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Conversation with Coach – Mike Milano, Downingtown West @DWHSAthletics @FootballDwest @TheHistoryDtown

Written by: on Thursday, November 5th, 2020


Note: This interview was conducted in August, 2020


From mailman to head high school football coach is not a normal transition for anyone, but Mike Milano believes that if you want to do something, don’t let anyone tell you, you can’t.  And so, his story of how he played 3 sports at Downingtown, joined the U.S. Army, became a mailman in his hometown, and then moved on to coaching is intriguing and inspiring.  This is my interview with a very energetic and motivated man, Coach Mike Milano.

PM: “Give us a little background, if you would?”

Milano: “I’m married, been married 43 years.  I have two daughters, Nicole and Dana.  I’ve got two grandkids, both are Nicole’s.  My granddaughter, Natalie, will be a cheerleader at a competing school this year.  That’s going to be tough.”  (He laughs.)  She’s going to be a sophomore.  My grandson, Daniel, will be a 7th grader.  My wife, Dodie, and I are both from Downingtown.  I’m coaching my hometown school which is a blessing and a curse.”  (More on that later.)  “I played sports at Downingtown.  I was probably the worst 3-sport athlete in the history of the school,” he chuckled.  “I played football, basketball, and baseball.”

PM: “What position did you play in football?”

Milano: “Well, I tell the kids I was end, guard, and tackle.  You know the old line.  ‘I sat on the end of the bench, guarded the water cooler, and tackled anyone who came near it.’”  (This old codger of a sports writer laughed till he had tears in his eyes.)  “I was an end.  I was a defensive end and I was an offensive end.”

Continuing with more of his background Mr. Milano stated, “I went to West Chester for a semester after graduation in 1971.  Then I ended up in the Army.  I was in the United States Army for two years in ’72 and ’73.  Got out and got a job in the post office in Downingtown.  Met my wife, we got married, and started raising a family.  And Phil, I didn’t go to college to finish until I was in my mid-thirties.  I had always been coaching football.  When I got out of the army, I coached youth football in Downingtown.”

“My father helped start the youth league in Downingtown in the mid-sixties.  I got out of the service, I’m 21 years old, and he asked me if I wanted to coach.  So, my first coaching job was head football coach of the 115-pound team.  I loved it.  I mean I always loved football.  I always loved the x and o aspect of it.  I loved the competitiveness of it.  I love the kids and guys who competed and played.  I just thought they were quality people.”

“I did the youth football thing for, I don’t know, eight years.  Then in the early ‘80s, I was the first non-faculty football coach in the Downingtown School District.  I was coaching at the junior high level back then and I couldn’t believe they were paying guys to coach football.  It (being paid) helped me justify to my wife my time away from home.  That was pretty cool.”

“I did junior high for a couple of years and then got hired at Coatesville as an assistant varsity football coach for two years.  Subsequently, I got on Mike Diminick’s staff at Downingtown, which was amazing.  I’m a mailman in Downingtown and got a chance to coach high school football in my hometown.  Mike left and Downingtown went through 3 or 4 coaches in a short period of time.  I kind of got disgusted with it and told my wife one day, I need to teach and coach.  I need to find a way to get back to college to get my teaching degree.”

“So, I gave up football for a couple years in the late ‘80s and went to West Chester which is only seven miles away.  I knocked out 120 credits in three years, which God Bless Dodie as she held it all together here at home, while I was still a postal worker banging out 20 credits a semester.  It was crazy.  Anyway, I got my teaching certificate in Health and Phys Ed and got hired at Garnet Valley.  I was an assistant to Mike Ricci at Garnet Valley for two years.  Mike’s still there.  He’s a great guy.”

Coach Milano procured his big break when he was hired as head coach at Unionville.  He was the head honcho for the Indians for two years before moving on to Penncrest for eight more seasons.  When Downingtown split in 2003, he applied for both jobs (East and West), not knowing which if either he would get.  “I was fortunate and got the West job and have been there ever since,” he said.

PM: “Can you tell me a little about the split?”

Milano: “The split was tough.  Downingtown has been a football town and a town that expects a lot from their football teams for a long time.  When the split came, most of the town folks around here thought football was going to die.  It certainly hasn’t.  Our guys have played very well for my 17 years here and Downingtown East also.  It’s two really solid football programs.”  Coach invited me to take in an East-West football game at Kottmeyer Stadium sometime.  “It’s an experience.  It’s an awesome football game.”

PM: “How is it coaching your old amla mater?”

Milano: “I tell this story, you know my wife and I went to Downingtown, my daughters went to Downingtown.  So, I went to my wife and said I want to apply for this job.  All I got was, ‘Oh dear God please don’t do that.’  I convinced her it would be okay.  My first year after the split was tough.  We were at an affair and someone asked my wife how she felt about Mike coaching at Downingtown.  Her response was awesome.  She said, ‘Well, it’s been one thing for all these years when I sit in the bleachers and hear everybody say what a dumbass he is, but now it’s the neighbors.’  That’s the toughest part, the curse.”

“I retired a couple years ago.  That’s been awesome.  I have more time than ever to spend devoting to football.  I mean I love it.  I do.  I love what I do.  The blessing is just being my hometown coach.  The kids are amazing, and the people around the game are amazing.”

PM: “Is coaching high school football these days a 365 day a year job?”

Milano: “Yeah, it never ends.  At our place, we shut it down through the Christmas holidays.  Once the holidays are through, we’re in the weight room three days a week, and we do speed and agility and some skills workouts on the weekends.  That’s four days a week January through April.  Then May comes and we have mini-camp.  The summer comes and we have 7 on 7s and summer weights.  I was that guy back in the old days that felt I always had a leg up.  I felt like you could get ahead by doing that.  Now days you have to.  If you don’t, you’re behind because everybody is.”

PM: What’s your biggest thrill or moment you’ve gotten out of coaching?”

Milano: “Well, I can tell you this.  Last year winning the District 1 championship down here was a monumental achievement for us.  That was absolutely exciting.  Down here in District 1 we have all the mega schools and we take great pride in how competitive we’ve been.  In the history of the (4A, then 6A) tournament, there’s only been two schools with fewer than 900 boys in enrollment that have won this championship.  It’s been the big schools.  We had an amazing season and some awesome kids.  We set some scoring records, but winning the district championship and beating Coatesville, who has been a Downingtown arch rival for over 100 years, was pretty cool.”

PM: “What are the most important concepts you try to teach your kids?”

Milano: “To me, I would just say work ethic.  In a lot of cases kids, who may not be the biggest, fastest, or strongest in 9th grade, see all that work come to fruition their senior year.  To me, that’s what sickens me about what’s going on with this virus.  Those kids, that nobody knows about, they’re not being recruited, they haven’t been superstars, they’ve just been program kids.  Every school has them.  This year they might miss the chance they’ve worked for, for four years.”

“Here’s a story we talk about all the time.  We had a young guy who thought he was a cornerback and wanted to be a split end.  And it wasn’t going to happen.  He was 6’ tall and weighed maybe 185 pounds or so.  One day, we convinced him that we needed an open side tackle on offense.  He took the challenge and ended up starting.  He became a two-way starter.  He started at offensive tackle and defensive end at 185 pounds.  He was amazing.  He was the MVP of the team that season.  But he was so out of position from where he thought he would be.  He did all that work for four years and had an amazing transition as a senior.  It’s just a great story.”

PM: “How do you measure success, coach?”

Milano: “That’s the trick question, right?  I just talked to you about the blessing and the curse, right?  The way I measure it, and the way those people sitting in the bleachers measure it, I’m sure it’s not the same.  Winning championships is awesome, but to me when I got kids coming back that graduated five, ten, fifteen years ago and they want to hang out, be at practice, be on the sidelines at games…”  He pauses for a moment before continuing.  “We built some relationships and helped some kids learn how to handle themselves as young men and I got to tell you, that’s pretty rewarding.  I think kids who play football are special.  I get the question, ‘isn’t it different now?’  I say, ‘no it’s not.’  The kids I have want to work, want to be told what to do, want to know how to get better.  It’s all about work ethic and relationships.”

PM: “Talk a little more about relationships as that is a common theme among coaches I am finding out.”

Milano: “Oh boy.  I mean I don’t know where to start.  It’s phone calls on birthdays, invitations to go play golf, invitations to weddings, etc.  Kids, men come back in their mid ‘30s wearing their varsity jackets and they want sideline passes and to hang out.  They want to talk to the team the week of the big game.  It’s just really cool.”

PM: “What motivates you to continue to coach?”

Milano: “I have a love for the game that started when I was a little kid.  I love football.  I absolutely love high school football and all that it entails.  The competitiveness of it, the people involved, both opponents and guys I work with who I coach with and kids I coached.  I don’t know what else I would do.  High school football is just a part of me.  I’ll give you this, my youngest daughter is 38 years old and she was a ball girl when she was ten when I was at Unionville.  She started keeping stats on the sidelines and is involved every week.  She uploads stats to MaxPreps and HUDL and wherever else.”

PM: “What do you want your legacy to be?”

Milano: “That’s a great question.  I don’t know.  Maybe just that I treated people right, that I was fair to everybody.  I try to be fair to opponents.  That we did it the right way.  We worked hard and we were fair with everyone.”

PM: “What’s the toughest thing about coaching?”

Milano: Laughs and says without hesitation that social media is the toughest thing these days.  “Social media by itself is not an issue.  It’s who’s using it and what they’re doing through it.”

PM: “What’s the toughest thing that has remained constant over the years?”

Milano: “The toughest thing for me, you know when you talk about the ‘program kids’, the toughest thing is when you got to look a kid in the eye who has done everything right for four years to give himself a chance and his dreams aren’t going to come true cause somebody else is better.  That’s hard.”

PM: “When you do have some free time, what do you do with it?”

Milano: “I try to play golf.  This pandemic has given me more time than I’m used to having, so I actually got my handicap down to 7 for a while.”

PM: “If you could go back in time, is there anyone you’d like to meet?”

Milano: “I guess the obvious one is the legend of all time, the one the Super Bowl Trophy is named after him, right?  Vince Lombardi.  As a football guy, I would have loved to have met him.  Other than a football guy, maybe John Kennedy.”

PM: “Is there one coach in any sport that you’d love to pick his brain?”

Milano: “I guess I would say Bill Belichick.  He’s got it figured out pretty good.”  I said that we’ll see how he does without Tom Brady and Coach replied, “I got a feeling they’ll do okay.”

PM: “What would your favorite meal consist of?”

Milano: “Definitely an Italian meal.  I’d go with manicotti and meatballs.”  Wouldn’t you know just a couple days later my wife made manicotti and meatballs.  We probably should have invited Mike Milano and his wife.

PM: “How about a favorite dessert?”

Milano: “Cheesecake, raspberry cheesecake.”

PM: “Do you have a favorite movie or are you a movie guy?”

Milano: “I am.  I have 2 that stands out.  One is football and one is not.  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Jack Nicholson.  It’s a classic.  And I love Remember the Titans.”

PM: “What’s one thing people may not know about you?”

Milano: “The thing that sticks out in my head is that I’m an old dude, I’ve coached these kids and I end up being the bad cop in practice all the time.  But I will tell you, at the end of practice, and you guys don’t know this, but I’m a fun guy.”

PM: “Anything else on your mind or you’d like to say?”

Milano: “I use my story when I talk to kids, don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do something.  I was a mailman for 18 years and if I took advice from people around me who said I was crazy to go back to college and nobody is going to hire an older guy as a Phys Ed teacher and football coach, I wouldn’t be here.  I knew what I wanted to do and I went after it and I have been blessed.  I’ve been able to work at two jobs I love for a long, long time.  That message, I think, is huge.  Don’t let people tell you that you can’t do something.”

Coach Milano’s coaching record is 184-119-1 and over the years it has been said he’s very innovative and is not shy about varying personnel and schemes.  An example would be when the Class of 2019 were sophomores, Milano inserted a few of what he thought would be special kids into the line-up and it paid dividends.  The past two seasons those kids, led by QB Will Howard, won 24 of 28 games including a D-1 championship.  Howard is now at Kansas State.  Milano is also a 2015 Coaches Hall of Fame Inductee.

It was a pleasure speaking with Coach Milano.  Hopefully, this high school football sportswriter can find his way to Downingtown again someday to catch the East-West contest and spend more time chatting with coach.  When his opponents play Milano’s teams, they know they’re going to be in for a battle.  Because of his blue-collar background his teams will work hard and make opponents earn everything they get.  Milano respects his opponents and his opponents respect him.  Coach has no plans of fading into the sun yet which means Downingtown West high school football should continue to be solid and successful, and DW fans should continue to have a lot to cheer about.

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