Bittersweet Success in Lexington
By Mark Berman: Roanoke Times
LEXINGTON, Va. --- This is a bittersweet time for Frank
The Washington and Lee football coach is tied atop the university's career wins list with his late friend and former boss, Gary Fallon.
Fallon, who won 76 games in 17 years with the Generals, died of a heart attack in April 1995 at the age of 56.
Miriello, who had been Fallon's defensive coordinator, was chosen to succeed him.
"I miss him," a red-eyed Miriello said as he sat in his office this week. "I visit the grave site every once in a while ... talk to him a little."
Miriello, who used to ride motorcycles with Fallon, made a tearful speech at his best friend's funeral.
"I can still vividly see the funeral in Lee Chapel and talking there and all that," Miriello recalled. "That has not gone away -- and being at the cemetery, and the rifle shooting because he was a former Marine. That's just like it was yesterday."
Miriello, 65, is 76-74-1 in 15-plus seasons at a school where winning is not easy because of high admission standards. He tied Fallon with a victory two weeks ago; the Generals were idle last weekend. He will eclipse his mentor if W&L beats visiting Averett on Saturday.
A quote from Fallon, "Don't ever ever give up," is on the front of his desk.
"Just to be mentioned in the same context as Coach Fallon is a big honor," Miriello said. "To have as many victories as he has is a wonderful feeling.
"I hate to bump him off the top of that list."
Coal miner's son
Miriello grew up in Kulpmont, Pa., where his late father was a coal miner before eventually becoming the borough's mayor. Ralph Miriello also was a youth football coach.
When Miriello struggled academically in his first semester at East Stroudsburg (Pa.) University, his father drove him to the mine where he worked.
"It was pitch dark -- scared the living daylights out of me," Miriello said. "He said, 'Get those grades up or you're coming down here to work in the coal mines.' That did it for me."
After becoming the first member of his family to graduate college, Miriello coached high school football in Pennsylvania.
Ten years later, he lost his head coaching job after the 1977 season.
"I was at the bottom of my professional life," Miriello said. "I turned it over to God and said, 'What do you want me to do? I thought you wanted me to be a football coach and here I am 1-29. What do you want me to do now?' "
His initial plan was to attend graduate school at Wyoming and offer to help out the football staff there. But Fallon was looking for an intern to serve as offensive line coach, and a friend got Miriello an interview.
"I was on this campus for 20 minutes with Coach Fallon and I decided to forget about Wyoming and come down here to Washington and Lee for $1,500," Miriello said. "I lived in a dorm room down in the gym here for the first year."
After four years at W&L, Miriello moved on to Hampden-Sydney and VMI before losing his Keydets job when Bob Thalman was fired as head coach. Miriello returned to the prep ranks before rejoining Fallon's staff for the 1990 season.
Miriello moonlighted in the spring as an assistant coach for the W&L men's lacrosse team. He was eating with his wife and son after an April 1995 game in Maryland when then-lacrosse coach Jim Stagnitta informed him of Fallon's death.
"I just broke down," said Miriello, choking up. "I went for a walk by myself for about an hour, then came back and got in a van and drove all the way back to Lexington -- longest drive of my life."
The following month, Miriello was named interim coach for the 1995 season.
"We [players] all kind of pushed for that," said Robert Hull, a Lexington dentist who was a defensive tackle on the 1995 team. "We wanted to stay in-house and he was definitely the guy for the job. Everybody liked Frank.
"He was a details guy. ... He would care about the littlest thing."
When preseason practice began that summer, Miriello tried to guide players who were still shaken by Fallon's death.
They weren't the only ones.
"My first practice ... I just went for a walk after practice for about an hour and just cried," Miriello said. "That was an emotional year for me."
In October of that year, the interim tag was removed from his title.
"His passion for the game, his work ethic, his dedication to the players and the program was just so obvious to everyone," said Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks coach James Urban, who was a receiver on the 1995 team. "It was a very difficult position for him to be in ... and he handled it just beautifully, with great leadership."
'Adjust and improvise'
In Miriello's first nine years at the helm, the Generals had six five-win seasons. But there were signs of progress. In 2000, W&L won an opener for the first time in 16 years and later ended a 10-game skid against Randolph-Macon. In 2002, the Generals snapped a 19-game skid against Emory & Henry.
"Some people look at 5-5 seasons as being mediocre. I don't," Miriello said. "Doing things that haven't been done here in a long time have been my motivation."
Then came the glory years.
The Generals went 6-4 in 2004, their most wins since 1985. They went 7-3 the following season. The Generals went 7-4 and reaped their first NCAA Division III playoff bid in 2006, when they won the ODAC title for the first time since sharing it in 1985.
From 2004-07, W&L enjoyed four straight years with at least six victories, the first time that happened at the school since the 1912-15 seasons.
"Our hands are pretty tied here as far as who we can and can't get into school," Miriello said. "You've got to take what you've got and make them better or you don't have a shot.
"You have to adjust and improvise here, or you're going to go crazy."
"Adjust and improvise" is one of his favorite mottoes.
"He looks at the talent that he has and makes adjustments to that talent so that we're always competitive," said former W&L athletic director Mike Walsh, who now works in the school's development office. "Adjust and improvise, that's how he approaches every day."
The Generals are coming off back-to-back 4-6 seasons. They are 1-1 this season.
"I've always kept my sanity, ... knowing exactly the challenge you're dealing with here," Miriello said. "When you bring in some new coaches, they don't understand the situation and think we can win nine and 10 games every year. Well, that's not going to happen here. It doesn't happen at Duke. It doesn't happen at Vanderbilt."
The four-time ODAC coach of the year has not slowed with age. He serves as his own defensive coordinator, and also teaches a W&L badminton class.
Miriello, whose 87-year-old mother is a regular at home games, is under contract through the 2013 season.
"I love coming to work," he said. "As long as I feel that I'm effective and enjoy what I'm doing, there's no reason to think about retirement."
Miriello said he has never wanted to leave for a school where recruits don't need a 2000 on the SAT and a 3.5 GPA.
"I wanted to carry on Coach's work," he said, referring to Fallon.
On Saturday, Miriello could surpass Fallon and become the winningest coach in the program's history.
If he does, he plans to go to the cemetery and visit an old friend.