The last time I talked to Benjamin Wade after a “Survivor” season, the man they call “Coach” was still wrestling with the identity crisis of being designated a “Villain” for the “Heroes vs. Villains” installment.
Back then, Coach was talking up the party line of playing a game of honor and integrity, but for the season time, he was espousing those virtues after a shorter-than-desired “Survivor” run.
When I caught up with Coach this week, it was after he made it a full season on “Survivor: South Pacific,” going all the way to Day 39 and seemingly creating a powerful tribal alliance unified around those honor-and-integrity principles.
Coach finished second in the “Survivor: South Pacific” Jury vote and there was a feeling that may people on the Jury would have given him the million if he’d only admitted that at certain points this season, his honor and integrity gave way to a more traditionally cutthroat game.
In our exit interview, Coach talks about why he may not be cold-blooded enough to win “Survivor,” what worked for him in this season and why he’ll never play “Survivor” again.
Click through for the full interview…
HitFix: How much of the Jury result had you already anticipated before the votes were read on Sunday?
Benjamin “Coach” Wade: I thought I had a legitimate shot, so it was tough. It was tough to be a part of it. It was tough to watch. As a competitor, as a warrior, you don’t ever want to go into that final battle and expect to lose or hope to lose and I really wanted to win. I thought that I deserved to win. I was kinda the underdog from the very beginning. I had to overcome a lot to be the leader the entire time and to really carry control of the game from start to finish and to make the biggest play in the game to flip Cochran, for nobody to ever feel like they were at the bottom of an alliance, to never have my name written down, to come out there as a bit of a character and turn myself into a legitimate player, I thought that it was something that was pretty awesome. It gutted me when I didn’t win. But at the same time, I feel like I did win, just because this time I connected with the audience in a way that I never have before and to see that and just to watch myself, I really took this as a gift. I thought that I was going to go out first. I thought before I even went down there that I was gonna go first. For me to be out there and to get into the game and to own the game, I took every day like it was a gift and you could see that. I really just had a joyous time out there.
HitFix: What do you think the jury saw or preferred in Sophie’s performance instead of yours?
Coach: I don’t think that it was what the Jury saw in Sophie’s performance. Ozzy sits there and says “I think you’re a pretentious bitch” and then votes for her. Keith says, “You know what, Coach? My question for you is this: Was the Idol for you or for the Tribe?” “It was for the tribe.” “Really? Was it? Sophie?” “Yeah, it was for the tribe.” “Albert?” “Yeah, it was for the tribe.” “Oh. OK.” And he wrote down Sophie’s name. In a way, I really felt like the final Tribal Council was a sham. I really felt like if they had taken those Jury members and sequestered them and not had them talk to each other and then get into a feeding frenzy, I think that I would have unanimously won. That’s the unfortunate side effect of it. I think that Sophie deserves to win. I think that Cochran deserves to win. I think Rocky P deserves to win. That’s my best friend, by the way, and he’s sitting here across from me. Everybody deserves to win and nobody deserves to win, so it’s the kind of thing where the Jury had already made up their minds before they went out there. I think it was a classic case of “Let’s not vote for Coach” instead of “Let’s vote for Sophie.”
HitFix: I’ve seen a lot of people suggest that if you had just owned some of your biggest moves, you would have won, but you let those moves eat at you. Do you feel like you maybe aren’t cold-blooded enough to win “Survivor”?
Coach: Yeah, I am kinda an enigma. I’m kinda like trying to play honorably, but having to make tough decisions, and… I don’t know. Maybe I am not cold-blooded enough to be out there. I tried to play the game as best I could play it and I know what they wanted me to say at the end. I think that I would have won if I’d stood up there at the end and said, “You know what, guys? I’m an evil person and I played all of you guys and I played to win, because I want a million dollars, cuz I’m like everybody else and I’m hungry for the money.” And I’m not. I’ve never cared about the money and I’m not going to sit there and compromise who I am at the 11th hour. Yeah, I’ve made mistakes, but…
[At this point, power on my recorder cut out. I thought the “Low Battery Warning” mean that it still had enough juice to record while I went to get a new battery. It did not. It meant the darned recorder wasn’t recording anymore. As a result, I lost the end of this answer and the answer to my next question, in which I inquired if Coach felt as if, like a Greek mythological hero, he was being punished a little for his hubris. I’m sorry, particularly about losing that last answer, which was a good one. Apologies to you, dear readers, and to Coach. Anyway, we pick back up with…]
HitFix: What does Benjamin Wade, when he’s fully fed and fully rested, think when he watches “Coach” play “Survivor”?
Coach: I love every second of it. I can appreciate all of the sides of my personality. If you ask any of the producers who they really love out there, they’re gonna say me, because I’m not one-sided. With a Keith? You get one type of thing, you get the good-looking jock. With Cochran? You’re looking at the witty nerd. You look at Albert? Again, it’s the good-looking jock. You’ve got people who are kinda pigeon-holed out there: The older guy, the older woman, the hot people, the younger people. And I’m kinda in a class of my own, which is good and bad. But there is the Dragonslayer that lives inside of me, who loves making analogies and quoting Voltaire, Nietzsche, Shakespeare and Martin Luther King in the same episode. There’s also the Coach who’s out there being The Coach and trying to motivate the team to the end. There’s also the Dragonslayer who’s ruthless and wants to come up with nicknames for people. And then there’s the sensitive Ben Wade who wants to come out there and show people that he’s a sensitive, regular guy. So when I watch this, I love it. I really do. I feel very honored. I feel like this time around, I really felt the respect from people who worked on the show and really for all three of them, I can take the crazy, because I know who I am and I’m very grounded in who I am. I don’t need for you or anybody else to write good things about me, because I know who I am.
A lot of people who go on “Survivor” don’t know who they are. You look at people who are still clinging on. You look at people who are at the after-party last night who were on “Survivor 8” and who are still trying to cling onto this lifestyle and that’s just not me. My identity is in Christ, first and foremost. And then my identity is as a pastor and a symphony conductor and a college soccer coach. “Survivor” is a beautiful experience, but it’s just that: It’s a great adventure and I’m already looking on what I’m gonna do next. So I just think that I can get it and I don’t have to sit there and have anybody else validate who I am on the television show.
HitFix: You mentioned the “coach” persona and this season felt like it required more of that persona than ever before. Could you talk about figuring out how to balance personalities like Cochrans and like Brandons for the good of your team?
Coach: Yeah, I know that they were going to want me to be the leader on Day One to build the shelter, but then vote me off. So I said, “I’ve gotta really lead, not with fear, but…” You know, there’s all kinds of different motivational styles. There’s coddling. There’s motivation by fear like Boston Rob did. And I just wanted to do it with compassion. I wanted to meet everybody where they were at. I knew that in the past, I said, “You know what, you guys? You need to use this experience to sharpen your character and iron sharpens iron.” And I said, “This is how I am and this what you need to be.” Well that’s just going to do nothing but turn people off. This time I was like, “There are going to be 18 people out there. They all have 18 different reasons for being out there. I need to figure out what their motivations are and then I need to try to lead them with compassion.” I really wanted everybody to feel loved, respected and appreciated. That was my motto. I would tell people out there, “The three things a human being needs: Food, water and shelter. The three things a human being wants in their heart: To love and be loved, to be respected and to be appreciated.” And if you find that combination in leadership, to allow people to really blossom, you’re going to receive it back ten-fold. I think that’s the reason why, three-quarters of the way through the game, everybody at home was saying, “Why are they not voting off Coach? Why is nobody talking about it?” It’s because I had invested myself so much in people and made them feel empowered that they didn’t even think about voting me off. Think about it: Was there one time this game anybody said, “Let’s vote for Coach”? You know that if somebody would have talked about that, then it would have been shown. That did not happen one time this season. It’s pretty amazing, actually.
I haven’t said this to anybody else, but I’ll tell you, man, I don’t think that anybody else… I think that if I would have won last season, let’s say, I don’t think that any other “Survivor” — Boston Rob, Russell Hantz, Parvati, Sandra — I don’t think any other Survivor could have come out there this season and made it to the end like that.
HitFix: This season, you had what everybody was calling a “cult” around you and they talked about you as a “cult leader.” Why did people buy into you this time and they didn’t the first two times you played?
Coach: Right. And you’ve gotta remember that the people who were calling it a “cult” were not on the inside. They were the people who were on the outside looking in and wanting to be a part of that group, asking to be a part of that group, but never being allowed into the group. The thing that was different is what I touched on before: I wanted to meet people where they were at. I didn’t want to pigeon-hole them into my point-of-view. That was the problem with Brandon. He was very black-and-white and he said “If you guys aren’t this way, then I’m done with you.” If Brandon had been on my first season, I probably would have voted him off before the Merge. If Edna had been on my first season, I would have said, “She’s weak, get her off.” So I tried to meet people where they’re at. And “Survivor” really has changed my life for the better. I looked at myself, and I’ve said this many times, but I felt like I needed to be brought down to Earth, I needed to be humbled. That first game did that. I feel like I’d be able to take myself a lot less seriously and I think just my enthusiasm for the game and for life really shone through in the edit, but it also shone through with everybody who surrounded themselves with me.
HitFix: Do people around you in “the real world” notice that you’re different now? Notice the changes “Survivor” has made to you?
Coach: Yeah, not so much after the last one, but I was talking to the past president of my symphony the other day and we were sitting there and they just looked at me and just said, “My goodness… You’re just really happy.” I am. I’m very content. If you’re a big fish in a big pond, like I have been on “Survivor,” it’s very gratifying. The more that you feel like you’ve achieved, the less you feel like you have to keep proving yourself to people. I’m not saying that I don’t have huge goals for the future and I want to keep succeeding and I want to keep pushing the boundaries of myself and the things that I do, but there’s just a sense of gratification that comes when you’re successful at what you do.
HitFix: In the finale, you and Ozzy both repeatedly talked about this as your last time playing “Survivor.” Why is that? Why is this your last time playing “Survivor”?
Coach: Well, there’s two things: I can’t hesitate to tell you what’s next on Coach’s plate, so I’ll say that a little part of it is that I’ve got the movie “180” coming out in February and I’m also gonna have my own show in this next year, in the fall you’re definitely gonna see Coach on television in 2012. So, you know, I’ve got other stuff that I’m gonna be doing. But an even deeper reason is even if I don’t have anything to do? Somebody like Ozzy and the egomaniac that he is, even though he got a really good edit this time, he’s gonna come back. As much as he says he’s not, what’s he gonna be doing in 10 years? He’s gonna be waiting tables, so of course he’s gonna jump back into the game. For me? It’s not gonna happen.
For me, “Survivor” is like a relationship. If you have a beautiful relationship and it ends badly, then the entire experience is tarnished. And if you have a good relationship that ends good, then you remember those beautiful memories that shared together. And in “Survivor,” man, it’s been a great trilogy and the last 39 days were 39 of the most beautiful days that I’ve spent any time. To lead from start to finish, to own the game, to become a legitimate player, to never have your name written down, to have somebody like Cochran in the game where you can actually lead him and change the course of his life, to have people that want to coached out there, to play with Albert and Brandon and Rick and Sophie, that were honorable, to get to the Final 5 with those five that we promised on Day One, it was a beautiful experience. Why would I tarnish that? If I come back again again and I get voted out first or sixth or if people don’t want to be coached or even if I get to the end and it was a miserable experience, that would forever tarnish this beautiful, joyous 39 days that I’ve just lived through.