Coast Guard football coach Bill George to retire following Saturday's season-finale
New London — He has been the head football coach at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy for the past 21 seasons and recollections of that time have flooded back to Bill George's mind in waves of joy the last few days and weeks.
George gathered his players early Tuesday morning — The Day was granted access to the team meeting — and told them of his intention to retire following Saturday's rivalry game against the Merchant Marine Academy.
The Bears are 5-4 pending Saturday's Secretaries' Cup festivities in New London, which will be televised at noon on ESPN3. George will leave as the academy's all-time wins leader. He has stayed to coach at a military academy longer than anyone in history save former Air Force head coach Fisher DeBerry, whose tenure lasted 23 seasons.
And yet George's memories are of people:
His late father Casper once standing gingerly for the national anthem at a Coast Guard men's basketball game only to be joined by then-academy superintendent Adm. Sandra Stosz, who stood side-by-side with him.
Attending the wedding of C.C. Grant, now George's longtime defensive coordinator, and Grant's wife Susan, the Coast Guard women's soccer coach. (George was the only Ithaca College grad in a room full of people who attended what was then Cortland State, C.C. Grant's alma mater, bringing the longstanding Ithaca-Cortland duel to yet another venue.)
"It was too fabulous a place," George said, reflecting on his time at the Coast Guard Academy. "If your goal is to coach Division III football, it's the most fabulous place in the world, bar none. Once I got here and was surrounded by these people, I thought it was the most fabulous place in the world.
"I'm not sad (to leave). I'm not sad. I'm not sad at all. Like Lou Gehrig's line, I'm the luckiest man on the face of the earth. For a chance to do this for one year ... I'm doing something beyond coaching football here. You really are touched by (the players) being officers (after they graduate). The inside of you is very touched.
"I think you learn more about people than you do about football."
George, 61, a Salem resident and native of Glens Falls, N.Y., leaves to spend more time with his wife Nancy and 9-year-old daughter Lila. George, who also teaches physical education at Coast Guard, will remain on campus until the end of the academic year.
The academy will conduct a national search to replace him.
George, who spoke Tuesday morning at McAllister Hall, told the players he wished to let them know of his intentions prior to the end of the season "while our blood is still pumping together."
"I have such a deep love for you guys," George said. "What an honor, what a privilege to have you as brothers."
"We thought we wouldn't get to learn about this until we were long gone in the fleet," said Coast Guard senior captain RJ Robiskie, who expressed some surprise at the announcement. "For a lot of us seniors, we feel special and honored that he chose to go out with us."
Robiskie said it adds to the already charged atmosphere for Saturday.
"One, it's our rival," Robiskie said. "Two, it's the seniors' last game. And three, it's coach's last game. It makes you want to go out with a win even more."
George, who graduated from Ithaca in 1980, was an All-America center for the Bombers under legendary football coach Jim Butterfield. George won Division III national championships at Ithaca as a player (1979) and as an assistant coach (1991).
He was a full-time special education teacher at Ithaca High School and a volunteer assistant under Butterfield at Ithaca when he left his teaching job to take a $2,000 per year entry level coaching position at Division I Princeton. He later served for two seasons as a graduate assistant at Division I Ohio State under head coach Earle Bruce, including a victory over Texas A&M in the 1986 Cotton Bowl.
George returned to coach under Butterfield at Ithaca in 1990 and spent nine seasons assisting the Bombers before being hired at Coast Guard.
"During my time at Ohio State and as I went through my career, I always thought my nature would be to be a Division III head football coach," George said. "... I was at West Point Prep (as an assistant from 1987-89) and Jim Butterfield said, 'Come back here; you'll be a head coach (someday).'
"I had the Division I bug. I loved being at Ohio State; I was like a kid in a candy store. It was fabulous. But Division III is more people-oriented. (Division I) is a business. Division I has a dollar-sign amount."
George was hired as Coast Guard's 15th head coach on April 8, 1999.
He set the program record for wins as a head coach in 2013, eclipsing John Merriman (48 wins from 1930-45), and is currently 75-125.
Under George, the Bears won back-to-back New England Football Conference Bogan Division championships in 2006-07.
In 2006, Coast Guard tied the school record with eight straight victories, finished the regular season at 8-1 and earned a spot in the ECAC North Atlantic Bowl, the school's first postseason bid since 1997, finishing the season at 8-3. George was named NEFC Bogan Division Coach of the Year in 2007, with the Bears finishing 8-2.
George has been joined by assistant coaches Dana Fleischmann (co-defensive coordinator), Grant, Ray LaForte (offensive coordinator), Jay Driscoll (defensive line) and Pat Knowles (running backs) each for 20 or more seasons. George coaches the Bears' offensive line.
"I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for C.C., Ray, Dana, Jay Driscoll, Pat Knowles. I've spent 12 hours a Sunday, every Sunday for 21 years in the office with them. Every Monday we've been here 'til 11 o'clock at night. They've had the same pit in their stomach. ... I consider them co-head coaches and they're the best friends."
George associates the New London campus closely with his family. George's late parents, Anna and Casper, as well as his brother Dan and his children, attended as many Coast Guard games as possible — "my parents loved coming here to games, they loved that I was the coach, they lived and died it," George said.
Now, he says "it's time to do some things."
"I'm (going to be) 62 with a 9-year-old," George said. "I'm not slowing down. But you come to that point. I've got to jump overboard some time. People tell me 'go smell the roses.' It's not my nature. With a 9-year-old, I have to. It's a family decision. I just think it's time."
"Three words I would use to describe coach: passionate/compassionate, respectful and caring of all of us," Robiskie said. "The whole coaching staff, they all care so much. They treat all the guys here with respect. They treat us like young men. ... There's never a dull moment (with George), never a dry story. He's been a fun guy to play for."
Longest head football coaching stints at a U.S. service academy:
1. Fisher DeBerry (Air Force), 23 seasons (1984-2006)
2. Bill George (Coast Guard), 21 seasons (1999-2019)
3. Ben Martin (Air Force), 20 seasons (1958-77)
4. Red Blaik (Army), 18 seasons (1941-58)
5. John Merriman (Coast Guard), 16 seasons (1930-45)