|Frank Girardi won 257 games at the helm of Lycoming football.
Lycoming athletics file photo
At the end of the 1971 football season, Frank Girardi got a knock on his door. An assistant coach for the Lycoming football team, he was surprised to find then-Lycoming president Harold Hutson there. The conversation was quick, as Girardi remembers it, and by the time Hutson left, Girardi was the head coach of the Warriors.
Over the course of the next 36 years, Girardi cobbled together one of the finest resumes in the history of college football. He won 257 games, which still ranks 16th all-time in NCAA history. He helped Lycoming win 13 Middle Atlantic Conference titles and make 11 appearances in the NCAA Division III playoffs. He led the Warriors to the national title game in 1990 and 1997 and the semifinals in 1996.
On Friday, Jan. 8, he was rewarded with perhaps the biggest honor of his career, as he was announced as part of a group of 16 inductees that are part of the 2016 National Football Foundation & College Football Hall of Fame class, the foundation announced in Scottsdale, Ariz., as part of the pregame festivities at the College Football Playoff.
"When he was hired at Lycoming, he needed to build the program," Lycoming director of athletics and head football coach Mike Clark said. "He had his first winning season in 1975 and won his first championship in 1978 and went on a streak of 29 consecutive winning seasons, which is really phenomenal. He built a program that had Lycoming College among the best in the country for a long time. The things he accomplished – nobody in the East region has been able to duplicate since in terms of national championship game appearances and final four berths. He built something here that people have been proud of for 40-plus years."
One of only 29 coaches to record 200 or more victories at one school, Girardi did indeed struggle for the first three seasons of his career, as the Warriors compiled a 7-18 record in those years. A developing defense matured in 1975, however, as it led Division III by allowing just 133.1 yards per game and propelled the team to 6-2 record, starting that run of 29 straight winning seasons.
"Coach Girardi is at the top of my list as far as positive influences in my life," said Hon. Thomas I. Vanaskie '75, a circuit judge for the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit and Girardi's first All-American in 1974. "It went well beyond the football field. I always remember the first meeting we had when he became head coach and how he stressed loyalty. That was a great message that meant a lot to me. It was more than that, though. He stressed discipline and hard work every day in practice and he rewarded hard work."
In 1976, the defense led the nation in rushing, allowing just 44.3 yards per game, helping the team set a school record for wins with an 8-1 record, a mark his teams would go on to break four more times before the 1990 and 1997 teams set the current standard with 12-1 marks.
"Coach Girardi is an individual that you could always depend on," said Jerry McGinn, a director of business development at Daneker & Dean and a college football referee that worked the Rose Bowl in 2013. "Basically, he is a man that has had so much positive effect on your life. The wins and losses mean nothing compared to the way he affected young men that for the most part never thought had a chance to go to college. We got to go to college and play football and move on with our lives and have great careers and memories. He gave a lot of city kids a chance to get out of the city and make better lives for themselves. This is an honor that is long overdue for Frank Girardi."
The hallmarks of Girardi's teams seemed to always be the defense, which led Division III in total defense twice (1975, '83), rushing defense three times (1976, '82, '87) and scoring defense once (1999) during his career. By the mid-'80s, though, his offenses had the firepower to match the defense, leading the MAC in total offense for the first time in 1984 (178.5) and four more times in his career.
"Frank made it fun," said Steve Wiser, the longtime Lycoming defensive coordinator and assistant head coach. "I loved playing for the guy and I loved practicing for the guy. I was very fortunate that Frank hired me and took me into the family. He's like my second dad. I learned a lot about the game of football from Frank over the years, but I learned a lot more about life and how to treat people."
With the winning seasons came new goals and by the late '70s, the Warriors were in contention for MAC titles nearly every year. A 14-0 loss to Albright spoiled the team's chance at a title during an 8-1 season in 1976, but two years later, Lycoming picked up a share of MAC Northern Division titles with a 5-1 conference record and then did so again in 1979, posting a 6-0-1 mark in conference play. Those two championships set off a run where every four-year graduating player at Lycoming for the next 25 years left with at least one MAC championship.
More incredible seasons followed as Girardi built the Warriors into a regional powerhouse in the '80s. In 1985, the team, led by All-American quarterback Larry Barretta, recorded its first undefeated regular season in program history, going 10-0 to earn the program's first bid to the Division III playoffs.
"The teams in the late '70s opened the door for us," Barretta said. "We swung it open and the guys after us really tore it off the hinges."
In 1989, the Warriors won their first tournament game, beating Dickinson, 21-0, in the first round, setting up a magical decade that followed. With a defense that pitched four shutouts, the Warriors steamrolled through the regular season in 1990, finishing 9-0 before posting wins over Carnegie Mellon and Washington and Jefferson to reach the national semifinals, where they were decided underdogs at Hofstra, which had recently announced it was moving to Division I.
The Warriors had a more pressing problem early that week, though. They had no shoes to wear on Hofstra's artificial turf field. In a move that garnered national attention, Girardi called Penn State coach Joe Paterno to ask for help and soon after, boxes upon boxes of turf shoes showed up at the gates of Person Field. Days later, the Warriors upset Hofstra, 20-10, to reach the national championship game.
"It was a hectic week," said Joe Gillespie, the captain of the 1990 squad. "Hofstra was the favorite. They were moving up to Division I the following year. We had never played on turf, so that was new to us. The next thing we knew, we came to practice and there were a couple hundred pair of turf shoes in the middle of the locker room. I just remember it was like Christmas. We only got to use them for a game, but there were hundreds of pairs there. It was exciting. I don't think we realized at the time how big an upset it was."
In another historic event, the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl in 1990 was the first national championship at any level to go into overtime, as Lycoming came up just short to Allegheny, 21-14, in Bradenton, Fla.
Still, the season proved that the Warriors were prepared to become a powerhouse, and in the '90s, they turned into one, winning seven MAC titles in the decade, making four appearances in the NCAA quarterfinals, three in the semifinals and reappearing in the NCAA Division III championship game in 1997, thanks to another tremendous upset, overcoming a 20-0 halftime deficit to defeat Rowan, 28-20.
As the seasons progressed, the wins piled up and despite a 1-4 start to the 2005 season, the team finished the year with five straight wins. That final win, a 17-10 overtime victory against rival Susquehanna, ended with Girardi being carried off the field on the team's shoulders with 250 career wins.
"That was one of the coolest moments I have had in football," said Pat Taylor, Lycoming's offensive line coach. "We were 1-4 and the team found out G needed to win five games to get to 250 and our next game was against a top-10 team in Ithaca. I didn't think we had much of a chance, but the way we were able to rally around G, we strung together five straight wins. It was really remarkable. Even into the last game, where we went into overtime and had to persevere, there was no one on that team that wasn't going to do everything they could to get G that win."
By the time Girardi decided to retire at the end of the 2007 season, Girardi had coached 82 All-Americans, 328 All-MAC selections, five Academic All-Americans (including Academic All-America Hall of Fame Member Vanaskie), 13 Academic All-District picks, 13 Lycoming College Male Athletes of the Year, seven MAC Most Valuable Players/Players of the Year and 58 members of the Lycoming College Athletics Hall of Fame.
Part of the success that helped build the Warriors into a national power came from the fact that Girardi was able to make all of his players and coaches feel comfortable from the day they first visited Lycoming to the day they left.
"There are a lot of fond memories I have because of Coach G and Robb and the team atmosphere they constructed," All-American offensive lineman and Arena Football League veteran Darrin Kenney said. "There are people that come along that make an impact and Coach G made an impact on my life. He was always confident no matter where he was, no matter what team we were playing. I came to Lycoming basically to blow off a day of school. No one I knew ever went there, but when I got there, I knew it was where I wanted to be. Whatever it was, karma or destiny, it led to a fantastic four years of my life."
Another key component was the absolute level-headedness with which Girardi conducted his work both as a football coach and as the college's Director of Athletics from 1984-2007.
"He treated everyone the same," Girardi's longtime recruiting coordinator and assistant director of athletics, Robb Curry '69 said. "If you were a fourth-string guy or Larry Barretta, all the guys on the team were like his own kids. In the locker room, on campus, in the cafeteria, Frank went and took time with anybody that was a member of the team. He was really good at that. The other thing he taught me was to never rush to judgment. Frank never made a tough decision without sleeping on it. He never jumped on a situation until all the emotion was out of it and it was just about the facts."
After growing up in the shadows of the college, Girardi came to the school in 1969 as an assistant coach under Whitehill, serving as an assistant for three seasons before Hutson knocked on his door. A star running back at Williamsport Area High School and a letterwinner at West Chester under the legendary Glenn Killinger, Girardi served as head coach of Jersey Shore Area High School before joining the Lycoming staff.