Attitude adjustment not big part of Wilkinsons transition
Even in the front office, ex-coach says it's hard to kick habits
If Portland Timbers Technical Director Gavin Wilkinson ever starts a hip-hop group, the only suitable name for it would be N.W.A.
It would not be confused with the late '80s hip-hop group that cut the 'Straight Outta Compton' album. Wilkinson's N.W.A. would stand for 'New Zealander With Attitude.'
'That would be one of three music groups out of New Zealand,' Wilkinson says, laughing when the idea is proposed to him.
Just as original N.W.A member Dr. Dre made a transition - from the grind of the streets to rapper to producer - the 37-year-old Wilkinson has made his own transition, from player to coach to technical director.
'Going from the field to coaching to management, you're going to miss it regardless,' Wilkinson says, of his former roles in soccer. 'But it's been a good transition. It's been an enjoyable one.'
Wilkinson's roots in soccer - as well as his attitude - run deep. His grandfather began a soccer club in New Zealand, where Gavin's father coached and his mother was the registrar. Wilkinson fell in love with the game at age 4. By the time he was about 8, Wilkinson was telling everyone that he would become a professional soccer player.
'In New Zealand, you get thought of being very strange when that's your goal,' Wilkinson says. 'It's a rugby culture. The soccer opportunities in New Zealand, at that stage … there were probably only two or three players playing professionally overseas.'
Wilkinson made good on his promise, though. During his 13-year pro career as a defender, he played for clubs in six different countries and recorded 38 caps with the New Zealand national team. Wilkinson ended his career with a six-season stint on the Timbers, beginning in their inaugural USL First Division season in 2001.
As a player, Wilkinson showed traits that he would later use as a coach and now as technical director of the MLS club.
'I was maybe a little bit vocal,' Wilkinson says. 'Some people would say that those were characteristics of leadership. Success always motivated me. Determination is something I always possessed. So I suppose going into coaching was a natural transition.'
Wilkinson coached the Timbers, who will play at Seattle at 8 p.m. Saturday, from 2007-10. He says that transition was even harder than leaving the bench this season for the front office.
'Once you step off the field, it's gone,' Wilkinson says. 'The jump from player to coach was the hardest.'
There was no love lost between Wilkinson and the referees. Post-match interviews were often used to send missiles at the questionable calls that had taken place on the pitch.
'Dislike is a harsh word,' Wilkinson says, laughing, when asked about the referees. 'Some of them are absolutely tremendous people and tremendous for the game. It's just that there's a disconnect between how the game is played and their level of understanding. I never got fined for any of my comments. I deserved to be fined many times. But I never was.'
During the Timbers' MLS home opener April 14 against the Chicago Fire, Wilkinson became part of controversy when he did not hand a ball to a Fire player when it went out of bounds near him on the sidelines in the first half.
'I'm not a ball kid,' he says. 'Imagine the title, 'General Manager Gives Ball to Chicago, and Chicago Scores.' I would much rather answer this question rather than, 'Why did you give them the ball?'
'And when a player says certain things, you don't respond favorably. So, I was in no rush to get him the ball. Also, maybe they outnumbered us attacking-wise and if they had made a quick throw-in we may have been in trouble. But it was not my job to give them the ball back.'
Wilkinson's main jobs are scouting and signing players, managing them once they are here, balancing a budget and overseeing staff.
'We've always had a good working relationship and a good personal one, as well,' first-year Timber coach John Spencer says. 'I tell him what players I'm interested in. If we can get them, he goes and does the deals.'
One thing Wilkinson doesn't do anymore is train with the team, which he did as both a starting defender and coach. He watches practice but does not participate. Instead, he runs four miles a day for 'stress relief.'
It may be that Wilkinson never attempts to launch a music career or form his own N.W.A. rap group. Timbers goalkeeper Jake Gleeson - also from New Zealand - thinks so anyway.
'He's probably got a bit stronger accent than I do,' Gleeson says, in a very strong New Zealand accent.
But even without a microphone, lyrics and a studio, Wilkinson is running the Timbers with attitude, and he remains a familiar face and symbol of the Timbers' past and present.
'He's a Portland institution,' assistant coach Amos Magee says. 'A Portland soccer institution, and rightfully so.'