Thiel College football coach Mike Winslow is pictured during a game last fall.

GREENVILLE – Just as he did as a football player, Mike Winslow responded to the difficult question by meeting it head on.

“I don’t know what I’m gonna do with myself on Friday nights and Saturday afternoons. That’s all I’ve known since I started playin’ when I was nine-years-old.” 

As Thiel College’s head football coach, Winslow pondered the recent revelation the Presidents’ Athletic Conference Presidents’ Council cancelled the 2020 traditional fall sports season. 

In its official announcement the PAC Presidents’ Council “ ... voted unanimously ... to postpone fall 2020 athletic competitions in the NCAA-defined ‘high-contact’ and ‘medium contact’ sports of football, men’s and women’s soccer, women’s volleyball and men’s and women’s cross country until the spring 2021 semester, due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Preparing to enter his 2nd season as Tomcats’ taskmaster, Winslow – while not “blindsided” by the news – nonetheless attempted to deal with the disappointment.

“I had an idea this was coming ... but unfortunately I had to deliver the bad news to the guys,” Winslow began. “But they’re smart. They follow social media, so they kind’ve knew what was coming.

“The guys I really feel for are the seniors – in all sports ... cheerleaders ... people in the band,” Winslow continued, before focusing on his football team, adding, “Some of these guys, this was their last crack at putting on the uniform and competing for their school.”

Ironically, perhaps no one knows better than Winslow what his 2020 players are experiencing. In a summertime workout while preparing for his senior season as a Thiel gridder in 2001, he tore his right ACL, effectively ending his playing career.

A whimsical Winslow admitted, “I still wish I could go back and suit up one more time. But I don’t want this to be about me; I feel for what these guys are goin’ through ... I know what that’s like.”

Specifically for his seniors – Trou Johnson, Darien Mosley, Eligah Flynn, Mario Demma, Keshawn Brooks and Curtis Johnson, Winslow was saddened.

“My seniors may never get the chance to do it again,” said Winslow, who reflected on his own experience and related, “I distinctly remember ... a lot of sadness, a lot of emotion, and some anger because it was something outside of my control – (injury) took away my senior year.”

However for Winslow, while one door closed, another opened.

“(Injury) was what led me down the path of coaching. I couldn’t stay away from the game, so I picked up a camera and started filming (Thiel games and practices) with my cousin (Mark Petrini, a Sharon resident and Thiel alumnus). It was a blessing in disguise,” Winslow emphasized, “‘cause (coaching) was not necessarily my career intent.”

Winslow worked for Jack Leipheimer, who led Thiel to the best single season in program annals (2005) that included 11 wins, a PAC championship and an opening-round NCAA Division III playoff win.

Similarly, that is how Winslow will approach the current coronavirus crisis that canceled the campaign. In addition to his 6 seniors, there are only 9 juniors listed on the 2020 roster, meaning there are approximately 70 freshmen and sophomores. This autumn automatically morphs into an offseason of preparation for a live, spring season.

“Hammer the weight room. That’s the plan, real simple,” Winslow said. “A chance to grow and develop. This fall ‘offseason’ ... is going to be from a program development standpoint, and it gives us, what I consider, an advantage.

“We’re gonna treat it like a traditional offseason program,” Winslow explained. “We have to get stronger and bigger. They’re still freshmen and sophomores playing against veteran groups from Westminster ... Grove City ... W&J (Washington & Jefferson) ... so we have to catch up in the weight room.”

But this new world, Winslow admitted, will be “tricky.

“We’re still awaiting for some NCAA legislation clearances to see what is allowed from a football standpoint. The spring (2021) season still has a lot of uncertainty ... how the spring will look logistically ... so we have to devise a plan and options to present to our (administrative) leadership,” Winslow said, emphasizing, “But we’re gonna continue to develop our players with their strength and relationships, and get them moving in the right direction in the classroom.”

Candidly continuing, Winslow added regarding his current players, “We don’t need them to touch a football right now; we need them to get on track for the ‘clean and press.’”

The upcoming fall will be filled, also, with “hitting the ‘accelerator’ with the recruiting process – that’s the focus,” Winslow said. “We’re full-steam ahead with recruiting, and there’s some staffing we’re gonna have to replace, fill some positions.”

But if he is to recruit, he will need the proper platform, and Winslow acknowledged, “My hope is that there’s high school football. But even if I can’t attend, I know the schools will find ways to put the games online (Hudl) for example). But I do hope there’s high school football, though I realize it’s up in the air right now, and there are questions based on the nature of what’s going on.”

While Winslow has a game plan, this particular September, October and November will present some uncharted territory.

“I won’t know what to do with myself,” he admitted, thinking back to ages 7 and 8 before he began playing the game, ultimately becoming a Reynolds High standout and continuing his collegiate career at Thiel.

“That’s all I know is football on Saturday afternoons and Friday nights,” Winslow concluded.