It’s taken Old Dominion exactly three years to become a football power in the Football Championship Subdivision.
And the Monarchs aren’t satisfied with just being among the Sweet Sixteen heading into their second-round playoff game with Georgia Southern in Statesboro, Ga., on Saturday.
“These are the kind of games you have to compete in if you consider yourself a national power,” Old Dominion defensive tackle Ronnie Cameron said.
But who could have envisioned the Norfolk, Va., school even being in the playoff conversation so quickly?
Five years ago, the school embarked on restarting a football program that lay dormant since 1941.
The Monarchs played their first game in 2009 and finished with a 9-2 record. In Year Two, they went 8-3 against a slightly tougher schedule.
This season, Old Dominion joined the Colonial Athletic Association, regarded by some the toughest and most competitive conference in FCS.
The Monarchs were picked to place 10th in the 11-team league but surprised most FCS followers by tying for second with a 6-2 conference record.
They’re 10-2 overall and ranked 10th in the nation after starting the playoffs with a 35-18 win over nearby Norfolk State.
It didn’t happen with beginners luck. Coach Bobby Wilder says it took good players, a good staff and smart scheduling to build a program ready to compete from the opening kick in 2009.
“Our kids have only known winning since we’ve been here,” Wilder said.
And the support has been amazing. Foreman Field – Old Dominion football stadium – completed a $24.8 million renovation last season. The stadium now seats 19,818 with 26 luxury suites.
The Monarchs sold out every game and rank sixth in the FCS in attendance (averaging 19,818), more than 550 fans per game ahead of Georgia Southern at No. 7.
The school’s meteoric success didn’t surprise Eagles coach Jeff Monken who applied for the head coaching job at Old Dominion while an assistant coach at Navy.
Monken said he never received a call back.
Wilder is practical about the Monarchs’ program. He recruits the Hampton Road area -- a hotbed of high school football – and has gotten 50 percent of his players within 20 minutes of campus and 75 percent of his players from the state of Virginia.
Wilder, a former offensive coordinator at Maine, has built an offensive powerhouse.
Old Dominion averaged 35.8 points a game (10th in the nation) and 429.2 yards of total offense (17th).
The Monarchs began the season with Thomas DeMarco at quarterback. DeMarco was on the Walter Payton Watch List (the FCS version of the Heisman Trophy) to start the season but suffered a high ankle sprain the fifth game against Massachusetts.
Freshman Taylor Heinicke, from Collins Hill, took over and has thrown for 2,039 yards with 20 touchdown passes and just one interception while completing 70.7 percent of his throws.
“In the games (Heinicke) has played, we’ve only had two turnovers,” Wilder said. “He does a very good job commanding our offense and distributing the ball to our receivers and running backs.”
Five Old Dominion receivers have caught 34 or more passes, led by Nick Mayers with 57 receptions for 658 yards.
Defensively, linebacker Craig Wilkins leads the team with 108 tackles, 14.5 for losses.
Cameron, the CAA’s Defensive Player of the Year, has 16 tackles for losses and 6.5 sacks at tackle.
Cameron arrived at Old Dominion after Hofstra disbanded its football program.
Cameron said he had offers to play at Massachusetts or Boston College, but chose the budding program at Old Dominion.
“It was a chance to be part of something special,” he said.