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Born to Coach: Reichs use lessons learned from their father to guide their teams
by Chuck Gordon

Joe Reich will never forget digging that hole: The aching shoulders, the sweat-stained shirts, the growing mound of dirt outside the small house in Cleona, Pennsylvania.

Every afternoon after school, one shovelful at a time, Reich got a few inches closer to the disused basement, closed off years earlier after Hurricane Agnes proved too much for his dad’s elaborate system of sump pumps and fake walls, the water overwhelming the basement and then flooding the main floor. Now, foreseeing a time when the Reich family might need access to the basement, where Joe and Frank Jr. used to box one-handed and play knee football, Joe was going to help his father methodically dig out an entranceway from the outside.

“I swear I did 95 percent of that digging,” Joe says.

In years past, Joe Reich found that story useful as a metaphor that kept his Wingate University football teams focused on the task at hand. “One shovelful at a time,” he would tell his charges. “We’re not going to do it all in one day.” He opts for less personal imagery now – “If you’re running a marathon, just run to the next telephone poll” – but he carries the memory with him, just like all the other lessons his tough and stoic father, the last two-way player at Penn State, taught him over the years. It’s in his DNA, as much as the coaching and teaching genes that were passed down from Frank and Pat Reich to their sons.

In Indianapolis, where he is head coach of the NFL’s Colts, Frank Reich Jr. carries with him his own “one shovelful at a time” story. For him, it was moving a pile of dirt, load by load, from one side of the yard to the other, ostensibly for a new garden his dad was planting.

“I don’t think he even used it,” Joe says, which makes the lesson possibly even more valuable. The discipline it takes to transfer the dirt or dig the hole, one shovelful at a time, even if you don’t really see the point, is exactly the point. It built character and helped mold both boys into successful, championship-winning coaches.

Frank Reich Sr. is gone now; he passed away seven years ago at the age of 83 after suffering a couple of strokes. But he lives on in the aphorisms his sons use now to lead their troops, many either verbatim from their dad or inspired by him: “Keep the pressure on.” “Dominate the moment.” “Domesticate your emotions.”

“He was always teaching,” Joe says. “Always life lessons.”

For the past three decades, college and pro football players around the country – including hundreds at Wingate – have been exposed to the Reich Way, and they’ve got conference titles, NCAA playoff wins, a Super Bowl trophy, and, of course, life lessons to show for it.

Joe Reich coaching during a game

 

Sounding boards

It’s a Sunday night in late January, in what passes for the offseason for most college and pro football coaches. Frank Reich Jr. is at home in his recliner, his Colts having finished 9-8 in his fourth season in charge and just missing out on what would have been his third playoff trip as head coach of the team. His phone buzzes. It’s his brother, launching straight into a football question.

“He didn’t say to me, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’” Frank says. “I said, ‘Joe, do you realize it’s Sunday night, and the NFC Championship game is on? I’m trying to relax. You’re trying to give me a clinic on this run play, and I’m really not into it right now.’”

“He says to me, ‘Do you not watch football anymore?’” Joe recalls with a chuckle. “I’m working, dude. We’ve been recruiting for the last two weeks straight. We have skill work coming up. I don’t have time to watch a football game.

Of course, they talk anyway, because that’s what they do. Not much when football season is in full swing (then it’s the occasional text message), but definitely in the offseason. They pick each other’s brains, looking for any edge they can gain, as football coaches do.

Each Reich is a valuable resource for the other. Joe gets to mine one of the NFL’s brilliant offensive minds for nuggets of wisdom, and Frank has at his disposal a gateway into the innovative college game from a consistently successful head coach.

“It’s always been that way,” Frank says. “He’ll call me up asking something or he’ll see something, and we’ll wind up dialoguing on that. I’ll ask him, ‘Well, how are you guys blocking that? What are you doing in protection?’ Or ‘What about in the RPO (run-pass option) game’ – because obviously in the college game there’s a lot of good RPO stuff – ‘Have you seen anything new in the RPO game that’s working for you that might work for us?’”

Frank Reich coaching during practice

Frank says he tweaks plays and sometimes rethinks general concepts based on conversations with Joe. His brother does likewise. Joe loves it when Frank is in the mood to talk, because it’s often a goldmine of a soliloquy. Joe listens on speaker phone and covers a white board with notes while Frank expounds on pass protections, zone coverages and screen-pass plays.

“One time I took a picture of the white board and sent it to him and said, ‘This is what it’s like talking to you,’” Joe says.

Not everything translates from one level to the other. “I’ll give you an example,” Joe says. “At their level, they can throw the ball deeper than we can, and therefore some of their route combinations are based off of having a lot of time to throw the ball and a really deep route. First of all, we can’t make that throw, and second of all, we don’t have that kind of time.”

But more often than not, the conversations are fruitful. And why wouldn’t they be? The Reichs might be individuals, but they’re probably more similar than different. When watching the Colts on the HBO docu-series Hard Knocks, Wingate players feel a sense of deja vu.

“Coach, it’s uncanny,” they tell Joe. “It looks like you. It sounds like you. And they’re saying the exact same things.”

No doubt they were hearing echoes of Frank Reich Sr.

 

Tough as steel

Frank Reich Sr. never wanted his sons to feel pressure to repeat his heroics on the gridiron, or to feel like they had to play football at all. Captain of Penn State’s 1955 team, Reich played center for the Nittany Lions, clearing out running lanes for future NFL Hall of Famer Lenny Moore to dance through on his way to the end zone.

He was old-school football tough, the son of a steelworker from, aptly enough, Steelton, Pennsylvania. He was born in an era recognizable these days only from old movies. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” was a common refrain, and there were rules you just did not break: First and foremost, respect your mother.

“My dad had his nose broken seven or eight times, because he played without a face mask,” Joe says. “But he said, ‘The first time I broke my nose, I was sitting at the dinner table and I told my mom I didn’t like the spaghetti. My dad punched me in the face.’”

Frank Reich Sr. coaching at practice

Reich’s dad never missed a day of work in 48 years, and his son took that lunch-pail mentality to Penn State, where he was the starting center and long snapper. He doubled as a linebacker, one of the 60-plus Nittany Lion linebackers to be drafted by an NFL team. It wasn’t unusual for him to play 60 minutes in a game. One time he broke his hand but continued to play in a cast. “He figured out how to snap with his left hand and never missed a play,” Frank Jr. says.

After his senior season at Penn State, Reich, captain of the 1954 team, played in the East-West Shrine Game and was drafted by the closest thing he had to a hometown team, the Philadelphia Eagles.

For years, his kids didn’t know any of that. Reich was offered a contract by the Eagles but gave the NFL a pass, as many of his peers did back in those days, opting instead to begin his career as a high school teacher and coach. He consigned his glory days to the back of his bedroom closet, stuffing his scrapbooks and keepsakes into grocery bags and putting them out of the way.

Then one day Frank Jr. went nosing around in his parents’ bedroom and unearthed a treasure trove of newspaper articles and memorabilia, for the first time seeing who his dad had been in a glorious former life.

“I knew he was a football coach, but he never told me that he was a star player,” Frank Jr. says. “When he came home, I asked him, ‘How come you never showed this to me?’ Well, first of all, after being disciplined for going in his closet when I shouldn’t have, he said he never wanted Joe and I to feel like we had to play football just because he did.”

“Whatever you do, you just be the best at it, whether you want to play in the band, play football, whatever,” he told them, “but I just never wanted you guys to feel like you had to play football.”

They did anyway, of course. Baseball and basketball too. (Frank made use of the memorabilia he found, wearing an old jersey around the neighborhood until he lost it; turns out it was from the East-West Shrine Game. He tossed an old football around until he lost that too; it was one his dad had intercepted and returned for a long touchdown at Penn State. Frank Jr. worried that his dad would be upset, but “he didn’t make a big deal out of it at all,” Frank says.)

The Reichs’ older sister, Cyndee Reich Harbold, played field hockey and cheered. They were a sporting family, a close-knit one that fed off their dad’s loving discipline and their mom’s empathy and encouragement.

Frank Sr. cast a massive shadow over his kids. “He was a stud, a man’s man,” Frank Jr. says. “He was a strict disciplinarian, but also a very loving father. He wasn’t afraid to show that, but we always knew who the boss was. You didn’t want to cross my dad.”

When Joe was 7 or 8, he and his brother were tussling over a magazine they each wanted to look at. Joe, by this point wrestling with his emotions, finally heaved the magazine in Frank’s direction. It hit his mother instead.

Rule No. 1: Respect your mother.

A shocked and scared Joe took off, but there were few places to hide in their small house. “He was running for the hills,” Frank says. “He probably still has scars to this day.”

It also marked a turning point, of sorts, in Big Frank’s life. The spanking he gave Joe spooked him. “To me, it was a big deal, but it wasn’t that big a deal,” Joe says. “Whereas for my dad, I think it scared him that he was enraged.”

“I scared myself,” he told a grown-up Joe years later. “I changed the way I did things after that. It was eye-opening.”

“But that was my dad,” Joe says of his father’s evolution. “He was a great dad.”

 

Diverging paths

Back when they lived under the same roof, Frank and Joe were typical brothers. Frank, now 60, is three years older than Joe and naturally ran with an older crowd. When Joe was allowed to play “kill the carrier” with them, he’d tuck the ball under his arm and run for his life as the older boys hunted him down. “You find out how to evade guys,” he says.

When they were at home, Frank took it upon himself to toughen his little brother up. “We used to box,” Frank says. “We only had one pair of boxing gloves, but we were both right-handed. Since I was older I gave him the right hand, his power hand, and I’d use the left hand, and we’d box. I beat the living daylights out of him.”

Joe relished the attention from his older brother. “He would say, ‘Ready! Go!’ And he would just go bang-bang-bang-bang-bang hitting me on the shoulder,” Joe says. “I’d be laughing. I’d love it. I wouldn’t even get a punch off.”

Joe was his parents’ favorite kid, his sister says, partially because he was the baby and partially because he rolled with the punches. “He’s just Joe,” Harbold says. “He has that personality, right? He was like that when he was little, just very chill. He was a happy kid.”

Joe and Frank took different paths away from Lebanon Valley. The league’s “Back of the Year” as a quarterback at Cedar Crest High School, Frank earned a Division I scholarship to the University of Maryland, where he mostly played backup to his roommate, All-American Boomer Esiason. When he did get to play, he shined. In 1984 he orchestrated the greatest comeback in college football history (to that point): With Maryland down 31-0 at halftime at the University of Miami in 1984, Reich came off the bench and led the Terps to a shocking 42-40 win.

"I’ve been around great coaches my whole life, been around great people. And I’ve always said Joe’s the best coach that I know."

Joe, meanwhile, played center for four years at Division III Gettysburg, majoring in mathematics with the intention of teaching and coaching in high school, like his dad, a shop teacher and former head football coach at Lebanon High School, a Cedar Crest rival (he stopped coaching so he wouldn’t have to go up against his sons). But at Gettysburg, Joe caught the college-coaching bug. He hoped to emulate his head coach, Barry Streeter, who won 195 games over 39 seasons at the school.

“When I got to Gettysburg,” Joe says, “I thought, This is really cool. I could see being a small-college coach, in this atmosphere. I saw what Barry Streeter did. I thought, This dude has a great life.”

Joe has mirrored Streeter’s longevity and loyalty, going 139-86 in 21 seasons at Wingate. And his teams are getting better and better. In 2019, Wingate went 10-2 and was ranked as high as No. 19 in the nation. Last year the team started 6-0 before finishing 8-3, and Wingate is now a threat to make the NCAA playoffs every year, including a run of three consecutive playoff bids leading up to the start of the pandemic. Before Joe’s arrival, Wingate coaches had a modern-era (since 1986) record of 63-91, and no coach had a winning record for his Bulldog career.

“I’ve been in football my whole life,” Frank says. “I’ve been around great coaches my whole life, been around great people. And I’ve always said Joe’s the best coach that I know. I’m very biased, but I’ve seen it firsthand.”

Joe Reich walking to a game

Frank, meanwhile, was a backup in the NFL for 14 years, 10 of them spent playing understudy to Jim Kelly in Buffalo, where he went to four Super Bowls. Even as an NFL backup, Reich had his moments. He became the answer to a trivia question for many years when he brought the Bills back from a 35-3 deficit to beat the Houston Oilers in overtime in the playoffs. He had quarterbacked the greatest comebacks in both college football and the NFL. Never a full-time starter, he’d nevertheless found a way to make a name for himself and cash an NFL paycheck for well over a decade.

Joe has never begrudged his brother’s success.

“It was nice to have somebody like him blazing the trail,” Joe says. “I get this a lot: Did you ever feel like you had to measure up to him? I never felt that way, ever. It was never a thing for me: ‘Oh, I have to be the Back of the Year in the league.’ I had my own thing going on. My brother was good about that. He let me be my own guy.”

Frank’s 14 years in the NFL, seeing the game at its highest, and fastest, level, helped hone his football mind. After he retired as a player, following the 1998 season, he knew coaching was in his future, but he wanted to spend more time at home with his wife and young family. He went into the ministry, becoming president of the Reformed Theological Seminary and later pastoring a church in the Ballantyne area of Charlotte.

During his first season at Wingate, in 2001, Joe would bring his brother in about once a week to talk to the quarterbacks, and Frank would occasionally come to games and observe from the pressbox. Joe says his brother’s coaching acumen was apparent immediately.

“I remember us playing Lenoir-Rhyne,” Joe says. “He comes down at halftime and is like, ‘OK, here’s what’s happening.’ And he could explain it. I was like, ‘Holy smokes. I’ve been around coaching this long and nobody on any staff could see a defense that good and know what they’re doing.’ And he was never wrong. Never.”

Frank bounced around the NFL, as coaches do, eventually becoming offensive coordinator in San Diego before being fired (for the third time; the NFL is a brutal business). But teams could see the offensive sophistication Frank brought to the table. He was hired as offensive coordinator in Philadelphia, the team that had drafted his father, and ultimately guided backup quarterback Nick Foles to a win in Super Bowl LII.

Soon after, the Colts came calling. As he was getting into coaching back in the mid-2000s, Frank was a volunteer assistant for Wingate for a year, and now that he was the main man on an NFL team, he and Joe talked about finally working together full-time. But, for perception reasons, the Colts’ brass was uncomfortable with the potential arrangement, and Joe was, frankly, happy at Wingate. He’d already decided to turn his brother down if he offered him a position.

Joe has had some of his best coaching years since then. His father, for whom football was a lifelong passion, would have been proud.

 

Ethical patriarch

Tough doesn’t begin to describe how the Reich boys perceive their father. If he missed the nail and drove the hammer into his hand instead, he would proudly not make a sound.

“He was just physically and mentally tough,” Frank Jr. says. “He worked out in the yard a lot. Something would fall and hit him on the head, something that would knock most people out. He wouldn’t even flinch.”

Fairness was important too. “He was a guy that if you were driving on the turnpike and the person gave you a quarter change too much, we were driving 20 miles to the next exit, turning around, and going back to give the quarter back to the person at the tollbooth,” Frank Jr. says. “That happened on more than one occasion.”

There was a certain code of ethics Frank Sr. lived by, forged by growing up in a steel town in a house with a steelworker father. You were tough but fair. You didn’t miss work, and you didn’t quit. Joe recalls visiting his dad in his office in Lebanon High School’s metal shop, where Frank Sr. kept team photos from his coaching days. Here and there, athletic tape obscured players’ faces. “Those are the guys who quit,” his dad told him.

"He was a stud, a man’s man. He was a strict disciplinarian, but also a very loving father. He wasn’t afraid to show that, but we always knew who the boss was. You didn’t want to cross my dad."

Joe would quietly watch his sons play football from the stands. No yelling instructions, no screaming at his boys, no ranting about the play calling or the refereeing. Once, while quarterbacking Cedar Crest, Frank Jr. made a show of disagreeing with his coach. “He could tell by my body language that I wasn’t happy with the play call that the coach sent in,” Frank Jr. says.

Frank didn’t say anything until they were home later that night. But he used it as a teaching moment. “When he sends the play in, if you act like you don’t like the call, do you think the other guys are going to believe in it?” Frank Sr. asked. “You step in the huddle and you execute whatever the coach calls. I don’t ever want to see that again.”

When Agnes rendered the basement unusable, a nonplussed Frank Sr. simply went to work closing it off. The storm had dumped so much rain on Pennsylvania that the Reich parents had to escape their house in a fishing boat, but there was no grumbling about the unfairness of life. There was no time; there was work to be done. “He was a hard worker,” Harbold says. “He had a really good work ethic, and I think my brothers definitely benefited from that.”

Balancing out Frank’s gruffness and focus on being the family provider was “St. Pat,” the Reich family matriarch. “She was the nicest human being in the history of human beings,” Joe says.

“We used to call her The Amazing,” Frank says. “The reason she was so amazing was that she felt that everyone else was amazing and she wasn’t. When she looked at you and got to know you, all she saw was how amazing you were. That’s what made her incredible. She just had this incredible gift to encourage other people with the positive things that she saw in their life.”

Pat’s empathetic nature helped offset Frank Sr.’s old-school stoicism. By the time Joe was in high school, his dad had softened a bit (possibly because of the magazine incident), and Joe believes he’s more a combination of his parents than Frank is, by virtue of their ages. “When I was younger, I never would have heard my dad say, ‘I love you,’” Joe says. “That’s just not something that guys of his generation did. By the time I got into high school? Totally different.”

But they each carry a bit of the stoicism, a lot of the work ethic, and healthy doses of the drive, determination and humility that made their dad who he was.