Twenty-eight years ago Bob Mitchell took over a struggling football program. Northwestern had gone 13-45-2 in the six years before he took over.
"I took the job on an interim basis because they were talking about getting rid of the program," said Mitchell.
It didn't take long for that talk to subside as Mitchell, his staff and a lot of hard-working high school athletes began turning the program around.
Mitchell came to Northwestern in 1977 after spending five years as an assistant at Bethlehem Catholic. In 1981 he took over as head coach. Within five years Northwestern was winning consistently. For the past 15 years the team has established itself as a perennial contender in the Colonial League and District 11.
Mitchell, who has a 177-129-1 record as head coach, guided the Tigers to a share of the Colonial League title in 1995 and District 11 titles in 1995, '97 and 2002.
Friday night he will coach his last game at Northwestern. His Tigers will face Bethlehem Catholic, the school where his coaching career began. Mitchell announced his retirement Tuesday.
"I still enjoy games," he said. "I still enjoy practices. I still enjoy being with the coaching staff. I started getting tired of doing all the other little things you have to do to be successful."
It wasn't long ago that he also enjoyed waking up before 6 a.m. on Sundays to watch up to eight hours of game tape. He even liked attending summer coaching clinics or spending hours in the weight room and running conditioning camps.
Early this season he began to realize that those things were becoming a chore. One day on his half-hour commute from Bethlehem to New Tripoli he realized it was time to move on.
"It's just time to go," said Mitchell. "It's the right thing to do."
When he reflects on the success the team has seen over the years, he points to the players he's coached and the community and administration that supports the program.
"We've been blessed the entire time that I've been there," he said. "The kids have been a joy to be around. It's been that way for 28 years."
And some of his assistants have been there for the whole ride.
Bob Horner, Len Smith and Tom Linette have been with Mitchell since he took over. Gary Williams, who left after last season, was also there for most of the way. Dave Evans has been a Northwestern assistant for 23 years. Scott Hippensteel has been part of the staff for 15 years.
The staff has been a close-knit group, going out for post-game meals and getting together to watch Eagles or Giants games on Sunday afternoons. Those gatherings were not just for the coaches but the family members too.
Family and football go hand in hand for Mitchell. Both of his sons, Chris and Greg, played the game in high school and college. His wife, Maryanne, and daughter, Stacey Spering, keep stats every Friday night, home or away. Greg joined the staff not long after graduating from Kutztown University.
"To say football is a big part of our family is probably an understatement," Bob Mitchell said, adding that he could have never chosen to coach without the support of Maryanne. "Being a football coach leaves a spouse with responsibilities they didn't necessarily sign up for. During the fall my wife was basically a single parent. And that's a difficult thing to be. She never complained about it. My wife has been fantastic."
A graduate of Monsignor Bonner High School in Upper Darby, Mitchell played college football at Mansfield University and also has a master's degree from Lehigh University.
He has been teaching government at Northwestern since he joined the coaching staff. He might retire from the classroom in the near future too, which will also be a difficult decision.
"I've always said coaching is just an extension of the classroom," he said. "You have to have order. You have to have discipline. You have to motivate. You have to be student-centered. You have to be there for the kids."
Mitchell has been there for the kids for the past 30 years and can't imagine what it will be like when he steps aside.
"I know it's going to be difficult," he said last week when he contemplated telling his team about his decision. "I'm an emotional guy. It's going to be emotional."
One thing that made this season as fun as any is the group of players that Mitchell and his staff have been surrounded by. He's complimented their work ethic and unselfishness all season and couldn't have asked for a better farewell present than this year's team.
"They have been like the cherry on top of the cake," Mitchell said.