Frank Girardi’s path worth studying by younger college football coaches

Frank Girardi’s induction into the College Football Hall of Fame was voted as the Sun-Gazette’s top sports story of 2016 by Sun-Gazette staff. Guy Cipriano covered his 250th win in 2005 over Susquehanna, above, for the Sun-Gazette. Girardi will be recognized with the Class of 2016 during a halftime ceremony Saturday in the Peach Bowl in Atlanta.

Note: Guy Cipriano is the associate editor of Golf Course Industry magazine. He covered Lycoming football for the Williamsport Sun-Gazette from 2003-05.

College football coaches are a nomadic breed, leaving people and places they enjoy to chase paychecks and satisfyegos.

That bigger budget, fan base, recruiting pool, stadium, weight room and postgame spread trumps personal security. Convincing the wife and children to move for a fourth time in seven years becomes an acquired skill. Why see a child graduate with his or her friends when a school 655 miles away offers a slightly higher chance of signing a three-star player owning a GPA comparable to a savings account interest rate?

Good real estate agents establish relationships with football coaches in their area because they know the connection will provide late fall and early winter business. Most of us consider investing $300,000 in a house you might occupy for two years a risk. Dozens of college football coaches consider it part of climbing the career ladder.

Frank Girardi never climbed the career ladder. He never won a national championship either, yet he learned earlier this year he’s being enshrined in a place almost every job-hunting coach will need a ticket to enter: the College Football Hall of Fame. His career is a case study every young coach should examine.

Nick Saban, Urban Meyer, Dabo Swinney and Chris Petersen are coaching College Football Playoff games Dec. 31. All four have worked at multiple schools in the last 20 years. Girardi served as the head at the same place for 36 years.

Girardi was raised in Williamsport’s Little Italy neighborhood, one mile from Lycoming College’s campus. We discussed the neighborhood and his parents, Jerry and Rose, as Girardi approached his 250th career win in 2005. As a young sports writer harboring my own career ambitions, I wanted to know why Girardi never left Lycoming to coach at a higher level. Girardi interviewed for three jobs at higher levels, but he stopped pursuing other opportunities in the 1980s.

“I have always liked Williamsport,” Girardi told me. “I have always been a Williamsport guy and there’s a lot to be said about being around family and friends.”

Tremendous job security added to Girardi’s comfort level. He became Lycoming’s athletic director in 1984, making him a full-time football coach who doubled as his own boss. The school deserves credit for naming Girardi athletic director. Motivated people, after all, relish challenges, and overseeing numerous sports contrasted the monotony of preparing for Middle Atlantic Conference opponents.

Girardi’s four children attended Lycoming and they remained in the area. The family continued to expand, and one of his grandsons, Nate Hanner, was in a Lycoming uniform when the Warriors defeated Susquehanna to give Girardi his 250th career win.

Swinney, who earns over $5 million per season, has three sons. Even somebody with an orange and purple master bathroom doesn’t expect Swinney to win 250 games and coach one of his sons at Clemson.

You didn’t need Type Girardi blood to be welcomed at Lycoming. Small colleges rely on football to lure students to campus. Girardi managed giant rosters – preseason camp often started with more than 125 athletes – and he seemingly developed a nickname for every player.

Girardi was in his mid-60s when I first met him. He was a grandfatherly figure in the locker room, a jovial, yet stern coach who demanded unyielding respect. His players and loyal circle of assistant coaches affectionately referred to him as “G.”

He called my “Cippy” every time I chased him with a notepad and recorder. He never shooed me away regardless of the circumstance. He accepted my call the night of Saturday, Dec. 6, 2003, hours after informing his team of the sudden death of wide receiver Ricky Lannetti. Lycoming was scheduled to play an NCAA Division III quarterfinal game against Bridgewater on the same day. Frozen field conditions postponed the game until Sunday. Coaches abuse the word adversity, using it to describe self-created gaffes such as fumbles or poor off-the-field decisions. Adversity is what Lycoming faced that weekend. The interconnected web of family, team, school and community allowed Girardi to guide Lycoming through the somber game and beyond.

Girardi stood on the same field two years later and absorbed a celebratory dousing following the overtime victory over Susquehanna. Family members released 250 blue and gold balloons into the sky as players chanted “G.”

Trying and exhilarating moments. Every coach experiences them. Girardi experienced them all at the same place. And it didn’t hurt his chances of becoming a hall of famer.