BY JEFF FALK
The reasons certainly vary. But there is this undeniable desire for former players to coach at the high schools for which they once competed.
In that respect, Matt Gingrich is no different than most. But the desires behind his motivation might surprise you.
Gingrich, a self-proclaimed Annville townie, is both Annville-Cleona’s newest head coach and Lebanon County’s newest head football coach. After 14 years in the coaching and teaching business, it’s also Gingrich’s first stint as a head man.
Gingrich was officially named the Little Dutchmen’s head football coach in March, after Terry Lehman stepped aside from the position he had held for 28 years. By so doing, Gingrich became the seventh head coach for an Annville-Cleona program which has been playing football for 50 years.
“For me, it has nothing to do with, ‘Hey, I’m here, Look at me’. A stature thing,” said Gingrich. “This town raised me. My father died young. There are youth coaches from Annville who guided me. I always felt if I got a chance that I’d want to give back to my town. My town gave me so much. I love being home. I love being on the Quitty. I want to help kids the way I was helped.
“For me, having been at different schools, I think the program is perceived generally well,” continued Gingrich. “One quote I heard was, ‘Yeah, it’s a small school, so you’re never sure what you’re going to get.’ But I want the perception to be that it’s a great football program. But this program is not about me. It’s about the other coaches and the kids.”
At 36, Gingrich is just the latest example of a Lebanon County coaching trend of replacing departed legends with new, innovative head coaches. But Gingrich has less desire to put his spin on the Little Dutchmen football program, as he does upon building upon the foundation that Lehman laid down.
“I’m not going to change it because it’s my program. Because it’s not,” said Gingrich, a 1997 graduate of A-CHS. “It’s all the coaches’ program. It’s the kids’ program. To be quite honest, it’s Annville’s program. We’re going to run the option (offense). But we’re not going to do off-season programs. I think that’s one of the great things Coach Lehman did. Coach Lehman wanted kids to play three sports. One thing we’re going to do is lift year-round.
“There’s a lot of things that Coach Lehman did that were great, and we want to keep those things,” Gingrich added. “We’re going to do what’s best for the kids. My biggest focus is we want to get as many kids out for football as we can. I don’t care if football is their favorite sport or if it’s their least favorite sport. We want them to come out and be part of the team.”
A lineman by design, Gingrich matriculated to Millersville University upon his graduation from Annville-Cleona and played football under legendary head coach Gene Carpenter. His first job out of college was teaching and coaching at Cedar Crest, as an assistant to Gene ‘Spike’ Fuhrman.
Before spending the 2014 campaign as the Little Dutchmen’s offensive coordinator, Gingrich was older brother Dave Gingrich’s lead assistant at Cocalico for ten seasons.
“When I first learned that I got the job I was relieved, because I always wanted to be a head coach,” said Gingrich. “There were a lot of years that I didn’t think it was going to happen. But I was a little sad because (defensive coordinator) Mike Miller didn’t get it. We were the two lead candidates. I was torn with the way I felt. But the other part was that I was very happy. I asked him (Miller) if he would still coach. He said ‘yes’, and I can’t tell you how lucky I am to have him .
“When I was with Spike (Fuhrman) he gave me a lot of responsibility,” continued Gingrich. “I wanted responsibilities and he gave them to me. I was lucky with my brother because he gave me responsibilities too. The thing I’m most nervous about is that I won’t have my brother to lean on with those responsibilities. When it comes to coaching, we have the best coaching staff in Lebanon County. The thing I’m least worried about is what’s going to happen on the practice field and on game nights.”
Deep down, in the places that sometimes don’t get verbalized, Gingrich always wanted to be a head coach. Gingrich got a chance to do it at his alma mater when Lehman, the dean of Lancaster-Lebanon League head football coaches, stepped aside somewhat suddenly.
“Coach was my coach,” said Gingrich. “I’ve known Coach Lehman my whole life. I still call him ‘Coach’. I can’t call him ‘Terry’. I knew it was a possibility. But as the fall went on, he didn’t say anything about retiring. I had no clue. It happened really quick.
“I was in shock because I thought it (becoming a head coach) would never happen,” added Gingrich. “On the other hand, I was so happy because he finally made a decision for himself. He put himself first. But after that, I knew I wanted to be a head coach right away. This is the job I always wanted.”
But while Gingrich’s physical presence and mind may have gone elsewhere, his heart never left Annville.
“I remember my coaches Terry Moyer and Mike Nelson,” said Gingrich of his ‘back-in-the-days’. “The biggest thing I remember about playing high school football is that I didn’t want to leave those two guys down, and I didn’t want to leave Coach Lehman down. And those guys I played with are still my best friends. When I was a senior, on the defensive line, we weren’t big but somewhat athletic and we finished 7-3. I learned a lot about the game that year, and that you don’t have to be big to be good.
“My big brother is a math teacher and ten years older than me, and because my dad died, he’s been like a father to me,” Gingrich continued. “When I was playing at Annville-Cleona, I had the idea I wanted to come back here and be a head coach. Pretty much since I was 16, I knew the job I wanted.”
One of the things Lehman instituted, and Gingrich is committed to further developing, is Annville-Cleona’s cooperation with Lebanon Catholic that allows Beaver players to compete on the gridiron along side of their Little Dutchmen teammates. It’s a mindset that exemplifies his commitment to the overall health and well being of student-athletes in general.
“We are really trying to promote our partnership with Lebanon Catholic. We want to get as many kids out as possible, so they (the Beavers) can gain the benefits from playing a team sport like football, an opportunity that they would not have at Lebanon Catholic,” said Gingrich. “We’re also trying to build a culture for our whole school, not just the football team. We want to focus on getting in the weight room and trying to get kids to improve as athletes – both boys and girls – not just as football players. The goal is not only to win football championships, but to see a couple of more track and field championships, baseball championships and championships in all the sports we compete in.
“We lost seven seniors from last year. Seven top-notch seniors who were very good,” concluded Gingrich. “But on the other hand, we only lost seven kids. We’ve got a lot of kids coming back and we have a lot of kids coming up. We’re in a pretty good state. But there’s still 15 kids walking the halls who could play football, and I’m a recruiter.”