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Conversation with Coach – Doug Dahms, Wilson West Lawn

Tagged under: Coaches Corner, District 3, News

| September 27, 2023

Cover picture via Bulldog Hour

Doug Dahms never wanted to be the head football coach at Wilson West Lawn or anywhere else for that matter.  Yet after 30 years as an assistant to three different coaches at Wilson, what changed his mind?  To top it off, he only agreed to be the head coach for one year.  Yet as he begins his 18th year as the Bulldogs’ head coach for the 2023 season, what prompted him to continue to take the reins each year as the head honcho for Wilson West Lawn?  The answers to those two questions and a whole lot more interesting tidbits are found in my exclusive interview with Coach Dahms at the end of July.

After the opening pleasantries, we talked about two of the greatest games I’ve ever seen that involved Wilson West Lawn.  One was the triple overtime loss to Bethel Park in 2008 and the other was the 35-33 loss to Central Dauphin before a huge crowd at Hersheypark Stadium in the 2002 District 3 AAAA title tilt.

PM: “Do you have a favorite game or games that you’ve been involved in?”

DD: “There have been a few.  A couple of Governor Mifflin games where we came from behind to win.  Another one where we won on the last play.  The real memorable games are unfortunately the ones you lose.  Obviously, the Fog Bowl was a big win for us against Cumberland Valley in the district final one year (1990).  Losing to Upper St. Clair (12-7) in the state finals (in 1989) hurt.  Losing to Harrisburg one year where we recovered a fumble on the 4-yard line with a couple of seconds left in the game which we could not kick the chip shot field goal.  The losses you seem to remember more than the wins.”

PM: “Seems like you have been involved in quite a few great games.”

DD: “Yes, I have.”

PM: “Let’s get a quick background on what high school you went to and what college you went to.”

DD: “I graduated from Muhlenberg High School in 1971.  Went to Lebanon Valley College for 4 years and graduated in ’75 with a degree in biology.  I started coaching in ’76 at Wilson and have been ever since.”

PM: “What sports did you play in high school?”

DD: “Football, wrestling, and track.  I did all three in college as well all four years.”

In college, Dahms amazingly earned 12 varsity letters in the three sports he participated in.  Oh, by the way, Coach Dahms was also the track and field coach for Wilson for the past 33 years.  He retired from coaching track and field and teaching after this past year.  But not football.  Dahms has been inducted into the Muhlenberg High School, Lebanon Valley College, Wilson West Lawn, and Berks County Hall of Fames.

Coming into 2023, Coach Dahms has been part of 442 football victories at Wilson West Lawn.  That’s incredible if you think about it.  Obviously, coaching has been a big part of Doug Dahms’ life.  He says everyone is like family and that he loves the kids.  That’s why he taught and why he still coaches.  His record is a staggering 178-38 through 17 seasons.  Dahms has an 82.4% winning ratio, which is possibly the highest of any football coach in Berks County history.  He’s also chalked up 264 wins as an assistant coach under John Gurski, Gerry Slemmer, and Jim Cantafio.

PM: “I understand you were an assistant football coach at Wilson for quite a while.”

DD: “I was an assistant coach for 30 years.  I was the defensive coordinator.  I wasn’t interested in being a head coach.  When Gerry Slemmer left, he tried to talk me into it.  But I was happy just being the defensive coordinator.  If they hadn’t walked Cantafio out in May (2006), I’d still probably be the defensive coordinator.  Then they called me up and asked me if I’d take the head job with no interview or anything.  I said I would take it for one year.  We won the championship and played well in districts that year.  Then the rest of the staff talked me into staying.  I’ve been here ever since.  I never wanted to be a head coach you know.”

PM: “What keeps you motivated to come back each year?”

DD: “I think it’s just taking kids and watching them become successful.  Doing more than they think they can do.  Growing as a team, then watching them enjoy their success.”

PM: “Is it the same with track and field?”

DD: “Yeah.  A little different because it’s a little more individual.  In track and field, it’s a little more taking an individual and seeing how good they can get.”

PM: “What were your events in track and field?”

DD: “A little bit of everything.  They didn’t have the decathlon in District 3 back then or I probably would have been a decathlete.  I did the 400 hurdles.  I threw shot, discus, and javelin.  I did a little high jump and long jump.”

PM: What positions did you play in football?”

DD: “Inside linebacker and a guard in high school.  Outside linebacker in college and when we went to two tight ends, I was the second tight end.”

We talked about family for a couple of minutes before getting back to football.  Doug Dahms is married and his wife’s name is Susie.  He said this about her later in the interview, “You’ve got to have a wife in this sport who understands.”  He has a son, Jesse, who lives in Charlotte, N.C.  “I don’t get to see him much,” he said.  Dahms also has a granddaughter by the name of Lilah.

Coach Dahms taught biology 47 years at Wilson, retiring after the ‘22-23 school year.  The last 20 years he taught Advanced Placement Biology and Advanced Placement Environmental Science.  “It was fun teaching those kids.  I enjoyed it and that’s why I stayed so long.  Those kids wanted to be there.”

PM: “How are you able to keep the winning tradition going at Wilson?”

DD: “Well, it’s the program.  You have good assistants willing to invest the time.  You have support from the community and support from the staff from the school.  After that, I took a little bit from John Gurski.  I took a little bit from Gerry Slemmer.  I took a little bit from Jim Cantafio.”  (Dahms was an assistant to Gurski for 7 years, Slemmer for 15, and Cantafio for 8.)

“Why are we successful?  I don’t know.  The kids buy in, everybody has bought into it (the program).  There’s pressure to win.  We haven’t had a losing season since 1963.  Lot of pressure there.”

PM: “I understand about the pressure, but isn’t it easier when you have the support from the administration and the community?”

DD: “Oh, absolutely.  There is so many people in the community that I coached.  Every year I have 5 to 10 kids whose fathers I coached.  Basically, they have confidence in you and they know what you can do.  That kind of support is good.”

PM: “That leads me to a similar question.  How do you measure success?”

DD: “That’s like a double-edged sword.  Obviously, the community measures success in wins and losses.  Subsequently, you have to consider that.  But I like to see the very average kids make the most of themselves and develop really good character and become successful in life.  Those kids that are really successful in life is, I think, the biggest measure of our success.  It’s satisfying to see them raising their families and carrying on the tradition in those same character traits that we try to develop.”

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

DD: “I don’t have a lot of trouble or issues with parents, but I see kids getting pushed by their parents in directions I don’t necessarily agree with.  I just wish those parents would back off a little and let their kids be kids.  Let them play multiple sports because I’m so much against specializing in high school.  Parents just see the power of the mighty dollar and everybody thinks their kid is going to be a full scholarship athlete.  I think parents lose track of the big picture.  Don’t get me wrong, most of our parents do that.  I’ve been around for so long and we’ve been successful, so they believe in us, but I’ve seen other schools where it doesn’t work that way.”

“It makes you wonder sometimes why you pour your heart and soul into coaching when one or two parents make it harder for you than it should be.  Coaching is time away from your wife, your kids, your family.  I am open to parents.  They have my cell phone, my home phone, my school phone, my home email, my school email.  I tell them, if you have an issue or a problem call me.  We will deal with it immediately.  They may not like the answer, but we will deal with it.”

PM: “What is the most important concept you try to teach your players?”

DD: “Do what’s right and do it with class.  No matter what.  Everything you do, do it with class.”

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

DD: “It’s not about me.  I was just another piece of the puzzle that made several people’s lives very successful.  I think we’re successful because we have great assistants.  I get the credit, but the credit goes to them.”

PM: “You’ve been coaching a long time, since the 70s, including all those years you were an assistant.  How has coaching changed since you started?”

DD: “Well, when I started coaching, you weren’t allowed to do anything during the off season.  You couldn’t give them a football.  You couldn’t be with them.  Nothing.  Over the years it went full circle.  It got to the point where you were with them all the time.  We pretty much see the kids all year long.  It went from playing football in September, October, and November to now you play football all year long basically, or at least you train for football.  You got your strength training.  You got your speed training.  You got your agility work all year long.”

PM: “Is there anything personally you’d like to see changed in the high school game?”

DD: “I think where technology is today, I think it’s time for instant replay especially in the playoffs.  I understand the logistics of trying to do it in a regular season game, but I would really like to see instant replay become part of the playoff program.  I also think they should allow you to bring a kickoff out of the end zone.”

PM: “Are you involved with the midget program?”

DD: “Absolutely.  We start a flag football program for kindergarten and 1st grade.  It’s very informal.  We bring our kids in to coach for 6 weeks on Saturday mornings.  Then we have two youth programs, Van Reed and Lincoln Park.  We meet with their staffs every year.  We show them what we’re doing, how we teach blocking, how we teach tackling and all that.  Then the first week of their practice we run a youth camp.  Our players are there to help them with all the early fundamental drills.”

“I’m very much in touch with both of the youth programs.  They try to do what we do, but on a limited scale of course because of age and complications, and all that.  What really helps us is probably 70% of our youth coaches do not have kids in the program.  They’re ex-football players giving back to Wilson football.”

PM: “Would you be a proponent of spring football like they have down south?”

DD: “I’m a proponent of that if it doesn’t interfere with other spring sports.”

PM: “What are your thoughts on the summer 7 on 7s?”

DD: “For 7 on 7s you’re doing with your team against another team, you’re teaching what you want your kids to know.  Those 7 on 7s that are conglomerates of kids from different schools, they’re not learning what you want them to learn.  They’re doing things you are not going to do in a normal game.  Colleges could care less about them.  College coaches don’t go to those things.  They’re not interested in that.  They want to see what you do on the football field.  7 on 7 team vs. team is fine.  The 7 on 7 conglomerates with kids from different schools, that’s a waste of time.  All those things are just money makers.”

PM: “Can you see yourself coaching another 5, 10 years?”

DD: “I really don’t know.  I evaluate year by year.  I talk to my staff.  I don’t want to be at the end where JoePa was more like a figurehead.  I want to still be a valuable contributor.  By the same token, I’m not a spring chicken anymore.”

PM: “Let’s do what I call some fun questions.  What do you do with your spare time?”

DD: “I try to play golf every Sunday morning.  Sometimes I can, sometimes I can’t.  Sometimes my mind is wrapped up in football.  But golf gets me away from football.  I love to play golf.”

“Other than that, my wife and I go to Jamaica where I run a marine biology trip.  They have a biological station down there that I started that our high school has.  So, I take two different groups down there for 9 days in the winter and I teach Marine Biology.  We have also developed it into a humanitarian trip where we take all kinds of school supplies for local kids, etc.  In the summer we go there for a week and what I do is build cabinets and shelves and benches and all that for a local infirmary.”  He chuckles and says, “that’s my spare time.”

Coach Dahms started the marine biology trip to Jamaica in 1997, so he’s been doing that for 27 years now.  The students also get to learn how to snorkel and thereby study marine biology first hand.  In an interview with the Reading Eagle Dahms said that it’s incredible to see kids learn so much in a short period of time.  The infirmary that Dahms builds things for is a place that houses people with mental and physical disabilities.  “The kids are changed when they come back,” Dahms says in that interview. “They see abject poverty and they can’t believe how smiley and happy everybody is down there. It’s just a great experience for them.”

PM: “If you could go back in time and meet one person, who would that be?”

DD: “Strange as it sounds, Bob Marley.  He was a musician, but he was also a person that thought everyone was equal.  He put himself out there like that.  That’s what his life was about.  That’s the way I see it.  Everybody deserves the same shot.”

PM: “Is there somewhere in the United States where you’ve never been, but would love to get to at some point?”

DD: “Denali National Park in Alaska.  I’ve been to every state in the country, but I’ve never been to the north slope of Alaska.  That’s the place I’d like to get to.”

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

DD: “Shrimp!  Shrimp, shrimp, and more shrimp.”

PM: “To top it off, what’s your favorite dessert?”

DD: “I have a sweet tooth that doesn’t quit and my wife beats me up about it all the time.  That depends on the day.  It could be ice cream, it could be pie, it could be cake.  Anything sweet, I love it.”

PM: “How about a favorite movie or two?”

DD: “Shawshank Redemption.  The ‘Rocky’ series.”

PM: “What is your favorite TV show or something you like to watch on TV?”

DD: “I would say old reruns of things like M.A.S.H.  I like those old, you know, 70s or 80s shows.  Those old shows even from the 60s are great to watch.  Good old-fashioned slap stick humor.”

PM: “What’s the one thing most people don’t know about you?”

DD: “I get very emotional at sad events.  If things aren’t going well for a kid or they are going through a rough stretch in life, I get very choked up and emotional over those things.”

PM: “Let’s switch back to football for a couple more questions.  What’s the outlook for the upcoming season?”

DD: “Well, like anything else, we’ll try to win the first game and try to win the league.  Those are our goals every year.  Then go as far as we can in the playoffs.  Where are we this year?  We have a lot to replace defensively but offensively, most of our offense is back.  We’re cautiously optimistic offensively.  We need to find a running back out of the younger kids though.  Defensively, we have to replace a lot and it depends on how quickly we grow and mature.”

PM: “What kind of kid was Chad Henne?”

DD: “A sponge.  Great kid.  Real low key.  He’d rather watch a movie with his girlfriend than go out with the guys.  He’s still that way.  He hasn’t changed.  He was a real good kid to work with.”

PM: “Anything else you’d like to say?”

DD: “I do this for the kids.”

Coach Doug Dahms is a treasure.  The school, community, and players have to be thankful he stayed more than one season as the head football coach at Wilson West Lawn.  His proclivity to aid the athletes and his students to be their best is a positive, permanent mark that he leaves at West Lawn dating back to when he was the defensive coordinator.  It doesn’t matter if he is at home or in places like Jamaica, he leads by example and he has left an imprint that will last for a long, long time.  As some have said, “he’s amazing.”

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