Benjamin “Coach” Wade: “I want to get the four strongest people to the final four because that’s who deserves it”

Benjamin “Coach” Wade is as impossibly arrogant as he is intelligent and accomplished, and after our conversation, I was convinced that he is someone Survivor desperately needs. That’s because he has a plan to alter the now-predictable way people play the game, and his strategy may just work, if his personality doesn’t get in the way.

Erinn hysterically branded him “Samauri Steve,” but CBS has offically nicknamed him “Coach” (he coaches women’s soccer at Southwest Baptist University), though he’s also known as “Maestro” (he’s a conductor at a California symphony orchestra). Benjamin applied for the show for the first time last summer, although when it first debuted in 2000, “I objected to the fact that it really wasn’t survival,” he said. He eventually started watching again–and has seen about half of the seasons in full–and “I started to get hooked on it, and I’m not saying this sycophantically, but the producers of this show are obviously awesome.”

But to him, the cast members aren’t always awesome. “It’s become, in my opinion, survival of the weakest, survival of the manipulative, survival of the dishonest, with some good, honest people sprinkled throughout the game,” Benjamin/Coach (I’m really not sure what to call him) told me. “You haven’t seen a final four that’s all of the strongest. I want to change the game. I want to make it back to being a survivor. I’ve survived on the wild on my own,” he said, referring to his “many pursuits of adrenaline,” including kayaking solo 6,132 miles, for which he holds the world record.

Benjamin attributes the decrease in media attention that the show gets to the way the weak tend to prevail, and said that “seeing the decline of the articles that are written about the show and–I shouldn’t be saying that, but I think that’s partially because it’s become predictable in its unpredictability. I want to get the four strongest people to the final four because that’s who deserves it.”

His basic strategy is to “tell a select few people that we need to change the game” and go with them to the end, where the strong will then battle it out. Along the way, he’ll play above-board. Like Survivor Gabon‘s Marcus, he seems to have clearly drawn moral lines. “I love winning–almost more than anything–but not at the brooking of my integrity and my honesty,” he told me, and later said, “I don’t care about the money–I mean, I do, I want a million dollars, but not on my reputation.”

His biggest challenge, then, is “to have the intuition to know who to elect as those corporals or generals, those leaders, that’s going to be the important thing. Because if I reveal that strategy to somebody who wants to turn and use it against me, then I’m going to be out and I’m going to be out early,” he said.

Who are those people that he was “trying to give them mental telepathy as I’m sitting next to them” at Ponderosa? He said Candace and JT were “like pleading at me with their eyes to take them into the fold,” but thinks JT isn’t physically strong enough and Candace is smart but too “freaked out about bugs and stuff.” He also cited the “tall guy, blonde hair, real Abercrombie and Fitch type” (Tyson, I assumed) who has “condescending attitude” and has “a lot of damage control to do” because he acts “very superior.”

Pre-game, he saw his final four alliance as including Debra and Brendan, and maybe the guy with the “square jaw, dark hair, mid-20s.” He was pissed at Brendan, the “famous businessman,” for revealing that he was being cast (more on that with Brendan’s interview), but Benjamin said that because Brendan’s business and sales depend upon his behavior on the show, Benjamin has “kind of got him by the balls on that.”

That’s another strategy: convincing people to play the game his way by appealing to them individually, like arguing to Brendan that his business depends upon ethical behavior in the game, or telling to a teacher that he or she needs to set a good example for their students. “I am phenomenal at manipulating people,” Coach told me. “I’m awesome at manipulating. If I wanted to, I could win this game.” He said he will “plant the seeds in a select few individuals, have them carry the torch” and once they’ve “carried my ideology into that merge, and then, it won’t be such an issue.” That “it” refers to the obvious problem of the weaker players voting against the stronger ones.

So will this all work? Maybe. Benjamin is incredibly charismatic and intelligent, but he’s also controlling and arrogant. “I refuse to not take charge,” he said, and later suggested his leadership in the game will be modeled after Jesus: “Of course, Christianity, to be a servant/leader, that’s what Jesus Christ was. I see that in myself, and I see wanting to be that servant/leader,” he said.

As you can see, his arrogance is so outrageous that it almost seems subtle, especailly because those absurdly arrogant statements come in a calm, even voice (listen below) and are articulately presented. Here’s an example: “I’m in the middle of the soccer season right now. I left a team that was ranked and had a great shot at getting to nationals–best start in that school’s history, and I left that team to come here. My team is in shambles right now; they probably won’t make the tournament,” he said, because as we all know, coaches, not athletes, do the real work during games. If that’s not enough, he added later, “Those girls come there to my university so that I can make their dreams come true, and I teach them examples while I’m there; how foolish of me it’d be to come on this show and do the opposite of what I preach.”

That’s a nice sentiment, but “my university”? “I can make their dreams come true”? Taking too much credit for something sounds like the kind of thing that’ll give his tribemates a great reason to get rid of him, although because he is physically strong he will undoubtedly make the merge–unless he just freaks everyone out.

Of course, he’s aware of that challenge. Ben said he “had to come off as such an ass at casting” so with the other contestants, and has “to fight that arrogance thing.” Still, Benjamin said his arrogance might actually work in his favor (listen to him discuss that below). But he’s unconcerned about how he’s viewed in the media. “Would I like to be painted in a good light? Yeah, because I think I’m doing it for the right reasons,” he said. “The only thing I’m worried about is being portrayed as dishonest or having no integrity.”

Here’s where I think his biggest problem may come from: He offers such compelling rationale that it’s only occasionally apparent that he’s sometimes full of shit. For example, he doesn’t want to be portrayed as dishonest, but he admitted lying to the women on his team about where he going during production, telling them that he was getting medical tests for two months following an actual cancer scare. (He previously “had some tests done on what they thought was a brain tumor, but it wasn’t.”)

At another point, when I asked about part of his strategy, he tried to make an argument about why his strategy was reflected throughout various civilizations, which were “not survival of the weakest. You look historically at civilization and you do not have–yeah, you have manipulators that succeed, but they’re also strong, and they certainly don’t necessarily cannibalize themselves and their tribes. They do to a certain extent, to get to power, but, anyway.”

Despite those occasionally lapses or tumbles into canyons formed of his own rhetoric, Benjamin/Coach is extremely likable and genuine. “I want to make a difference in people’s lives,” he told me. “That’s why I’ve made every decision to sacrifice my own life: not being married, no kids–to coach a group of girls.” And he was also honest about what Survivor might do for him. “Obviously, for me, I think that God has … opened this door for a reason. I’m interested to see how much longer I’m going to be a soccer coach, or if this is going to evolve me into something else,” he said.

“Every morning I wake up and I tell myself, ‘I’ve done nothing in this life. I’ve accomplished nothing.’ It kind of gives me that drive to move forward. But most people that meet me realize that, this guy has done so much, but he’s not arrogant, but I come off as arrogant,” Benjamin said. “I’m very sincere.”

Hear Benjamin/Coach talk about being “disgusted” by what he’s seen on previous seasons of Survivor, “eat[ing] your own shit for two months,” and how his arrogance might work to his advantage:

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about the writer

Andy Dehnart is a journalist who has covered reality television for more than 15 years and created reality blurred in 2000. A member of the Television Critics Association, his writing and criticism about television, culture, and media has appeared on NPR and in Playboy, Buzzfeed, and many other publications. Andy, 36, also directs the journalism program at Stetson University in Florida, where he teaches creative nonfiction and journalism. He has an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing and literature from Bennington College. More about reality blurred and Andy.