NEW WILMINGTON – It’s fortuitous that Westminster College head football Coach Scott Benzel is blessed with a good sense of humor. Hopefully, it will carry him and his coaching counterparts through an autumn unlike any they’ve experienced since they were children.
Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, the recent Presidents’ Athletic Conference Presidents’ Council shuttered several Fall sports programs. But Benzel took the blow and barked back. Secure enough in his own self-image he recently quipped,
“My marriage thrives on the fact I’ve not been around for (the past) 19 years in the Fall, so we’ll see how it goes.”
The good news for Benzel’s wife, Cyndi, is he’ll have the opportunity to sharpen his honey-do skills. More seriously, Benzel will not be beaten down by this unprecedented situation.
“I deducted that a lot of our players and staff members anticipated it, because at that point sixty- or sixty-five percent of the (NCAA) Division III conferences, plus the PSAC (D-II Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference) announced that they had canceled. So this was not necessarily the emotional blow, because maybe we already were on the front end of it.
“ ... You can’t control COVID; there’s nothing you can do about that,” Benzel reasoned. “ ... The reality of it is that we’re not immune to what’s happening around us ... “
The 45-year-old Benzel began playing football at age 7, and ultimately was a standout safety at Mercyhurst College. Previously, he coached at Wittenberg, St. Francis and Robert Morris universities, so autumn Saturdays meant football – successful football.
During his 6 prior seasons as the Westminster Titans’ taskmaster Benzel has compiled a 43-21 won-lost ledger – 4th-most wins and 4th-best winning percentage (67.1) in the proud program’s annals. Led by Dr. Joe Fusco and his successor Gene Nicholson, Westminster won 6 NAIA Division II national championships. Fusco (81.4), Harold Burry (79.4) and Nicholson (71.4) set the standard to which Benzel aspires.
“ ... We’re at the point in our program, our guys want to compete for championships,” Benzel emphasized. “It’s not that they don’t want to go out and compete on a Saturday and just play football – that’s not what I’m saying. But when the management council recommended no playoffs or championships it made it an empty kind of year, not determining who the (PAC) champion was. Our players were disappointed that they couldn’t go out and play meaningful games,” he related.
“But the tone of our conversation was, ‘What’s next?’ ... Were they disappointed? Yes. Were there a lot of questions? Absolutely.”
Benzel is bent on his players making the most of the opportunity, contingent upon federal, state, conference and institutional protocols.
“That’s what we’re trying to figure out, how we can best serve our student-athletes and protect them health-wise,” Benzel began. “And from an academic and athletic position we need to address that we’re not short-changing them in any of that. That’s really the challenge.”
This Fall, PAC players and coaches will have a 114-day window, if you will, while preparing for a potential 2021 Spring season.
“ ... In the past, this was segmented by weeks,” Benzel began. “But in this calendar year you have the ability to practice whenever you want when class is in session. What this is gonna do, in my opinion, is create a ‘Fall Ball’ concept. We’re gonna be doing some strength and conditioning, but also practicing and getting better as a team while still following all the guidelines for re-socialization.
“In the past two, three weeks, that ‘bubble’ we’ve stayed in will be broken, just because of the nature of going to class (Fall semester),” Benzel continued, noting the program will conduct daily health assessments to ensure safety. “But this will create a ‘Fall Ball’ concept where we can try and get bigger, faster, stronger, smarter. This will allow us more time to get that accomplished.
“If I’m an incoming freshman (such as former Sharon High standout signal-caller Lane Voytik), this is almost like a ‘redshirt’ year,” Benzel reasoned, explaining, “You’re much more mature at 22 than you are at 18 – at least in my nineteen years of coaching, that’s never been disputed. And it gives these guys (freshmen) time to adjust and ‘understand’ college. That’s the mind-set.”
This game-planning is all well and good. But Benzel also is realistic. After doing the math, he simply responded “a l-o-o-o-g time” when asked how many years had passed since he last experienced autumn Saturdays sans football.
“I don’t know,” Benzel began. “It’s gonna be difficult in some ways because football coaches – more than any other sport – we’re just ‘creatures of habit.’ Honestly? I hope there’s some FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) games being played.
“One thing that happens when you’re coaching football,” the thoughtful Benzel continued, “is you don’t get to watch of a lot of it, particularly on Saturdays. So maybe I’m looking forward to enjoying some games like I remember I used to be able to do as a fan. When you’re coaching, you’re watching those games – ‘That’s a good formation there,’ or ‘That’s a nice technique.’ So you really didn’t watch it as if you’re a fan.
“So maybe this’ll re-energize the whole coaching community, remind us what it’s like to be a fan. Maybe that’s a silver lining or a positive.”
Benzel brightened in conceptualizing his Spring 2021 PAC football season.
“It’s gonna be really, really important just to keep the players engaged,” Benzel began. “Then, I’m hoping our conference can collectively come together and create something in the Spring from a football competition standpoint. My goal, my hope, is to play games in the Spring. To sit here and say we’ll be playin’ a full, ten-game season, I don’t think that’s gonna happen.
“But given the opportunity to play, how about creating a five-game (season) ... or a ‘northern division’ – us, Thiel, Grove City, Geneva, Case (Western Reserve)? After those four or five games see where the standings are, then play five games ‘down south’ – Bethany, W&J (Washington & Jefferson), Waynesburg, CMU (Carnegie Mellon). Or here’s a thought: How about a ‘neutral’ game?
“But we have to create an environment. That’s what we need, that kind of mentality and thinking – if it’s safe and we’re able to do it,” he emphasized. “I think it’d be awesome! That goes back to playing the game and loving the game for what it is – the best sport out there,” Benzel summarized.
With Benzel’s out-of-the-box thinking, a PAC football Spring season is more than possible. If only his honey-do skill-set had not rusted during the past 19 years.
“I’m a little scared of that. You lose a lot of those skills if you don’t use them,” Benzel admitted.