Mike Sirianni

Holly Tonini/Observer-Reporter

Mike Sirianni has a 156-36 record in 19 seasons as Washington & Jefferson’s head football coach.

By his own admission, Washington & Jefferson College football coach Mike Sirianni learned a lot in the past couple of years.

The illness and death of his close friend and top assistant, Todd Young, in March 2020 shook him. His daughter graduating from Hopewell in June 2019 and then going off to college enlightened him to realities of life and the trials and tribulations of a college freshman.

On top of that, Sirianni and his W&J football team had to grind through a mentally and physically exhausting and frustrating season in 2019 that saw the Presidents lose an atypically high three Presidents’ Athletic Conference games on its way to an 8-3 record that is nowhere close to the disaster some folks wanted to make it out to be.

While the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 season, Sirianni and his Presidents are back and getting ready to play for the PAC’s spring championship at 7 p.m. Friday against Westminster at Burry Stadium in New Wilmington.

W&J won three games in the shortened spring season and had its final regular-season game, against Bethany last Friday, cancelled because of COVID concerns within the Bisons’ program.

“At first, I was skeptical (about the spring season),” Sirianni said. “It’s been terrific. It’s given us a chance to come together and play hard and have some fun. After watching us play and some games in the Ohio Athletic Conference, and saw how physical and hard teams we’re playing, I changed my mind. If we’re playing, then let’s win the championship.”

Just being around his players, and enjoying the competition, has helped brighten the spirits in the W&J program.

“I don’t think Todd’s illness had anything to do with us having a subpar season in 2019,” Sirianni said. “When Todd found out about his illness (April 2019), the prognosis was grim. The fact he made it through the season was a miracle in itself.

“I was very hard on him through the years,” Sirianni said. “I rode him and pushed him and maybe blamed him for things that were not his fault. I felt terrible and wanted the chance to coach with him again. I got to tell him what he meant to me.

“It’s strange running out onto the field without him.”

W&J was without one of the top players in the country, receiver Andrew Wolf, for most of the 2019 season and ended the year with two players who entered preseason camp as defensive linemen starting on the offensive line.

The offense could not pass or run anywhere near as prolific or efficient as in past seasons.

In addition to Young’s illness and the three Presidents’ Athletic Conference losses, Sirianni also was dealing with his daughter Jenna’s matriculation to Baldwin-Wallace University.

Sirianni and his family reside in Hopewell.

“That was interesting to be on the other side of it,” the coach said. “As a coach, you’re the parent of all the players. You feel for them when they are homesick. To be on the other side was different and unique. It has kind of opened my eyes to see what our players feel. My daughter got homesick.

“I am more sympathetic to our freshman and what they are going through. It’s such a time of apprehension.”

Scott McGuinness, W&J’s athletic director, said he doesn’t think Sirianni has necessarily changed but more people have seen a side of Sirianni not seen before.

“Mike has always had a big heart,” McGuinness said. “He cares about his family; he loves his players and his program. He works hard to please people.

“He is a big family man. His wife, his daughters and his whole family. It’s important to him. There’s a softer side to Mike not too many people get to see. What drives him is the desire to prove people wrong. He has used that motivation to be better and to make his program better.”

Doubting Mike?

His detractors say Sirianni is interested in the total of number of plays W&J runs more than the team’s point total – an absurd and unfounded criticism.

While there have been times his approach has worked against him in games when slowing things down a bit might have been more prudent or advantageous, it is hard to argue with Sirianni’s success at W&J.

Sirianni has adapted. He now is confident in his defense to carry the day. Wolf has returned. W&J has another special running back in Joey Koroly. The balance of the offense makes W&J more dangerous. The prospects of having an outstanding team in the fall of 2021 are bright.

Sirianni has a career record of 159-36 in 18 seasons. He is W&J’s winningest football coach, and his winning percentage is one of the tops in NCAA football. He has won multiple PAC titles and playoff games in his 18 seasons as head coach and four as an assistant in the program.

The guy is a flat-out tremendous offensive mind.

Despite all setbacks and circumstances in 2019, Sirianni rallied the Presidents for a season-ending, 20-17, victory over Ithaca in the ECAC Bushnell Bowl in New York. W&J, which trailed 17-0 in the third quarter with about 20 minutes left, found a way to overcome the Bombers and a trying five months.

“When we knelt on the ball to end the game, it was a great feeling for everyone,” Sirianni said. “It was an ECAC bowl game between two traditional programs. Kneeling gave us the chance to hug one another. It was pretty special.”

Staying put

His record and coaching prowess would have, and still could, allow Sirianni to go elsewhere.

When the Mount Union head coaching position opened after the 2019 season there was speculation that Sirianni might return to his alma mater, if the job were to leave the Kehres family.

Larry Kehres retired as Mount Union’s coach in 2012. He had a career record of 332-24-3 and won 11 NCAA Division III national titles. He coached Sirianni.

Vince Kehres, Larry’s son, coached the team from 2013-2019.

Sirianni admits he “talked to the people” he needed to talk with at Mount Union.

The job was given to Geoff Dartt, who was an assistant under Vince Kehres. Sirianni said Dartt was the rightful choice, and his discussions were never intense.

Speculation also swirled that Sirianni might join his brother, Nick, who was named head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles this offseason after a successful stint as the Indianapolis Colts’ offensive coordinator.

“Nick needs to get his footing and establish himself there,” Mike said. “He doesn’t need to hire some Division III coach right now.

“My whole family (dad and three Sirianni boys are or were football coaches) chose this path. We are where we are now because it was meant to be. Nick worked his butt off, and took some risks I wasn’t willing to take, and it paid off.”

One day, maybe he would unite with his brother.

“Now that I’m a little older, I’m stuck in my ways,” he said. “I don’t want to be an assistant, unless it would be for my brother. I’m not going to chase jobs. I’m happy at W&J. I like the direction President (John) Knapp is taking us.

Moving forward

Sirianni said he’s learned so much from the events the past few years and the 2012 murder of W&J running back Timothy McNerney.

He talks about the stress and frustration his players had felt in the past year with some not being at campus and dealing with the pandemic and other issues.

“They’ve been through a lot and some of them faced some serious issues. These kids have had to deal with so much,” he added. “This spring season has helped them get a sense of normalcy even though it’s still not normal.”

Sirianni has had to, for the first time, recruit while preparing for this spring season, and he admits, he has a new respect for coaches who have to coach and recruit at the same time.

“It’s not easy and is exhausting,” he said. “I don’t mind because we feel we have and continue to put together two excellent classes together. It’s a challenge.”

Sirianni admits there are things he and the program need to do better. Getting a jump on recruits is one of them, especially WPIAL players, the coach said.

Much has changed in Division III football’s postseason over the years. Postseason matchups in the early rounds are much more reliant on travel than balanced brackets.

He is eager to see what Friday’s championship brings and the fall season, which hopefully be contested.

“W&J is still going upward. We still hope to win a national championship. With North Central winning (in 2019), it gives us all hope. I wasn’t crushed when they beat Mount Union. I didn’t want Mount Union to lose, but it did give everyone a little hope.”

W&J’s 2021 schedule features a season opener at traditionally tough John Carroll. That, along with an ever-improving PAC, will provide a huge challenge.

Sirianni adds that a special memorial to Young is something his entire program needs to help them move past the popular assistant coach’s death and celebrate his life publicly.

“I had the opportunity to see Todd’s family and speak at the funeral,” Sirianni said. “Our kids have not had the chance to be together and memorialize their beloved coach. We need to have that moment together.”

Sirianni has brought stability throughout his tenure. His teams play hard and for 60 minutes, evidenced by some dramatic comeback victories over the years.

“Mike is proud of his family and its accomplishments,” McGuinness said. “He cares for his program and everything in it. He works hard to please everyone around him. That’s who he always has been. Everyone might not have seen it, but he is driven to help others and to make our football program as good as it can be.”

John Sacco writes a bi-weekly column about local sports history for the Observer-Reporter.

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