MORGANTOWN — Their names are not household words, sometimes not even in their own households, these men who run around with whistles hanging around their neck and a piece of paper with the day’s practice plan shoved into their shorts.
Their hours are long, their seasons longer.
The pay is good, yes, but they don’t do it for the pay, not these men who are lifelong assistant football coaches.
They do it for love, not of the game, although that enters into it, but of the profession and the way they can influence young men, often troubled young men, and for the way those young men can influence them.
They’ve been around, Steve Dunlap and Bill Kirelawich, West Virginia’s safety coach and defensive line coach. Dunlap’s been on the job 32 years since he finished his career as a Mountaineer linebacker, still ranking 10th on the all-time career tackle list with 359. Twenty-three of those years were spent right here in Morgantown.
Kirelawich has 31 years as an assistant since he left Salem, a school where his 89-yard interception return still stands as the record, all of them at West Virginia.
Neither has ever been a head coach, that dream having faded long ago. They don’t mind.
“It’s different things for different people,” Kirelawich said on a warm, breezy Wednesday, minutes after West Virginia’s second spring practice came to a conclusion. “It’s like this, the higher you go, the greater the sacrifice. It’s not as easy as just working hard. You sacrifice things. You sacrifice your family. Look at the sacrifices the President of the United States has to make.
“You say to yourself, ‘Am I willing to do that?’ I wanted to see my kids.”
And so he never pushed to be a head coach, never wanted to be out giving speeches, shaking hands, attending booster meetings, playing fund raising golf tournaments.
The hours in the film room and on the field, the long recruiting trips were more than another.
But coaching was in his blood, is in Dunlap’s blood.
It has to be.
“You do it for the love of the game,” Dunlap said. “You’ve got to have a passion. It’s too demanding otherwise.”
The rewards are healthy, true, but in most cases it really isn’t the money that lures a coach into the game or keeps him there.
“You see the young kids grow into men,” Dunlap said.
We’re not talking about your next door neighbor here. We’re talking as often as not as troubled kids.
“Half of them are from broken homes,” Dunlap said. “They’ve been taught their whole life to be tough, but sometimes they someone to lean on.”
That someone is the assistant coach, who is closest to the players, a father, disciplinarian and coach.
This leads to some real challenges, but also some really strong emotional ties.
“Timmy Newsome,” Dunlap said when asked to name someone who really brought it all out in Dunlap to bring it all out in him. “He was the 17th or 18th of 19 children,” Dunlap said. “He was so bashful when he came here. His Dad made him go to trade school. He was a walk-on, 160 pounds, within a year he was 180 and ended up playing a lot.”
Coaches have to know their Xs and Os, but as intriguing the strategy of the game is, it isn’t what makes coaches good.
“People do it,” Kirelawich said. “People who say Xs and Os are full of it. Players win. Good coaches can take capable guys and make them contribute, but not make them stars.”
A coach can be the smartest son of a gun on earth, but it doesn’t matter if he can’t get it across to the player.
“You have to make him understand what you want him do,” Dunlap said.
Doing that is an art, one that takes a while to learn and the first thing you have to do is earn their trust.
Coaches like Dunlap and Kirelawich have learned over the years how to do it, how to cajole them when necessary, how to pound them at times and then, when needed, how to love them and get through to them.
The result is a unique relationship, one similar to father and son and, for some of these kids from broken homes, with even a stronger bond because the coach is the first male disciplinarian they have really had.
The problem as a coach, however, is that he also has his own family, one that gets ignored far too often as he coaches the children of other parents.
In a way, Kirelawich had the best of all worlds during his career. When Rich Rodriguez came to Morgantown to replace Don Nehlen, he decided he did not want Kirelawich as an assistant so he became an administrative assistant working academics with the kids.
“What I missed was winning,” Kirelawich said. “Not on a personal level, but with a team. There’s not greater satisfaction than winning as the result of a group effort. What I was doing was like going to a good movie alone. You want to elbow the guy next to you and say ‘Isn’t that great?’ but there’s no one there.’”
It was difficult but not torture, for it came at a time when Kirelawich’s sons were playing and he was able to take part in that, which saved his sanity.
Still, first time he had a chance to get back into coaching, he was there.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.