosier recruits. He brought up the number of years since IU’s last Big Ten title, last bowl win, last winning season. At the time, it was 51, 27, and 11. Wilbanks doesn’t remember those numbers specifically. He just recalls answering, “We can do all of them next year.”

“Some people, that may have scared them off, but to me, I looked forward to the challenge,” Wilbanks said. “I knew we can get some players in here.”

It wasn’t overconfidence driving Wilbanks. He’s just a hard worker who believes in what hard work can produce. He grew up on a farm in northeast Mississippi, getting up at 6 a.m. every morning with his father, a teacher who drove the school bus. Before they could leave, they had to put out feed for their cattle.

Wilbanks recalls an ice storm in the 1990s. Many of his classmates loved it, because school was canceled. Wilbanks hated it. The farm lost power for a week. His dad wanted to use that time to repair fences. Lee’s mom wanted a bigger garden.

“It’s frozen ground and we’re out with post-hole diggers, putting in cross ties and posts for the summer, for my mom to have a bigger garden,” Wilbanks said. “That’s what it was. His dad worked the same way, my granddad. You don’t get anything unless you work for it.”

Wilbanks’ senior year of high school, his father suffered a stroke while fishing. So Wilbanks went to community college, tending to the farm before he left for noon classes. His shifts at the furniture factory started at 3 p.m. and could run past midnight. He’d arrive home, in the pitch-black night, to feed their cattle.

Wilbanks’ father died his sophomore year, so he tried juggling farming, class, and shifts at a cheese factory. Once he became a student at Ole Miss, Wilbanks sold the cattle. The drive to Oxford was an additional hour each way. There was a breaking point.

But Wilbanks didn’t relent totally. After graduation, there was a job for him at Edward Jones, which would have been more promising financially, at least in the short-term. But football had an appeal. Wilbanks, this undersized, not-so-speedy ex-fullback and safety from tiny Kossuth High, had a friend. His friend’s dad knew Joe Pannunzio, Murray State’s head coach.

Murray State needed a grad assistant. Luckily, Wilbanks isn’t that tall, so he was able to squeeze onto a two-cushion couch in one of the football offices.

“I had enough saved up from the cheese factory, that could get me through the season because I wasn’t paying rent,” Wilbanks said. “My car wasn’t moving anywhere. The grocery store was right across the street.”

Best of all, his office had a mini-fridge.

“I eat a turkey sandwich for lunch. Every day,” Wilbanks said. “I had a place for my turkey. I was good to go.”

It nearly worked out. In his second season at Murray State, Pannunzio told Wilbanks a full-time job was coming open. He had Wilbanks pegged for it. Only three-quarters of the way through that season, Pannunzio was fired. Wilbanks was back to square one.

He ended up at a Wal-Mart distribution facility working 10- to 12-hour shifts. He thought about farming, again. But then he was on the phone with Pannunzio again. He had a lead on an opportunity — again, unpaid — at Ole Miss under head coach Ed Orgeron and offensive line coach Art Kehoe.

Wilbanks will always remember his first meeting with Coach O, not understanding a word of his Cajun accent. When Orgeron left, Wilbanks turned to Kehoe.

“What did he just ask me?’” Wilbanks said. “It was ‘Whatever I say here, stays here. Whatever goes on in here, stays here.’ OK, all right.”

He was “T-Boy” to Orgeron, but Wilbanks made a name for himself with others in the building. Enough that when Freeze was looking for a secondary coach and recruiter at Lambuth, Wilbanks’ name popped up. He worked hard enough, when Allen left Lambuth for Drake, Wilbanks was offered Lambuth’s d-coordinator job.

If Lambuth hadn’t gone a month without paying him one season — and three months the next — Wilbanks might have been Allen’s successor at DC. Instead, Dwike Wilson, who Wilbanks worked with at Murray State, who also got him that job at North Carolina A&T, had a spot open at Hinds Community College in Jackson, Miss.

Wilbanks was at Hinds for three years, before rejoining Freeze at Ole Miss. Everything comes full circle. Wilbanks later hired Wilson as IU’s director of player personnel, and now Wilson is heading to South Alabama as Kane Wommack’s cornerbacks coach.

Saturday will just be a full-circle event. Wilbanks knows how Ole Miss found some of its best players, such as right tackle, Royce Newman, who was a 250-pound wildcat quarterback, tight end, and defensive lineman at tiny Nashville High in Illinois. “I thought, man, this guy’s athletic.” Newman is now 6-foot-6, 310 pounds.

Wilbanks can work his way down the line, thinking next of center Ben Brown, also from a small school, also born into an Ole Miss family. “You know he’s going to come,” Wilbanks said. “You have to make sure we’re all locked in and we want him.” The coaches did. He’s now started 32 consecutive games for the Rebels.

As far as Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral, Wilbanks admits, he didn’t have to dig hard for him.

“Matt Corral was easy to find,” Wilbanks said. “Everybody wanted him.”

Some of his Ole Miss tales cross over with IU. Wilbanks played a role in finding IU corner Jaylin Williams, once an Ole Miss commit. He was on the Rebels’ board as an “athlete,” either a receiver or corner. Ole Miss receivers coach Grant Heard was a champion for Ty Fryfogle, the son of his former Rebel teammate.

Fryfogle was a jump-ball fiend. They just weren’t sure of his speed. “If he comes up here and runs a 4.6, I’m going to offer him,” Wilbanks recalled Heard saying. “He came up here and ran a 4.6.” Heard later took him to IU, and Fryfogle was just recently named IU’s first All-American receiver since James Hardy in 2007.

Now, it’s Wilbanks’ job to help find more Fryfogles. He makes clear, though, he’s not alone. Wilbanks works with a team of film-watchers, including Ryan Hansen, the director of on-campus recruiting, Blake Littman, a staff assistant, and Wilson. They split up prospects, writing evaluations, and if any of the four think a recruit is “offer-able,” it gets passed to a position coach. If approved, it gets on a coordinator’s desk. Allen is top-of-the-chain.

It’s an orderly, redundant process. The hope is to never miss, even if it’s an impossible task.

“The NFL has way more resources, and they still miss,” Wilbanks said. “You hope to never miss on character. You hope to do enough work to make sure you’re getting the right kind of kid in the program, no matter what.”

In Wilbanks, Allen believes he has the right kind of person hunting for those prospects.

The kind of guy who would spend a season as a coach and janitor, if it meant chasing his dream.

“Relentless, relentless, recruiter,” Allen said. “At a place like this, we’ve got to be able to find those guys, watch film and project who can become that level of player down the road. That’s what we’ve done really well here the last several years … Just have a ton of respect for him, because I know how hard he works.”

4 comments

  1. Jon, another great article letting us get to know more about this IUFB team. Wilbanks shows through his work what a wonderful part of IU’s football crew. His parents are the kind of people we don’t have enough of to bring up good people knowing what work is.

    I hope he stays and the rest of the staff stays and they get to develop a team to be B1G football champions and even more.

  2. Ogeron might have exclaimed..’boy,..whatshu doin’ down here this early?…hmmm. Youall keep it up and shorenuf’ you’ll be gettin’ paid to for you know it,..I gare-on-tee’.
    We tend to get wrapped up in CTA’s outward enthusiasm. It appears Allen’s real talent is understanding it..and getting it to work for IU. In other words, behind that rosey cheeked smile & LEO personna..there’s a smart, tough, shrewd leader.

  3. Great story! I hope he stays and I hope he gets more help. Once IU FB revenues begin to increase, expanding IU FB’s recruiting budget and staff should be a priority. There are just too many stories about guys who were over-looked coming out of High School who went on to become highly productive college players (like Fryfogle and McFadden) and even NFL stars like Baker Mayfield, Aaron Rogers, and Josh Allen. IU FB will never beat out schools like OSU, Alabama and Clemson’s in recruiting top FB talent, so its future depends on finding those hidden gems all across the country, bringing them to IU and developing them into productive players.

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