Former Duke football coach Red Wilson, who ended a decade of futility by leading the Blue Devils to back-to-back winning seasons in his final two seasons at the school, died on Friday in Burlington. He was 95.
Inducted to the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame in 1985, Wilson was an assistant for the Blue Devils under head coach Mike McGee before becoming the team’s head coach in 1979. He led the team to 2-8-1 and 2-9 in his first two seasons before going 6-5 in 1981 and 1982. Those were the program’s first back-to-back winning seasons since 1970-71.
Born Shirley Wilson in Madison in 1925, he graduated from Davidson College before embarking on a coaching career that included successes and both the high school and college levels.
His 17 years at several high schools in North Carolina and Virginia included state championships at Winston-Salem’s R.J. Reynolds High School in 1958 and 1964. He compiled a 138-38-11 record at the high school level, including three undefeated regular seasons and eight conference championships.
“I had the good fortune to play for Coach Wilson in the 1966 Shrine Bowl and never forgot the extraordinarily positive experience,” ACC commissioner John Swofford, a former North Carolina football player and athletics director, said in a statement on Saturday. “He was encouraging, upbeat and a tremendous motivator. We stayed in touch for years thereafter, our paths crossing while he was at Duke and I was in Chapel Hill. I had such respect for him as a coach and as a person. His impact on sports in North Carolina, and the many young people he influenced, was significant. He was truly one of the “good guys”."
From 1967-76, he coached at Elon, going 74-32-2. Elon won six Carolinas Conferences titles, finishing as the NAIA national runner-up in 1973 and reaching the national semifinals in 1974 and 1976.
“I’ve paid my dues as a coach,” Wilson said in a 1981 interview with the News & Observer. “I started on the lowest level, making peanuts. Not a living, just an existence.
“But you work hard, you strive for something. All along my one big challenge was to become a head coach at a major college and I worked hard for it.”
Red Wilson and his wife, Katie, were married for 72 years. Katie Wilson died on Dec. 26, 2020. Red Wilson is survived by two sons, one daughter, four grandchildren and one great grandchild.