When legendary football coach Biff Poggi decided to leave Gilman's program this past January, Tim Holley, the school's athletic director, had a big task in front of him.
Poggi was a legend at Gilman, leading the Greyhounds to 13 Maryland Interscholastic Athletics Association A Conference Championships during his 19-year tenure. He has the most wins for a coach in the school's history, and in 2015, he guided Gilman to a 10-1 record.
To Holley, who was a standout three-sport athlete at Gilman and graduated in 1977, the on-field accomplishments during Poggi's era were impressive, but it was the type of person he was that made him a special coach.
"If I were to define Biff's legacy here, [it] would be that his mission was to find kids for whom the promise of success was a pipedream and give them access to it," Holley said. "He won a lot of games, but I think his real legacy was for helping kids get a chance who might not have had one otherwise."
With Poggi leaving to become an associate head coach/special advisor for the University of Michigan's football team, Holley and the rest of the assembled group set out to find a new head coach.
Holley approached the situation with the mindset of ensuring the program would be stable. Poggi meant so much to Gilman football that Holley wanted to find a steady person who understood the program's legacy and could guide it through this transition. As he considered the various candidates, Holley kept coming back to one person who he thought would be the perfect man for the job -- himself.
"I went to the headmaster and told him I thought the best way to stabilize it was for me to take the position," Holley said. "Under the circumstances, a person who could manage the situation well was more important than a football expert."
Don't be fooled by Holley's modesty -- he knows football and the art of coaching. He has coached the sport at every level Gilman has to offer, winning seven conference titles as the junior varsity football coach. He was an assistant with the varsity team during three different stints -- 1992-94, 1997-2000 and 04-06, serving under Poggi during that time. In addition, Holley also has experience being a varsity head coach, holding the job for baseball and basketball since becoming the school's athletic director in 1996.
He's also familiar to his players. Many of this year's Greyhounds have already played a sport for Holley before this year.
"There's a level of comfortability there with Coach Holley," senior center and defensive tackle Will Weinfeld said. "It was nice to know we had a familiar face, someone we had already played for and knew, so it was relieving, in a way, when he was announced as the new head coach."
Even though there is a lot of familiarity with the hiring of Holley, there are some changes with this year's Gilman football team.
A team that's traditionally known for being big and powerful, Gilman will be relying more on its athleticism and speed this year, which means needing to draw up both a new offense and defense. For that, Holley turned to two Gilman alums who coached at their alma mater, but never as coordinators -- Russell Wrenn on offense and Jeff Gouline on defense.
"I was really blessed to get to put together a great staff of football guys. Our coordinators and position coaches are excellent," Holley said. "What the kids are getting from them is a real football expertise. We don't have the same physical presence that we did last year, but I really like our team."
While some would think brand new plays on both sides of the ball would be too much for a team after having a distinct style of play for almost two decades, Holley prefers to challenge his players. To him, one of the big strengths of his team is the collective intelligence of the group -- the team is able to pick up on things quickly, and when mistakes are made, it is able to make the adjustments so as not to repeat them.
The new looks on both sides of the ball have also been well-received by the players.
"We like the new offense; it's a lot faster than what we're used to," senior wide receiver and defensive back Zach Jones said. "As a receiver, we're more involved and aren't always blocking. The line has their own calls and takes control of what they are doing in the front. We've been learning everything really well so far, and enjoying it, too."
The scouting report is similar on defense, with senior linebacker and tight end Antonio DiCerbo crediting Gouline with dialing up exciting plays for the Greyhounds to execute.
"Coach Gouline is really intelligent and knows what he's talking about when it comes to football. He knows where we need to be and when we need to be there," DiCerbo said. "We're a very aggressive defense and every play you'll see 11 hats to the ball."
Even though the group is excited about Gilman's chances this year, there are plenty of members of the high school football community who think the Greyhounds will have a down year in 2016.
By not going out and getting a high-profile head coach, some naysayers believe it shows Gilman isn't ready for football without Poggi. The transferring of key players from last year's team after Poggi left didn't help, but the team is using the criticism as motivation.
That doubt is allowing Gilman to play a part it rarely had the chance to play during Poggi's tenure -- the role of the underdog.
"We want to show people that we're better than what most people expect. We still have plenty to fight for," senior free safety and fullback Drew Ehrlich said. "If there was a year for us to have a chip on our shoulders, this is it, and a lot of our guys have it."
That fire and motivation from the seniors is something Holley also thinks will play to Gilman's strengths this year. He's quick to tell you his four senior captains -- Weinfeld, Jones, DiCerbo and Ehrlich -- do a great job of setting the tone for the other veterans, who, in turn, help lead the younger players.
"I told the seniors from the beginning that this is their team," Holley said. "We are here as coaches to guide them, but the players, particularly the seniors, have got to own it. They have taken that on and the seniors have been tremendous leaders."
Looking ahead, there's no timetable for Holley's tenure as head coach. He acknowledges it could just be for this season and it could also be for multiple years.
For him, he'll continue to want to hold the position for as long as he thinks it's in the best interest of the players and Gilman.
"I view it like it's a relay race, and what I've done is taken the baton from Biff and am now running my leg of the race," Holley said. "Buying into the Gilman culture has been a part of the Gilman football tradition for decades. I'm going to run my leg of the race the best way I know how. The history and tradition of Gilman football will continue. We are not deviating from that."
Issue 225: September 2016