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Written by: Phil Myers on Tuesday, September 21st, 2021
(Editor’s note: PFN has interviewed 11 legendary Pennsylvania high school football coaches the past two and a half years plus another one this fall, so we thought it would be a nice change of pace to talk to a couple younger coaches that are going to be future legends. Brandon Phillian of Wilmington is the second of those two.)
Brandon Phillian and Wilmington Greyhound football were made for each other. Not only did the young 34-year-old alumnus of WAHS inherit a program that has a winning tradition, but he put his own spin on the program and subsequently won an astounding 35 games while losing only 4 in his three years at the helm. Two of the three years his teams played for the state title and three of his four losses were to state champions, with the other defeat coming at the hands of a state runner-up. That is quite remarkable.
Two other aspects also contribute to his success, and they are his faith and his family, especially support from his wife, Chelsea. Combining faith and family with football and facilitation takes a special person and a special skill. Not all can do it, let alone do it well. But so far in his infancy as a head coach, Phillian appears to be on top of his game. My fifty-minute interview with Coach Phillian happened the week before fall practice began and dealt with a plethora of issues.
PM: “Let’s begin with a little bit of Brandon Phillian’s background.
BP: “I was born and raised in the Wilmington Area School District and attended Wilmington High School, graduating in 2005. Played football throughout high school for the legendary coach, Terry Verrilli.” (Coach Verrelli chalked up more than 300 wins in his illustrious career.) “I played inside linebacker on defense and was center on offense.”
“I went to Westminster College and graduated in 2009 with a major in mathematics and a minor in secondary education. Pursued my grad degree and earned my master in education as well. I played football my freshman and sophomore years, then began coaching junior high football beginning my junior year in college.”
He went on to say that he coached as an assistant for 11 years under Verrrilli. The first 3 was with the junior high, then he was moved up to the varsity with the last 6 being the defensive coordinator. He humbly stated that he was fortunate enough to be hired as head coach. But his passion for the game, his knowledge of the game, and being a member of a hall of fame coach’s staff probably had as much to do with his hiring as anything.
PM: “So how are you able to continue the excellence that the Wilmington Greyhound football program is noted for?”
BP: “I think, Phil, one thing was whenever I got hired my mindset wasn’t to come in and make wholesale changes. I think the mindset was, ‘hey we’ve had a very successful program under Coach Verrilli,’ so to me, it was more a matter of taking the momentum we had and continuing with that momentum. But, at the same time, applying my own flavors and tweak some things. But you know we try to focus on the culture that was created. And to keep that culture intact. I think a big reason we’ve been able to have sustained success at Wilmington is really the community, the parents and their support of the young men on the football team. The community is what has allowed us to keep our culture intact and to have the sustained success as a football program.”
We talk a bit more and he gives some family background. His mother, Kim, and father, Mark, have to be proud of their oldest child who places so much emphasis on faith and family in his everyday life. Coach Phillian has a sister, Shanay, who is three years younger and a brother, Josh, who is five years younger. “Josh is one of our junior high football coaches. It’s kind of neat we get to share that together,” he stated. Brandon and his wife, Chelsea celebrated 8 years of matrimony this summer. “We’re blessed with two children. Our daughter, Braelyn, is four and our son, Beckett, is one.”
PM: “What’s the toughest thing about coaching?”
BP: “That’s a great question. You know, I would say probably what I find to be the toughest thing is trying to balance everything that it takes to be a coach. Being a coach, you are pulled in so many directions. Whether it’s within the community, within the school, or trying to maintain balance with home life as a husband and a father, and school life. My position is not just a football coach, but a teacher. So, I think what I find to be the toughest thing is trying to balance it all. I teach AP Calculus BC which is equivalent to Calculus II, I teach pre-Calculus, and I teach Algebra I. So, it’s a rigorous teaching load.”
PM: “To have support from your family, your wife, seems to be a central theme among most of the coaches I’ve talked to.”
BP: “I will tell you that there’s no way I would be able to coach football, putting in my whole heart without the support of my wife. What Chelsea does with two children and the sacrifices that she makes to allow me to coach football I could not be more grateful for what she does to allow me to do this job to the best of my ability. And I would also add that not just her sacrifices, but we’re very fortunate to have both her parents and my parents be so supportive of Chelsea and I. I am really, really blessed to have that family support. I don’t think it would be possible to do it without a wife that was totally invested and totally on board. I don’t think you could do this job well if you don’t have that solid foundation and solid base at home.”
PM: “Well put, coach. What is the most important concept you and your staff try to teach your players?”
BP: “So, I would say the most important concept that we try to teach is really our vision. That vision is in everything that we do, we’re trying to glorify God.” He talked briefly about taking that vision even in the pursuit of earning that high school degree and building lasting relationships along the way.
PM: How do you measure success?”
BP: “Boy, that’s a great question. I think, to me, success is not measured in the short term. Whenever these young men leave our program, the success of the program is going to be determined years after they play. I think it’s going to be determined in what kind of husbands they are, what kind of fathers they are, what kind of citizens they are, and what kind of workers they are. Are they people who go to work and embody working with others and collaborating as if they were part of a team? As husbands and fathers, do they have a servant’s heart? Do they know how to work within a family union like they did as part of a team? So, to me, I think the success of a program is really determined years down the road by the values and the vision we are trying to instill in our players.”
PM: “What’s the biggest thrill you’ve gotten out of coaching so far?”
BP: “Let me think on that for just one second.” After a few seconds he says, “I’ll talk on the field here. I would say the biggest thrill to this point in my 15 years coaching was in 2018 and 2020 when we were able to defeat Steel Valley in ’18 and Beaver Falls in ’20 to win the western final and advance to Hershey to represent the western side of the state in the state championship. It’s hard to even put into words the exhilaration and jubilation I felt during that time. And to see how excited our team was and the community was.”
We talked briefly about those two games and I told him I listened on the computer to the Beaver Falls game and that it had to be a tremendous contest.
BP: “The Beaver Falls game, to hold on and win by two points and hold on down the stretch, I felt like my heart was going to bust right out of my chest. Beaver Falls scored to pull within two at 20-18 and for us to stop them on the one-yard line short of the two-point conversion was an exhilarating moment. Then to receive the ball and go into that four-minute clock kill offense and for us to be able to grind out first downs was just so special. Then the jubilation of the entire team and see the community storm the field was really special.”
“The non-football piece that was so incredible was to do it during Covid times. I’ve had so many people say, ‘hey Wilmington football gave me hope at a time I needed hope’ or ‘it gave me a mental escape on Friday nights where I could lose myself in the moment and forget about some of the challenges we were facing as a society.’ That we were able to provide people with hope and joy at a time when it was needed the most through our football run is what made that so incredible and so special.”
PM: “Coach, you’ve been runner-up to Southern Columbia two of your three years as head coach. I know in 2018, they had a once in a lifetime team, but normally what’s it going to take to beat them?”
BP: “The first thing that makes Southern Columbia so dominant is that they are exceptionally well-coached. Coach Roth and his staff do a terrific job. They are so sound schematically, it’s hard to exploit them because they’re so well-coached. They are fundamentally sound in all their techniques. And they’ve got great talent, great players. You can see year after year their players are well-developed. They’re developed athletically, they’ve got great speed, agility, and quickness. They’re a complete team devoid of a weakness in my opinion. When you find a team like that you try to model yourself that way.”
PM: “What motivates you to coach at the high school level?”
BP: “I knew really early on, Phil, from the time I started playing in high school that I absolutely loved football. I loved the camaraderie of being a part of the team. As I spent time around the game as a player it was really something that I always desired to have as a part of my life. It was something I really thought I couldn’t live without. Knowing from an early age in high school, it was something I aspired to be and wanted to do.”
PM: “Can you see yourself coaching many years down the road? Would you like to be there when your son picks up a football and decides to play?”
BP: “It’s definitely my desire to make coaching a career. This is year four coming up as a head coach, but year 15 overall. Coaching is definitely in my long-term plans. I’m as passionate as I’ve ever been and I think every year that passion continues to grow. The fire continues to burn and burn brighter. Being 34 years old right now, I hope it’s something I can do for many years to come.”
Phillians first win. (Bob Greenburg Pic)
PM: “That’s probably good news for Wilmington football and bad news for your opponents!”
BP: He laughs and says, “That’s very kind of you.”
PM: “Is there anything you’d like to see changed in the high school game?”
BP: “Let me think on that.” There’s a long pause before he answers. “I really think high school football is so pure. The spirit of high school football is so great for players to get to experience. I know some people would like to see the special teams element changed a little bit, but if I’m being honest with you, I love the special teams element. It just enhances the game. I like high school overtime. No, I would say I’m happy with the current state of high school football.”
PM: Are you involved with the midget program in your area?”
BP: “Yes. We really try to run our program from the youth football team clear up to the varsity football team. We try to be one stream lined program from beginning to end. That, for us, starts at the youth level. We do a three-day youth football camp every year that our varsity and junior high coaches run. We have our varsity players there assisting as well. I really believe the youth football camp ties us in together as one seamless program.”
He went on to say they run the wing-T at the youth level just like the varsity so that schematically it’s the same offense at each level. On defense, they try to emphasize the teachings that the varsity learns working on certain fundamentals and building on that as they progress.
“When you build that foundation through your feeder program through youth football, through junior high football that really puts you a step ahead as a varsity program. When there’s continuity throughout those kids enter the varsity level with a foundation already in place.”
PM: “Down the road, what do you want your legacy to be?”
BP: “I think, for me, what I’d like my legacy to be is for any player on our Wilmington football team to say that when they think about a legacy, I would like them to say, ‘he’s a person I respect.’ That would be the word I hope they would use. ‘I respect not only the job he did as a coach, but what he did as a teacher in the classroom. I respect the example he set forth for us as a husband and as a father. He’s a guy that took time to build a lasting relationship with me.’ And lastly, I would hope, that as a legacy, the guys would say that the values they learned from Wilmington football are the values they will carry with them the rest of their lives.”
PM: “What do you do with your spare time?”
BP: “The thing I like to do with my spare time is spend time with my wife and children. I really enjoy spending time with my family.”
PM: “Do you have any favorite movies?”
BP: “I do. This probably won’t surprise you, but my favorite movie is ‘Remember the Titans.’
PM: “Do you have a favorite TV show or something you like to watch on TV?”
BP: “Yes. I would say my favorite TV show that is currently on is the ‘Blacklist.’ And I would say if it was a classic show like a comedy, I’m a big ‘Seinfeld’ fan.”
PM: “What does Coach Phillian’s favorite meal consist of?”
BP: “My favorite meal is a steak done on the grill.”
PM: “How about a favorite dessert?”
BP: “My favorite dessert would be peanut butter pie.”
PM: “If you could choose any football coach at any level, who’s brain would you like to pick?”
BP: “I think I would pick Dabo Swinney. I think he’s created an amazing culture at Clemson. I love his passion for the game. I love watching him coach. And when I hear him talk about his faith, it’s inspiring to me. I think he’s so much more than just a football coach.”
PM: “If you could go back in time, is there someone you’d love to meet?”
BP: He thinks for a bit and then says, “Vince Lombardi. I think it would be a really cool conversation.”
PM: “What is one thing most people may not know about you?”
BP: “One thing in addition to football being a huge passion of mine is that I’m a huge fan of country music.” We talked some about country music before he said his #1 station on Pandora is 90s country. Then I mentioned that my wife’s favorite is George Strait. Coach Phillian replied, “I love George Strait. It doesn’t get any more country than George Strait and Garth Brooks. I also love Alan Jackson, Alabama, and Brooks & Dunn.”
PM: “Are there any other thoughts or comments you might have?”
BP: “One I’d like to add would be how fortunate I feel to work with such a great coaching staff. I feel that I’m just one piece of the puzzle to our program. A tremendous piece to this puzzle is the coaching staff that I’m so blessed to work with ach and every time I go to practice. We’ve got great men that are role models for our players first and football coaches second.”
When I asked Brandon what he attributes his success as a coach to be, he unhesitatingly answered his wife and ‘our families.’ He then credited his outstanding group of assistant coaches as having a lot to do with it. Finally, he mentioned the players who work hard and have bought into the culture. He sums it up by saying, “All those elements working synergistically is what has allowed our program to be successful throughout the years.”
PM: “You had a lot of seniors last year, especially on the line. What’s the outlook for the upcoming season?”
BP: “This year we do have a number of starters to replace on both sides of the ball, but the guys are working very hard and we are taking a lot of pride in the fact it’s their turn to step up and fill the shoes. I’m confident these guys will leave their imprint on the program. They want to be remembered for what they did when it was their time. The expectations will certainly remain the same as in prior years.”
We talked another five minutes or so about life and football which led me to the following conclusion. What a wonderful young man Brandon Phillian is. Wilmington Area School District certainly has a winner in Mr. Phillian, not only on the field, but in the classroom as well. In our parting words, he said he appreciated the fact that PFN would consider him for an interview. We at PFN appreciate the fact that Coach Phillian took the time to chat with me.
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