AL LESAR, South Bend Tribune
7:37 AM EDT, July 28, 2013
MISHAWAKA -- Hard to believe it’s been more than a decade since Chris Geesman coached a football game at Penn High School.
Seems like yesterday he was leading the Kingsmen to 309 wins, five state titles and three runner-up finishes over a 30-year career.
The booming voice is familiar. Stories of the good ol’ days still flow like a river during monsoon season. His gitty-up is limited a bit after getting a new left hip. All indications are he’ll be as good as new when he hunkers down in the Regional Radio Sports Network booth as analyst for Penn’s opener at Valparaiso Aug. 23.
“The view from the pressbox isn’t bad at all,” Geesman said. “Especially when it rains.”
Football practice starts Aug. 5. This is the time of year Geesman misses the game that ultimately became his life.
“I remember when Al McGuire quit (as head basketball coach) at Marquette,” Geesman said. “He said, ‘If I could ride my motorcycle in the mountains all week, then coach a game on Saturday, I’d coach the rest of my life.’ That’s how it was with me. You don’t ever lose the competitive urge. I just lost the urge to do the things you need to do to be good.
“I’m just happy I was able to go out on my own terms.”
Since then, between hip replacements, the 73-year-old has done his share of traveling. Tours out West and to Italy have been the high points for this globetrotter. Who’d have thought Mount Rushmore and the Leaning Tower of Pisa could ever replace two-a-days and summer conditioning?
But that’s just who Geesman is these days.
Forty years ago, he began the creation of a monster. He built it into a power that reached the state championship game six of his last eight years - and with a little luck, could have gotten there on those two “lean” seasons.
“It got to the point where, ‘good isn’t good if better is expected,’” Geesman said.
He is staunchly behind his replacement, Cory Yeoman. A player and an assistant under Geesman, Yeoman had those tough shoes to fill and came through with 106 wins and two state runner-up finishes (2003, 2011) in his 10 years at the helm — actually, well ahead of Geesman’s early pace.
“The only advice I ever gave to Cory was, ‘Don’t let anyone else define what success is,’” Geesman said. “Cory has done an amazing job with the program. He brought it into the computer age. Everything I did was scribbled down on notes. I’ve always been pretty much in awe of his coaching ability.”
Never at a loss for an opinion, Geesman had thoughts on a variety of topics:
On a change of Penn’s offensive philosophy: “My last couple of years, we went to the spread offense (from a power running game) — before it was really popular. I was speaking at a clinic at Ohio State. Rich Rodriguez had just gotten the (head coaching) job at West Virginia. We were by ourselves in a speakers lounge for an hour. He went through every play we had (Penn’s staff had gotten the offense from Northwestern coaches, who had gotten it from Rodriguez) and critiqued everything.
“Talk about going right to the horse’s mouth. That’s why I felt so bad when he was bad-mouthed at Michigan. He was such a great guy.”
On summer conditioning: “The worst thing for Penn High School was when the IHSAA made two mandatory moratorium weeks (no contact between players and coaches) — the week of the Fourth of July and the week before practice starts. That was our idea before it was a rule. We probably only worked our players an intense three weeks in the summer. Now, everyone is doing it.
“We never took kids to 7-on-7 tournaments. That’s not football. They’re not learning anything. On the last day of our team camp we would have Concord come over and we’d work with them for four hours. A lot of learning went on for both teams.
“It must have worked. In our last 29 openers, we were 28-1.”
On surviving 30 years in a tough profession: “There aren’t too many lifers (coaching football) these days. At Penn, even on our darkest days (‘when we would lose two games in a season,’ Geesman said with a precocious snicker), we were able to laugh. Who else can say that every day, for 30 years, they were able to laugh? That’s what kept us around.”
On the addition of a sixth class to the tournament field: “The sixth class and the ‘tradition factor’ (in which a team that has success two years in a row is moved up a class) are both good for football.
“If you weren’t a mega-school (in Class 5-A) or a Catholic school (in the other classes), your chances of winning a state title were slim and none. Last year, there was a significant drop in attendance at the state finals. When you can pick the champs in Class 1-A through 4-A before the first practice, people will get tired of that.
“Penn will be with Chesterton, Portage and Valpo (in its 6-A sectional). It could hurt money-wise. Penn (fans) always travels well, but I’m not sure how those others will travel.”
(Note: The bye week in the 6-A and 5-A 32-team tournaments will be the week between the semistate and state finals, which means only two teams in each class will be impacted).
On his philosophy running a program: “I just asked three things out of my players: Prepare hard, practice hard, play hard. After that, let the chips fall where they may.
“All I could do was have the players ready and give them a plan. The magic is with the players. They’re the ones who will win the game.”
On his staff: “There were no egos on our staff. Everybody had input. I remember (assistant) Dave Janicki’s first meeting. I said, ‘What do you think, Dave?’ He said, ‘I’m just sitting here listening.’ I said, ‘You’re getting paid to speak up.’ After that, he always came with ideas. We never discouraged input. We always listened.
“Heck, if the lunch lady in the cafeteria came up with a pass play, I’d scribble it down and give it a look.”
On a prediction for this season: “Look out for the Kingsmen, they could be special.”
Now, wait, isn’t that the sort of expectation he used to hate?