For nearly four decades, Gary Wilson was a fixture on the Midwest track & field and cross country scene and a nationally successful coach at both the NCAA Division I and Division III levels, whose influence on the sport remains visible long beyond his 2013 retirement.
Four times a national champion while coaching at UW-La Crosse from 1977 through 1985, Wilson spent nearly three decades building a perennial national contending program at Minnesota until retiring in 2013. It was there he co-founded the Roy Griak Invitational, which has become one of the premier cross country invitationals in the country at both the high school and college levels.
While at UW-La Crosse, he guided both the women’s cross country and men’s track & field programs throughout his entire tenure, in addition to taking over the women’s track & field squad in the early 80s. Once under his tutelage, the women’s track & field squad went on to win three consecutive national titles. They claimed the final AIAW Division III title, followed by a pair of NCAA Division III titles in 1983 and 1984.
His women’s cross country teams in La Crosse reached similar heights, including a stretch from 1982 through 1984 during which the Eagles were runners-up, national champions, and runners-up.
By the time his run in La Crosse came to an end in 1985, Wilson had coached the Eagles to a combined 21 Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletics Conference titles, and would 12 years later be inducted into the school’s athletics Hall of Fame.
His tenure at Minnesota would begin that same year and last all the way through 2013. Wilson helmed the women’s cross country program for the duration of his career as a Gopher, and guided the women’s track & field program through 2006, after which he took on an assistant coaching role.
His Golden Gophers made 15 appearances at the NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships as a team, highlighted by a program-best ninth-place finish in 2005. That showing kickstarted a five-year streak of top-12 national team finishes, which included three consecutive Midwest Region titles from 2007-09 and a pair of Big Ten crowns in 2007 and 2008.
The 2005-2006 academic year was a good one for Wilson and his Minnesota women. In what would turn out to be his final season as the head track & field coach, he guided the Golden Gophers to their first-ever Big Ten Outdoor Championships team title and coached Heather Dorniden to the NCAA Division I Indoor 800 meters title – the first individual crown in program history. Dorniden’s title propelled Minnesota to a 12th-place national team finish for the best showing in program history.
Following that outdoor Big Ten title, his athletes scored a then school-record 14 points at the NCAA Outdoor Championships for a 19th-place finish – just one spot shy of the program bests to which Wilson guided the team in 1990 and 1991. That marked the 14th season in which Wilson’s teams scored at the NCAA Outdoor Championships.
By the end of his run as the cross country coach following the 2012 season his athletes had earned nine All-America honors, won a Big Ten individual crown and finished top-five in the conference 23 times.
He served as the president of the Women’s Intercollegiate Cross Country Coaches Association in 1994 and 1995, and was inducted into the Drake Relays Hall of Fame in 1997.