When he was hired as Loyalsock's head football coach two seasons ago, Justin Van Fleet wasn't sure where to start building his program. As a first-year head coach, Van Fleet had never been at the helm of his own team, and needed help shifting his focus from the defensive side of the ball to the grand scheme of things.
So, Van Fleet tracked down an NCAA Hall of Fame coach, and asked for a little guidance.
The direction Van Fleet sought was from none other than local legend Frank Girardi, who, during his 36-year tenure as Lycoming College's head coach, accrued 257 wins with 13 conference championships.
Having talked with Girardi in the past on issues related to special teams, Van Fleet knew where to look when he was hired before last season.
"Being 27 at the time, I guess I was too dumb to be worried about him saying no," Van Fleet said. "So I just asked him to see if he would be willing to come and help out a little bit.
"We talked a lot about what I could do moving forward, and what direction I wanted to take," said Van Fleet.
From that moment forward, the relationship between Girardi and Van Fleet began to blossom from a consultation to full-blown mentorship.
"I have learned a tremendous amount from him," Van Fleet said.
"The reality is, he has the best football mind of anybody I have ever worked with. And I have had great opportunities in college football to work with a lot of guys who got paid a ton of money to do their jobs," Van Fleet said.
Girardi's time as a team consultant didn't last long, however. As the coach spent more and more time around the Loyalsock program, he couldn't resist the chance to join Van Fleet's staff as an unpaid assistant coach.
"Frank is not a half-way guy," said Van Fleet. "So in the end he jumped in the whole way."
Now Girardi has traded in his spot roaming the sidelines for one of the winningest programs in Division III football for a seat in the press box next to his son, Frank Jr., who makes the team's offensive play calls. And while the polo shirt he sports on game days is now maroon and white, as opposed to the Lycoming blue and gold he wore for so many years, his vast knowledge of the game remains as sharp as ever. Girardi has seen it all in the game of football, and there is no situation on the field that he doesn't know how to tackle.
Girardi said that the decision to join the Loyalsock coaching staff was an easy one, because he was happy to help out such a fervent first-year head coach.
"Anytime you see a young kid who has passion and wants to do well, and has the kids at heart, it has been easy to help out in that situation," Girardi said. "You are eager to help out in that situation, because you know the passion Justin has for the game."
Van Fleet has made the most out of his time with Girardi on staff, as he says that the coach is someone he can seek advice from on most any issue.
"It's a fun relationship, because he is an assistant of mine, and when I am stuck between a rock and a hard place, I know I can pick up the phone and talk to someone who is in the NCAA Hall of Fame," Van Fleet said.
"Nobody would know we had that relationship except the two of us, because he treats himself as an assistant coach. He jumped into that role, and he won't wither out of it," Van Fleet said.
But Girardi's true impact on the Lancers comes down to a lot more than X's and O's. What truly makes him such a great coach on the field is the integrity and work ethic he displays off of it.
"He is a much better man than he is a football coach, and that is tough to say, because he is an unbelievable coach," said Van Fleet. "But as a human being, you won't find a better person. We are blessed to have him, and to be around him every day and learn from him. I've learned more from him than I have learned from anybody."
Those tremendous qualities are what have allowed Girardi to build great relationships with his players for the last half-century. He has an uncanny ability to make a football team feel like a family, which is a trend that has followed him to Loyalsock.
One of the players who is reaping the benefits of Girardi's time with the Lancers is their junior quarterback, Kyle Datres, who credits Girardi for much of the growth he has seen in his play over the last two seasons. Girardi works with Datres on both sides of the ball, and has helped turn him into one of the area's most talented football players.
"We got him in here, and he started working with Kyle, and he loved that kid," Van Fleet said. "He loved working with him and talking with him. They had a wonderful relationship, and that relationship blossomed to the point where he became our quarterbacks coach."
Through six games this season, Datres has accumulated an impressive 972 yards passing with eight touchdowns on 74 pass completions, and is also the Lancers' second-leading rusher with 604 yards on the ground.
Girardi believes that most of the credit belongs to Datres.
"He is the type of kid that you don't have to tell him twice on most things," Girardi said. "What we have been trying to do with Kyle is just expand on the great skill-set he already has. He is very receptive to coaching."
Datres says that the time he has spent with Coach Girardi has been invaluable.
"He helps me out a lot," Datres said. "As a quarterback, before I would just use my athleticism and really didn't know how to read a defense, or know what get into at the line of scrimmage. He took the college aspect and helped me put those things into the high school game."
But Datres said that he isn't the only player on the team who has benefited from Girardi's presence on the team.
"Everyone respects him because they know what he has done, and out of all of the coaches he has been around football the longest," Datres said. "He knows everything about the game, and when he talks everybody listens."