By Joseph Santoliquito
It’s not easy giving anything up, especially when you’re a head coach and have been coaching for more than half your life. You grow accustomed to doing things, like a second nature. Doing things you wouldn’t ask anyone else to do.
That was West Chester University head coach Bill Zwaan. It doesn’t get any more old school than Zwaan. If something had to be done with the Rams’ offense, he would do it.
It’s why Zwaan twisted a little when he felt it was time to give up a little bit, though in turn, the 30-year coach gained a lot, leading West Chester to its most successful season in school history, finishing with a single-season school record 13 victories and reaching the NCAA Division II Final Four for the second time in school history.
It’s why Zwaan is the Maxwell Club’s 16th Tri-State Coach of the Year, presented by the Philadelphia Insurance Companies.
Last December, the thought occurred to Zwaan that there needed to be a change in philosophy, after he underwent knee replacement surgery. It was difficult, but it also meant Zwaan had to back off. It meant turning over the reins of the high-powered Rams’ offense to his son, Bill Zwaan Jr.
“It meant I could do other things, it meant I overlooked everything, but when you give up something that you’ve been doing for a long time, you have to be careful how you approach that, because Bill was the guy calling the plays, he was going to be the guy that the kids looked for,” said Zwaan, who previously won the Tri-State award in 2001 while at Widener University. “I had to give Bill the leeway to do that.
“Bill knew the offense real well and I’ve been grooming him to take over at some point. After the knee surgery, that opened up the time. It was hard letting go of the play calling, there’s no question about it. Nick Sama [West Chester’s offensive line coach] brought it up after the season and said you have to figure out what to let go, because you can’t do it half way. He was right. I had to give over the offense completely to Bill. It was his play calling and done the way he wanted to do it. There were times, as you would expect, where we butted heads. But in the end, I let him do what he wanted to do and it turned out great.”
There were those times Zwaan had to stop himself, too. Those times he bit his lip, and turned and nodded, “Hey, let’s go with it.” He learned a lot about himself.
We’re all creatures of habit. And there’s no profession that fosters routine than a football coach—on any level. Repetition, repetition, repetition. It’s applied to practice, to film study, the basics of blocking, tackling, catching and passing, and in coaching, it’s an imbedded mindset.
“As a staff, we still did things the same way, it was the same offense, though there were some things that Bill liked better than I liked, and we went with the way he liked it,” Zwaan said. “That’s what I wanted. It’s the same offense, run with a different flavor, basically. That’s what I was really hoping to get out of it. We didn’t change a whole lot. We just changed the way we called certain things. That made it a much easier transition.”
It made this season a win-win for Zwaan, who showed an immense amount of trust in his 29-year-old son. His team had incredible success, and at the same time made its head coach proud.
“It was a proud feeling to watch Bill be successful with this,” Zwaan said. “There were times when I thought to myself, ‘That’s a really good call right there.’
The only other time West Chester reached the NCAA Division II Final Four was in 2004, in Zwaan’s second year as head coach of the Rams.
In his 11-year tenure at West Chester, Zwaan’s built a 90-45 overall record. He’s gone 144-59 in 17 years as a collegiate head coach. But he’ll treasure this season.
Sure, it ended in the national semifinals on Dec. 14 with a 42-14 setback to Lenoir-Rhyne in Hickory, N.C. But Zwaan nurtured a senior class that gradually went from 4-7 as freshmen, to 5-6 as sophomores, to 7-4 as juniors and finished 13-2 their senior year with a boatful of unforgettable memories.
“I think what makes Coach Zwaan special is he really loves the game of football,” said Rondell White, Zwaan’s star tailback who received the Tri-State Player of the Year honors. “You can always see that in his eyes throughout the whole week leading up to a game. We see the way he acts and that’s how you want to be. You don’t want to disappoint a guy like that. It hurt me seeing him down my freshman and sophomore years. Seeing him in his office with all of that writing on the board always told me how dedicated he is. He’s a great leader.”
Zwaan uses the term “we” when it comes to accepting the Maxwell Award, because “It’s about all of us, I have a great staff and I come from a great football background with coaches that I learned from,” he said.
The thank-you dad moment came when Zwaan and Bill hugged after the Bloomsburg victory in the NCAA playoffs, avenging the Rams’ regular-season PSAC loss. They just looked at each other. Nothing else had to be said.
“I’ve had rewarding years and some rewarding games,” Zwaan said, “but to watch this team do what it did made this the most rewarding year I ever had as a coach.”
Joseph Santoliquito is a Pennsylvania high school committee member of the Maxwell Club and a feature writer for CBS MaxPreps and CBS Philly.
Winner: Tri-State Coach Award – 2013, 2001 West Chester University, Widener University