GROVE CITY – Andrew DiDonato is a young man, 32-years-old. However he was hard-pressed to recall a football-free Fall.
“I started playing when I was eight ... and before then I was a ballboy for my brothers. So to be honest, for me personally, I’ve been playing or coaching for twenty-four years.”
But owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Presidents’ Athletic Conference Presidents’ Council recently announced its decision to shutter several 2020 fall sports seasons. So what is a college football coach to do when he has no season for which to prepare?
“Focus on the vision, not your circumstances,” came DiDonato’s ready reply.
That’s been DiDonato’s declaration since becoming Grove City College’s head football coach. It’s what has enabled DiDonato to direct the once winless Wolverines to 17 wins and back-to-back ECAC bowl victories during the last 2 seasons.
So despite his disappointment at the recent revelation regarding the 2020 season, DiDonato did not waiver. Neither did his players.
“Doing well,” DiDonato responded. “The guys are in good spirits. Obviously, disappointed, ‘cause these guys love playing the game. But ... we had a good discussion about that. The guys are excited to make the most out of the situation we’ve been given.
“Focus on your vision, not your circumstances. That’s what we’ve emphasized with our guys, and that’s one of the core (components) we talk about all the time,” DiDonato explained. “Honestly? They responded well.
“As I told them – and these guys are used to that – overcoming your circumstances. And,” DiDonato added, interjecting another of his phrase of his philosophy, “We also talked about building brick-by-brick.”
Those core value building blocks devised by DiDonato were tested when his Wolverines went winless in his first season at the helm (2016). There was a 4-game improvement during DiDonato’s 2nd season (4-6), then DiDonato doubled that win total in 2018 (8-3, including a 56-48 ECAC James Lynah Bowl win over Morrisville State). For the latter he was chosen PAC Coach of the Year.
Last season the ‘Grovers garnered a program-best 7 consecutive circuit successes en route to a 9-2 ledger and 2nd straight Lynah Bowl victory (41-38 over Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute).
There are 25 seniors on this season’s roster (players and student coaches), all of whom were freshmen in 2016. In spite of their chosen major field of study at GCC, all of them have been serving as apprentices to DiDonato, the master mason.
“Laying bricks,” he said, “so other guys (future Wolverines) get to enjoy it.”
Recalling the Wolverines’ winless season DiDonato, a former GCC standout signal-caller said, “Those were tough circumstances ... that long losing streak (33 consecutive games for the program). But we were able to build out of that. And I told (his 2020 players), ‘You’ve trained for this. This circumstance (the canceled season) is no different. So stay focused on the vision.’ That’s what keeps us moving forward.
“And we’ve stayed focused on how to use this as a positive,” DiDonato continued. “Our guys are leaders, and you could see in their reaction (to the Presidents’ Council decision) that they know how to approach this. Most were concerned with, ‘Where are we going from here?’ as opposed to the news they’d just received.”
Conveying his message to his players, DiDonato related, “I talked with our guys and told them, ‘Don’t derive fulfillment from football; bring it to fulfillment.’ What an opportunity to put this into practice.
“You know, at some point football’s going to come to an end,” DiDonato advised his players, “’so bring joy to the game, instead of getting joy from it.’ What an opportunity to show where fulfillment does come from – an opportunity to stay focused on our vision. I told them this is no different, to approach this Fall with the same focus: Where do we want to get as a program? This’ll be another opportunity this Fall to get closer.”
So – adhering to all health and safety protocols – while the Wolverines will work out this Fall in preparation for a proposed 2021 Spring season, DiDonato related, “Some of these (seniors), we’ll see whether there’s a Spring season and we can get some action for them. ... But for these guys, whether it’s the Fall or Spring or whenever, they’re looking to lay bricks – that’s what’s important, moving forward. That’ll be their sense of purpose this Fall, even though we don’t know what the Spring holds for us.
“Safety is our number one goal, to keep these guys safe. They’re excited to get back on campus on the twenty-fourth (of August), and at that point we’ll take a look at what we’re allowed to do – the right things and the best things.”
Summarizing the sentiments of his players and staff, DiDonato said, “Bring joy to the game, instead of getting joy from it. ... We talk about it all the time, turning everything into a positive, into something good. So what an opportunity for us to get to do that!”
DiDonato and his wife Andrea are the parents of daughter Gabriella and son Daniel. The concept of sitting idle on an October Saturday afternoon is foreign to him, but he related,
“I’ve got a four-year-old and a one-year-old, so I know those two will keep me busy. (Past) Saturdays in the fall, I was pretty much gone all day. I’ll do some things with them. Certainly, my wife and I, we haven’t had that (free) time in the fall, we haven’t gotten to do those things in the past, so we’ll have to take advantage (of sharing some free time).
“And maybe there’ll be some projects I’ll be able to get done in the fall,” DiDonato mused.
Perhaps a home improvement project, such as continuing to build on the firm foundation he’s established in Grove City College’s football program.