LOWER POTTSGROVE >> The most important message Rick Pennypacker ever conveyed to his players had nothing to do with the X’s and O’s of football.
It wasn’t a new blocking scheme or a scouting report.
Rather, his message has always been plain and simple: Football comes to an end one day.
“You know what kind of coach you are,” he said sitting in his office this past week, “not by what happens in high school, but by what kids develop into five years after they leave. That’s what’s made me the most proud.”
Over the last 29 years, Pottsgrove’s longtime football coach put that message to practice.
All through the school year and summer months, you could find Pennypacker out on the practice field, inside the weight room, roaming the school halls or pacing the sidelines under the lights of his namesake field on Friday nights. All the while, he played an integral role as his boys transformed to men each season.
And now, football has come to an end for Pennypacker.
Prior to the 2017 fall season, Pennypacker, 63, privately announced that he’d be retiring as head coach of the Falcon program at season’s end as well as from his position as a physical education teacher at the end of the school year.
“It’s just time,” he said with a wide, accomplished smile. “I would probably coach until I’m 90 years old, if I could coach from August until November.
But it’s the grind, the year-long routine — we’re here weight-lifting in December. Then it’s three to four nights a week from January to August. That’s consistent, straight-through.
“It all takes its toll on you as the years go on.”
For his career at Pottsgrove, Pennypacker boasts an overall record of 237-99-4. He’s got nine Pioneer Athletic Conference championship titles to his name (including a co-championship with Owen J. Roberts in 1991) along with four District 1 championships. Through his 29 years with the Falcons, Pennypacker has been a part of only four losing seasons — the most recent dating all the way back to 2002.
Richard Pennypacker grew up on Spring Street in Spring City, just a few blocks from Spring-Ford High School, where he would go on to spend his scholastic career as a standout offensive lineman and linebacker.
Following his graduation from Spring-Ford in 1972, Pennypacker went on to play along the offensive line at West Virginia University under legendary coach Bobby Bowden.
He landed his first coaching job at Marlinton Middle School in West Virginia, where he served as the head football and assistant basketball coach.
“I did everything,” he recalled. “We had to do everything. We lined the field, mowed the field. We washed the clothes, drove the school bus. It was terrible, but it was an experience.”
After two years at Marlinton, Pennypacker moved up to Pocahontas County High School for two more years before he made the move to Warren County High School in Virginia.
Married to his high school sweetheart, Anne, and with three young children, Pennypacker had some decisions to make.
“There just wasn’t enough money in coaching and teaching. Not in Virginia,” he said. “I was planning to leave coaching and go into administration.”
That’s when opportunity struck.
While out on the golf course with the athletic director at James Wood High School, Pennypacker learned of an opening for the school’s defensive coordinator position at the Winchester, Va. school.
From there, he spent two seasons under veteran head coach Dick Harmison, whom Pennypacker called one of the most influential people to come into his life.
“It was the best two years of my life,” said Pennypacker of his time with Harmison. “I learned more about football in those two years than I did in my whole life. Greatest coach I ever worked for and the greatest coach I’ve ever been around.”
Two years into his stint at James Wood, Pennypacker was drawn back to Pennsylvania due to the death of his father, Rick Pennypacker.
Soon after making the move back to Pennsylvania with wife Anne and his three children, Elizabeth, Ross and Matthew, he was named Pottsgrove’s head football coach in 1989, filling in the shoes of the program’s first coach, Ken Harclerode.
“When I got here, people constantly told me, ‘Don’t take that job, you don’t want Pottsgrove,’” he recalled. “But when I interviewed here, I thought this was a diamond-in-the-rough job. I thought there was some talent in the school.”
Flash forward 29 years. That once ‘diamond in the rough’ has shined as one of the area’s brightest.
Pennypacker transformed a squad that was 23-70-1 in the eight years prior to his arrival into back-to-back PAC-10 champions in his second and third seasons in charge.
The 2014 Montgomery County Coaches Hall of Fame inductee made an incredibly quick turnaround from a 2-8-1 (0-8-1 PAC) season in 1989 to a 1990 season where Pottsgrove went 9-1-1 and 8-0-1 in the PAC for the school’s first league title, followed by another PAC championship season (9-2) in 1991.
Pottsgrove won five PAC titles in the first decade of the 2000s and most recently won back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013.
The Falcons won the District 1 Class 4A championship the past two seasons, allowing Pennypacker to watch his team celebrate a championship victory the season of his departure.
There’s hardly any way to deny it: Pennypacker has been old-school, hard-nosed and flat-out tough with anyone who’s come into his path, especially those donning the maroon and white.
He’d go nose-to-facemask with a player, demanding an explanation for an undisciplined play on the field. He’d wave a finger at the ref, calling out ‘Mr. Official!’ or ‘Mr. Whitehat!’ in hopes to discuss a call.
But behind that bright red face bringing the fire no matter the situation was a man that simply wanted nothing but the best: Nothing but the best from his players, and nothing but the best for his players.
James Franey, a 1995 Pottsgrove graduate, found himself down on the depth chart behind guys that simply had him beat in size, skill and talent his sophomore season.
“I couldn’t pick up the counter (block),” he recalled of his time playing inside linebacker during a preseason scrimmage against Boyertown. “He (Pennypacker) grabbed me by the facemask, starts pulling me around, yelling at me right on the sideline in front of the guys.”
Franey was never allowed to quit anything in his life, yet, after that game, he’d gotten permission from his mother. And he won’t deny it fully crossed his mind.
“I went in and got a shower after the game,” Franey said. “When I got out of the shower and got out to the locker room, Coach said to me, ‘You know why I yelled at you? I care about you. You’ve got talent and you play hard. I’m gonna get you in.’
“He put me at defensive end the rest of the year, and quitting never even crossed my mind again.”
After graduating from Albright College a few years later, Franey was back on the Pottsgrove sideline coaching the Falcons’ freshman team under the guidance and direction of his own high school coach.
In addition to the devotion to his players, Pennypacker has also shown great commitment to doing the right thing over the years.
And that, of course, rubbed off on his players as they became both winners on the field and in the community.
Earlier this season, the team helped move furniture into a local retirement home. Each Memorial Day, members of the team lay flags down at the graves of the veterans through the Pottstown VFW.
“He has always expressed character to us,” said Desmond Austin, a current senior at Pottsgrove. “Around school, he always wanted to hear good things about his players. It was never anything less.”
Perhaps Pennypacker’s shining moment in that regard came during a game last season against Pottstown.
With the game well in-hand, Pennypacker’s defense cleared the way for Pottstown running back Marvin Pearson, who was both blind and deaf, to carry it for an inspirational 68-yard touchdown.
Video of the play gained national attention, landing Pearson on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, where he was awarded a college scholarship and had a chance to meet his childhood idol, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
Seemingly none of that would have been possible without Pennypacker. When Pennypacker first heard of Pearson’s condition, he was eager to make that game one to remember for both ends of the neighboring communities.
“He brought the whole team close and told us what was about to happen,” recalled Austin of Pennypacker in that moment. “The pride and excitement in his voice when he said it was special. I’ve seen stuff like that on SportsCenter, but to be a part of something like that was great.”
After the final whistle blew, the stands cleared and the lights went out each Friday night, Pennypacker would go home with plenty more work still ahead of him.
Regardless of the result of the night’s game, he’d be at home awake until the early hours of the morning, studying film and gameplanning for the week ahead.
“Oh yeah, I’m a film nut,” he said. “I love watching film, that’s one of the things I’ll miss the most.”
Whether it be picking up another team’s tendencies or finding a gap in the defensive secondary, Pennypacker was bound to spot and exploit a team’s flaws the following week.
“A bunch of my players were in here today and they caught me watching film. They asked me, ‘What are you watching film for, coach? The season’s over.’ It’s just my thing. I love watching film.”
Pennypacker’s expertise in film definitely exploited some holes this season.
Senior running back Rahsul Faison set a new PAC record and finished 10th overall in state history with 2,919 rushing yards this fall to go along with 42 touchdowns on the season. He surpassed the 300-yard rushing mark in two games, including a season-high 352 yards during a game against Upper Perk.
During his tenure at Pottsgrove, Pennypacker coached up plenty of talented players through the years, notably Brian Allen, Chris Beasley, Eric Reginer, Brent Steinmetz, Joey Cotter and more recent standouts like Brent Carter, Maika Polamalu and Mike Fowler.
Only one of them, though, ever broke through into the National Football League.
Terrell Chestnut, a four-year standout with the Falcons, had a brief stint with the San Diego Chargers following his time at West Virginia University.
None of it would have been possible if it weren’t for some tough love from his high school coach.
“One of my favorite memories with Coach Pennypacker wasn’t when we won games,” he said, “it was when he kicked me off the field during a scrimmage because I back-talked him.
“This moment really humbled me and made me appreciate him more as a coach,” he added. “No matter how good I thought I was, he never allowed me to be the arrogant punk others expected me to be with all the success I was having.”
During his time with Pottsgrove, Chestnut was a four-time all-state selection and a two-time conference MVP as well as the PAC’s Defensive Player of the Year his senior season.
Still, he explains that a ton of credit goes to his high school coach.
“Coach has a very special place in my heart,” he said. “There is no Terrell Chestnut without him.”
Despite all the deserving accolades, all the things Chestnut has accomplished as an athlete, Pennypacker carries just as much pride in him as he does with any other alumnus.
“Ya know, I see these guys out in the community — guys being good husbands, good fathers — and that’s what this has been all about for me,” said Pennypacker. “It’s more than football. It’s been about teaching these boys how to become good men.”
There will surely be a ton of memories and stories left behind by Pennypacker after 29 years of coaching and teaching in one district.
But as his tenures in both come to a close, he hopes that there is one thing in particular that he’s remembered for.
“One of the greatest lessons I ever learned came from Coach Harmison in Virginia,” recalled Pennypacker. “I remember one day I was complaining, yelling about the kids and he just smiled. He told me, ‘Remember one thing: Before kids care to listen, they listen to see if you care.’ If kids know you don’t care about them, they’ll turn you off.”
That message has stuck with Pennypacker all these years. It’s the same message he hopes will stay with all he’s come into contact with over the years.
“If there’s one thing kids know around here about me, it’s that I care about them. I care about them. And I always will.”
Others’ affection for Pennypacker goes beyond his former players. It extends to administration, opposing coaches and even referees:
“He has been an ambassador for education, class, character and competition from both the traditional classroom and the non-traditional classroom … in his case the football field. As a physical education teacher, which oftentimes goes overlooked, he has been a model of consistency and accountability for every student who walks into his gym. He has taught, demonstrated and helped thousands upon thousands of students learn the benefits of fitness and health while instilling confidence, joy and fun in so many kids who many times didn’t see him as “the football coach.”
— Pottsgrove athletic director Gary Derenzo
“He helped us transform from boys into young men. Seeing his impact on so many played a part in my decision to pursue my current profession. I still vividly remember getting up in front of everyone at Camp Wayne to do an imitation of coach during practices.”
— Scott Madl, Pottsgrove ‘10
“I was probably going down the wrong path when I was about 13, 14 years old. But when I started playing football for Pennypacker, he changed my life. He gets it. He was always there for me.”
— James Franey, Pottsgrove ‘95
“When I was first hired, he sent me a letter to Muhlenberg wishing me luck on turning the OJR program around. I still have it. It was cool that a coach of his caliber would send me a letter. At that time he hadn’t even met me yet.”
— Owen J. Roberts head coach Rich Kolka
“Every time I see him, still, he reminds me that my son’s a better athlete than me. He’s the type of guy that remembers everyone — and cares about everyone.”
— Mike Stringer, Pottsgrove ‘93
“Coaches favorite quote would have to be ‘God bless it to hell. Run it again.’ My favorite memory is when he and his wife came all the way to South Philadelphia to attend my church.”
— Isaiah Quick, Pottsgrove ‘10
“Our teams there weren’t very good — we didn’t get all that many wins — but he was always good to us. He had the respect of the players and we respected him.”
— Jim Mauck, Warren County (VA) ‘86
“I was going through a lot in my high school years and he taught me a lot. He took me under his wing and made me a special part of a family. It’s one we’re all still a part of today.”
— Jimmy Keim, Pottsgrove ‘93
“Rick has always been pro-active on promoting and moving our league forward. He has a very loving and supporting family, especially his wife, Anne, that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. That goes a long way in helping head coaches manage the stress from the job and the extent of the work load.
— Spring-Ford head coach Chad Brubaker
“One of my favorite memories with coach Pennypacker wasn’t when we won games, it was when he kicked me off the field during a scrimmage because I back-talked him. This moment really humbled me and made me appreciate him more as a coach because no matter how good I thought I was, he never allowed me to be the arrogant punk others expected me to be with all the success I was having.”
— Terrell Chestnut, Pottsgrove ‘11
“Coach Pennypacker represents what high school football coaching is all about. He is a person that works hard to become the best at his craft. He also created an environment at Pottsgrove where athletes could excel on and off the field. Whenever I needed advice about a situation on how to deal with something he always was there to help me out.”
— Former Phoenixville head coach Evan Breisblatt
“He made us better people as well as football players.”
— Mike Noto, Pottsgrove ‘08
“His relationship with the team is crazy. He loves all of us — wants all of us to do our best. He always wants to make us better people and better players than we are already.”
— Ephraim Hurt-Ramsey, Pottsgrove ‘18
“He is a fierce competitor and a terrific football coach. The impact that he’s had on thousands of kids over his 40-plus year long career is immeasurable. I admire the way he carries himself as a leader of men and the way he always put his kids first above all else.”
— Perkiomen Valley head coach Rob Heist
“The biggest thing he gave me when I was growing up was discipline. He kept me out of trouble and kept your head straight while you’re in school — he didn’t let you get distracted by any of the other stuff going on.”
— Tyler Hallman, Pottsgrove ‘08
“He teaches us more life stories than he does about football. That’s what makes him so unique from every other coach around here. I separate him from everyone else. No one compares to him as a person and a coach.”
— Desmond Austin, Pottsgrove ‘18
“As aggressive, loud and difficult as he seems, he was really never that way. I used to love to try and get him to laugh or smile at some point before the game because he certainly didn’t want to do that during the game. Nick Pergine, Dave Speelhoffer and I used to always try and get him to break a smile. He was always first class with all of us.”
— Longtime PAC official/referee assigner Steve Custer