Bill George did not want to make a speech.
“I just wanted to slip out quietly, but they wouldn’t let me,” George said of his retirement ceremony Thursday morning at the Coast Guard Academy.
George, a Glens Falls native, officially retired after 21 seasons as the academy’s head football coach on June 30, but his farewell speech and ceremony were pushed back a couple of times to Thursday.
“I didn’t even want to do one,” he said. “I said I would only agree to do it if it was a virtual speech to all of my former players.”
With the Covid-19 social distancing restrictions limiting attendance, George’s retirement speech at the academy in New London, Connecticut, was live streamed on its website. In about 35 minutes, George summed up his strong feelings for the Coast Guard Academy, the young men he coached and the deep impression they left on him.
“You’re around people who pay such respect all the time, as natural as breathing,” George said later. “They believe in honor and respect. They’re in the military. They go on to do dangerous things. You still have to be a football coach, but you have to treat them with that same respect, too.”
George, 62, arrived at the Coast Guard Academy in 1999, fresh from a nine-year stint as an assistant coach at his alma mater, Ithaca College. He leaves with a school-record 75 wins, and the admiration of hundreds of former players.
“I’m not sure I realized how fantastic a place it was until after I had been here for a couple of years,” said George, who lives outside of New London with his wife, Nancy, and their 10-year-old daughter, Lila. “It’s one of the great jobs in America.”
The Coast Guard Academy is unique among U.S. service academies in that it supports a Division III athletic program, rather than a D-I program, like Navy or West Point.
The athletics may not be on the big stage, but the school is. Academics are rigorous. Engineering is a common field of study. The Academy trains cadets who will serve the country in the Coast Guard, a branch of the military whose purpose is to defend the coast, enforce maritime law and perform search and rescue.
“They have some objectives here that you don’t see at other colleges,” said George, who also taught physical education as a faculty member at the academy. “They’re training people to be officers here.”
Because of the cadets’ demanding schedules, George had to pack a lot into practice each day of the season.
“Athletics is a 4 to 6 (p.m.) window for any cadet here,” he said. “They have a heavy load of academics, military stuff and they have to pass a difficult physical fitness test — and they’re a long way from home.”
In short, cadets have a lot on their minds above and beyond football. George understood this, and made sure his players did, too.
“He made sure we prioritized our lives. We had to do our job as cadets, we had to maintain our grades,” said Jack Brandt, a 2019 academy graduate who played four years on the Bears’ defensive line and is now assigned to a Coast Guard cutter in Boston.
“That’s what I admired about him — he got the big picture,” Brandt said. “We’re there to learn how to be an officer in the Coast Guard. He kept that in the forefront of every practice: use football to be a better officer. That was his message, and he kept us focused on that goal.”
“His goal is to create good men — he made it a point to create better people,” said former Glens Falls standout Andrew Rizzo, a freshman defensive lineman for Coast Guard last season. “His relationship with all of us is it’s never been about him, everything he does is about us.”
For the players, football is as much a training tool as fitness, academics and military drills.
“We use the sport of football to make them better officers — we’re not running a program like a Notre Dame or Ohio State,” said George, who also coached the Bears’ offensive line. “But we run practice the same as any other practice in the country.”
Even in a two-hour window?
“You don’t change as much,” he said. “You have to make it college football. Don’t set a lower bar, you keep the bar high. You don’t adjust it or water down the football.”
Rizzo — whose brother James, a former running back, graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in 2016 — appreciated George’s attention, even as a freshman last season.
“It’s the little things, like he’ll ask if you need to take a practice off to study for a big test,” Andrew Rizzo said. “He makes sure I’m up to par with my grades. He knows we’re on a tight schedule, so he’s ready to go every practice.”
“Our freshmen struggle academically — they’re getting used to the military — so you have to keep that in mind,” George said. “You have to be aware of everything else that is going on in their lives.”
Glens Falls roots
Bill George was born and raised in Glens Falls, the older of two sons of Casper and Anna George. His maternal grandfather, Mike Toney, ran a greenhouse on Fredella Avenue for 45 years. His uncle owned the Blue Sky Restaurant, where both of his parents worked for decades — his father as the bartender, his mother as a waitress. They were blue-collar people serving a blue-collar clientele.
George said his parents stressed a strong education. His brother, Dan, went to Cornell and became an orthopedic surgeon. Dr. Daniel George specializes in spinal surgery in Connecticut.
The George brothers were both outstanding athletes at Glens Falls High School in the 1970s. Bill George was a football and wrestling standout for legendary coaches Paul Bricoccoli and Bob Carty, respectively. A solid 235-pounder in school, George stood out as a two-way lineman on the football field, and was a Section II champ and state place-finisher as a heavyweight wrestler.
George, who was inducted into the Glens Falls Athletic Hall of Fame in 2010, particularly remembered Carty and assistant football coach Jerry Connelly in those days.
“Bob Carty and Jerry Connelly had a very positive influence on me outside of sports, more so in my personality and how I coach,” he said.
“He was a super special football player,” Bricoccoli recalled. “He had it all — size, strength, athleticism. We knew we could count on him at center. … I’m so glad that he had a successful career. My wife and I were real close to his family. He had great character.”
At Ithaca, Bill George played for another coaching legend, Jim Butterfield, whom he called his biggest coaching influence. George was a four-year starter at center, and an All-American and co-captain on the Bombers’ team that won the Division III national championship in 1979.
“Jim Butterfield preached two things, and only two things: class and family,” George said.
George said he didn’t realize until after he graduated from Ithaca that he wanted to be a college coach. He taught phys ed at Ithaca High School and coached part-time at the college for a few years before landing an assistant coaching job at Princeton in 1984.
“I wrote to every coach in the country about a job,” George said. “(Princeton coach) Frank Navarro was the only one who wrote me back. It was an entry-level position — it was full-time work, but not full-time pay.”
From there he moved on to Ohio State and then the U.S. Military Academy Prep School before returning to Ithaca as an assistant coach, helping coach the Bombers to their third national title, in 1991.
In 1999, George moved on to the Coast Guard Academy.
“I think they were looking for some stability,” he said. “I was looking to become a Division III head coach. It was lucky timing on my part, and it fit for me.”
More than once in his retirement speech, Bill George referred to the Coast Guard Academy football stadium as “the most beautiful place on earth.”
Cadet Memorial Field sits in the middle of campus, bounded by brick buildings and trees, but overlooking the Thames River on one side. Sailboats can often be seen on the wide river that empties into Long Island Sound.
The stadium name is important, George said, because it honors cadets who lost their lives in service before the age of 22.
He understands that any one of his football players might be going into danger in the future, taking part in a rescue on high seas or boarding a ship on a dark night on a drug raid.
“There’s a bigger picture here,” George said. “You notice it right away. You see it before you. It’s part of who these people are.”
In his speech, George recalled two instances that displayed the deep importance of family and sacrifice to the Coast Guard Academy.
He still remembers Adam Bryant’s face from the first time he saw him in the football room 18 years ago.
“I can still remember him turning to look at me with what I call a ‘Mona Lisa smile,’” George said. “I said to myself, ‘Here is a young man going through his whole life with a contented smile.’ And he was always like that. He was hard-working, dedicated, but quiet and respectful. You wouldn’t notice him from any other cadet walking around on campus. But his face is really imprinted in my memory. I can see him clear as day.”
Bryant died in 2009 when his plane collided with a Marine helicopter while on a rescue mission off the California coast.
George also vividly recalled “the most surreal” experience of his life after a homecoming victory in 2011.
He was saying hello to returning alumni and their families when he felt a tap on his shoulder. It was the mother of former player Matt Krueger, a standout lineman from Coast Guard’s back-to-back division championship teams a few years earlier. George asked if Matt was there, too, so he could give him a hug.
“She said, ‘Matt’s not here, he’s in Michigan, flying for the Coast Guard. But today is my other son, Sean’s, birthday,’” George recalled.
Sean Krueger, a 2000 Coast Guard Academy graduate, was a helicopter pilot who was killed with two other Coast Guard personnel on a rescue mission in 2010 off Washington state.
“Sean Krueger — who I never even met, but Mrs. Krueger stood in front of me on his birthday,” George said. “He left behind a wife and three children under the age of 10. Mrs. Krueger looks at me and said, ‘Yes, today is my son Sean’s birthday, and my husband and I were so distressed all night long. We didn’t know what to do, so we got in the car and we drove to the Coast Guard Academy, to be around the Coast Guard family, to be around Coast Guard people.’”
On Thursday, Bill George received a special commendation from Rear Admiral William G. Kelly and a large plaque honoring his coaching career.
“It’s kind of ironic. I never wore the uniform. I never served a day in my life. I had the greatest job in the world, and never once have I ever been in danger,” George said in his speech.
“And yet, those people that we honored, those Gold Star families, the people that they mourn for — they didn’t get a plaque, they didn’t get to make a retirement speech. They didn’t even get to do what I just did — hug their loved ones goodbye one last time.”
Leaving coaching at the relatively young age of 62 was not a difficult decision for George.
Butterfield, who retired in 1993, died in 2002 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. Seeing his former mentor go through that influenced his decision, George said.
“Jim Butterfield struggled through his last year of coaching,” George said. “We didn’t know it, but it was the early onset of Alzheimer’s. That affected me about not staying too long. I thought a lot about that, getting out a year or two before I should.”
Before the 2019 football season even started, George knew it would be his last. It was time.
“I became a parent later in life — you can’t spend seven days a week in a football office with a family,” he said. “When you coach at a service academy, it’s a 12-month job.”
“He’s such a great leader and coach, and an even better man,” Brandt said. “He gave us something to look for — we see him walking around on campus with his daughter, Lila, and you can see that he loves being a dad. I’m excited for him that he’ll be able to enjoy that in retirement.”
George told his team on Nov. 12, the Tuesday before their final game, a home game against traditional rival Merchant Marine at the tail end of a 5-5 season.
“He called us in the Tuesday before, and he jumped up and said, ‘It’s only fair that I let you know that I’m retiring at the end of the season,’” Andrew Rizzo said. “It was game week, but he got it out of the way right away. He’s a humble guy, he doesn’t like all the attention.”
“That Monday was Veterans Day, so I didn’t want to do it then — that would just take away from our veterans. So I told the team that Tuesday,” George said. “They were surprised, I think, but this place is not about me. It’s about young people who have a lot of things going on in their minds.
“I had the greatest job in the world,” he added. “My job isn’t heroic — my job is a piece of cake. What these guys do is heroic.”
Follow Pete Tobey on Twitter @PTobeyPSVarsity.
In this Series
- 6 updates