By Ed Farrell
Herald Assistant Sports Editor
TWO COACHES leading their respective NCAA Division III football programs.
The schools are approximately 25 miles apart. Competing in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference, philosophically they are similar; subsequently, the coaches probably recruit many of the same student-athletes.
Though ultimately these men are attempting to help prepare young peoples’ futures — all the while winning football games — it’s from there their paths take divergent directions.
Chris Smith is so ingrained in Grove City College it’s difficult to separate the two. He graduated from the school (’72), played football there (maintaining the program’s career pass interceptions record, 22), and has spent virtually his entire professional life there — 37 years as a player, assistant coach. And having just completed his 29th season as head coach, his Wolverines’ recent 21-7 season-ending — and 6th consecutive Mercer County Cup-clinching win — was his 117th at the helm of the 118-year-old program, extending his career record.
Standing stationed on a Robert E. Thorn Field’s sideline approximately 50 yards across from Smith last Saturday was Thiel College’s Kurt Reiser. Having just completed his 3rd season as the Tomcats’ taskmaster, Reiser is reviving a program from the depths of a 2è-season-long losing drought. The irony is that Reiser, as an assistant to Jack Leipheimer, was part of the Thiel program’s signature season (’05), when a school single-season standard 11 wins ended in the 2nd round of the NCAA playoffs.
Two men, essentially at different stations in life personally, perhaps, but similar, owing to their chosen profession.
The youthful-looking Smith, attired in his traditional white V-neck sweater, burgandy-hued trousers and white tennis shoes, recently recalled,
“I was in education. I wanted to coach and had aspirations to go to a certain level. (Coaching) was a thought, but it wasn’t something that I was determined to do ... like I wrote that goal down, that I was coming back some day. But I knew I wanted to coach, had a chance to coach college football, and a chance to come back here.”
Reiser’s restoration of Thiel’s program began in this season’s 3rd week via a 21-14 overtime victory over Geneva at Alumni Stadium in Greenville.
“It was very emotional. It was unbelievable!” Reiser recalled. “I think it was a day I was so proud for our kids, especially our seniors (Hickory High product and offensive lineman Jordan Fortuna, as well as All-American defensive end Tim Taylor, Marshaun Hainesworth, Kris Tursky, Todd Harvey, Mike Rasor, Zane Garza, Jonathan Welsh, Aaron Parker, Adam Mott, Brian Davis and Hunter Liptrap), who have stuck it out through two hard seasons, stuck by us that whole time. It’s a testament to their character and their perseverence to stay with the program and work hard to get to the point where we are.”
A quick read of Reiser reveals he is not given to speaking of himself, but he admitted, “I felt a huge weight had come off my back. The monkey got off our backs, and that kind’ve helped us relax for the rest of the season.”
Following a pair of season-opening setbacks by a total of 13 points, the Tomcats tallied 3 triumphs in their final 5 tilts.
“John Harakal came on as our defensive coordinator, and Steve Boyle and Charlie Noonan have done an outstanding job with our defense — that, really, has been the centerpiece of this season, we’ve been very, very good — and offensively we grew through the season. Andrew Smith, our quarterback, has done a nice job progressing throughout the season,” explained Reiser, who recalled,
“There’s a lot of parallels with this team and the team we had back in two-thousand and-three. We had opportunities in two-thousand-and-three, just like we did this year, and struggled that year, too. I think we ended that season three-and-seven, as well. Our kids just continued to work hard and continued to build.
“We saw the progress. It just took a little bit of time for them to learn to finish games off, to finish drives off, and to get over the hump. And I think that’s at the point we’re at right now.
“We’ll get past it,” Reiser promised.
Smith is a native of one of the cradles of coaches, Massillon, Ohio (including legendary Paul Brown and former Sharon High coach Dave Stewart). One of his seniors, linebacker Jason Ferguson, said he would like to enter the coaching ranks.
“Yes, definitely. I’ve actually spoken with my high school (Mineral Ridge, Ohio), possibly starting in strength and conditioning in the fall,” said Ferguson following the Wolverines’ win.
Reiser’s rebuilding is taking shape.
“We feel confident that we can do that again,” emphasized Reiser, regarding ’05. “Being at Thiel and having a program at Thiel and the support that we get from our athletic director (Leipheimer) and our president (Dr. Troy VanAken), it’s allowing us to build a program that’s very competitive.
“So we’re very excited about the future,” Reiser continued. “I think we’ve got a bright future and I hope people’ll see that, and I hope it’ll help us on the recruiting trail.
“It’s been good. It’s been a fun ride. I know we’re only three-and-seven, but I think the future’s very bright for us,” Reiser concluded.
The Grovers graduate 16 seniors (in addition to Ferguson, Mike Brown, Marc Shamley, Mike McDonald, Dustin Anewalt, Shane Kaclik, Shawn Mercer, Kurt Devlin, Ben Dallatore, Mario Poteraro, Scott Linkowski, Josh Bermann, Aaron Sircy, Andy Pisorn, Zac Page and George Matthews). Considering the recently-completed 6-4 season, Smith said, “Everyone who’s here (in the program), I’ll be here when they graduate.”
Having seen his daughter (Ellie, ’03) graduate from Grove City College, Smith said he still enjoys the Saturday afternoon atmosphere of coaching college football. Standing near midfield, with parents mingling with their sons following the triumph over Thiel, a smiling Smith said,
“When you win the Cup and it’s a nice, sunny day, you can get the guys from the chemistry department to come down and coach.
“ ... And,” Smith said regarding coaching his alma mater, “ ... it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Ed Farrell is assistant sports editor for The Herald