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Special night for NW's Mitchell

Published January 22. 2010 05:00PM

In the world of sports, coaches come and coaches go.

Whether the departure of a coach is good or bad, it's safe to say that many emotions will be felt when that person leaves.

This past Sunday night, members of the Northwestern football family along with those who worked with, against or just knew Bob Mitchell displayed those emotions at a surprise retirement party.

Mitchell guided the Tigers for 28 years, starting in 1981, compiling a career record of 177-130-1. His teams won three district titles and played in the champioship game seven times. He enjoyed 17 seasons with a winning record and reached the postseason nine times.

While those numbers are impressive, they only begin to tell a small tale of what Mitchell meant to Northwestern especially the student-athletes.

One of those former student-athletes helped get the ball rolling on planning a special night for their collegaue.

Jason Zimmerman, the Tigers current athletics director who played under Mitchell from 1989-91, was part of a small group that decided to honor their friend with a dinner. Not surprisingly, the idea grew into fruition and the response was more than positive.

"Tommy Linette and I really struggled with Mitch's decision to retire," said Zimmerman. "Many tears were shed. Tommy, my wife, and I decided that we needed to do something positive with our feelings of emptiness of losing our head coach and friend. I sent out an email ... seeing if we could pull this off. We all agreed, let's go for it. We sent out the invitations and the response was overwhelming. With less than a month worth of planning, 125 people is pretty impressive. In addition to those who came I received so many 'sorry we can't be there' messages.

"Playing for Mitch, hands down, was the best thing that ever could have happened to me. I was a young man in need of direction. Mitch and his staff provided me with that direction whether I wanted it or not. He was tough and disciplined, but always fair and no matter who you were, you were made a part of the Northwestern football family. Mitch always used to say, once you are a Northwestern Lehigh football player, it is like the mafia, you are in for life."

Zimmerman's story is not a unique one. In fact, another former player who attended the banquet gives a similar account of his playing days.

"My parents were harping on me to figure out what I wanted to do after high school and at that point in my life I didn't have an answer," said Justin Smith, another former player of Mitchell's who is currently the Tigers' golf coach. "I didn't have any ambition and I didn't understand the process.

"When the idea came up about possibly playing football in college he got the ball rolling. He put highlights together and when the recruiters came in he helped there as well. If it wasn't for him and playing football I'm not sure what I would have done about college."

Ironically, there was a time Northwestern wasn't sure what it was going to do about football. The school seriously thought of dropping football around the time Mitchell took over.

Instead of folding, the Tigers eventually became a model program one that boasts a coaching staff of experience and longevity at the school.

Linnette, who has been an assistant with Mitchell during his entire tenure, will be the school's new head coach.

"Bob was the right man at the right time," said Linnette. "He didn't take the job with a list of demands, but only asked for the basics. I'm not sure the football program would have survived without Bob. He was able to hold it all together in 1981 when he took over and was able to generate community support when cuts were suggested in the late '80s.

"Above all, Mitch has been a great educator. He teaches like he coaches - providing structure and student interaction each and every time he steps into the classroom."

When Mitchell stepped into the Green Pond Country Club last Sunday, he thought he was there for an awards ceremony for Zimmerman.

Instead, it was Zimmerman and a whole room full of people who wanted to give the longtime mentor a memorable sendoff.

"We knew he was going to be upset because we planned a night just for him ... but he deserved a night recognizing everything he has done for our school, this community, and for amateur football as a whole," said Zimmerman.

"Mitch was and is a stable force in the ever changing world of public education. He is well-respected, he does what is right, but most of all when there was a problem, Mitch always became part of the solution. When I played you could count the number of fans in the stands using your fingers and toes. Coach Mitchell is a big part of putting Northwestern football on the map and making Friday nights a community event.

"Taking in the games as the AD, I often catch myself staring up into the stands and thinking to myself everyone from New Tripoli must be at the game tonight. He has developed so many young men, including myself, into strong, confident, successful adults and if you would ask those people, they would attribute much of their success to their time spent on the football field."

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