If you do something long enough, you often times end up circling back to the beginning.
Such is the case with Gene Schindewolf.
A decade and a half before he became head coach of the Manchester High School boys basketball team, he was a star player for the Panthers.
It was nearly 48 years ago, in 1971, and the Panthers, under second-year head coach Bernie Conley, finished atop the Suburban League and captured the first league championship of any kind in the 25-year history of the program. Led by a group of talented seniors, including point guard Dennis Ball, forward Jim Campbell and Schindewolf, a guard-forward, and a 6-foot-9 freshman center by the name of Mike Phillips, Manchester finished the regular season with a 16-2 record.
Two tough, hard-fought victories over Waynedale and Orrville gave the Panthers their first sectional tournament title ever and propelled them into the Canton Class AA (medium-sized schools) District semifinals at Memorial Field House. The Panthers, who were cruising along at 18-2, were confident, for their opponent had just a 10-10 record.
But it didn’t work out as planned for them, as they experienced a stunning defeat and a sudden end to their season.
The culprit? Fairless.
“I remember that game very well,” Schindewolf said Wednesday morning. “It was so disappointing, because we would have played Canton Lehman for the district championship and we matched up very well with them. They went on to win the state title and we went home.”
Fast-forward to Tuesday night, as the Panthers provided Schindewolf, in his 34th year at Manchester and his 39th overall, with his 500th career win by handing host Fairless a 52-37 Principals Athletic Conference defeat. He is now 500-345 (.592), including 452-300 (.601) at Manchester.
“It is kind of cool that it came against the same school that beat us in the last high school game I ever played,” he said. “As a coach, you’re never really looking ahead or behind – you can’t afford to because you have to be focused in the moment – but when something like last night happens, you absolutely do stop and think for a minute and kind of take it all in.
“The people down at Fairless, especially the principal, Larry Chambliss, were really great – a real class act. They made a big deal about it and presented me with the game ball. Afterward, we were talking with the Fairless people about that game almost 50 years and some of the players and coaches who were involved. The assistant coach for Fairless that year was Vic Nicodemo, who went on to become head coach at Manchester (immediately preceding Schindewolf’s arrival there in 1985).
“I’ve probably heard from about 75 people – well-wishers -- over the last couple of weeks. All of it is certainly special and I very much appreciate it, but it means even more to me when it comes from some of the people you’ve coached with and against.”
Because he became emotional in recalling it, possibly the most precious message came from the man who launched his career.
“I got a phone call yesterday (Tuesday) from Billy McFarren. He was the principal at Dalton who gave me a chance by hiring me to my first head-coaching position in 1980,” said Schindewolf, who was 48-45 in five seasons with the Bulldogs. “He’s in a nursing home now. He’s got to be close to 90 years old.”
Schindewolf is 65, which makes him one of the oldest coaches around. He got his first career win against Smithville in 1980.
“We were struggling -- we were 0-3 -- so it was nice to finally win one,” he said.
His first victory at Manchester came against Gates Mills Gilmour Academy in 1985.
“It was great to get that one, too, because we were also struggling that year,” he pointed out.
That those two years were before many of his present coaching counterparts were even born makes him – and what he accomplished over all this time -- stand out even more.
“I don’t feel like a dinosaur. I really don’t,” Schindewolf said. “I think being around these kids forces you to be young and to stay current. And you have to adjust. In my first year at Manchester, I tossed a kid out of the gym simply because he had on those type of footie socks instead of the regular crew-cut socks. You have to bend a lot more now, but at the same time, you can’t give all your rules away.”
He says that along with “having great players and great assistant coaches,” the fact he has held on to those core principles is one of the things that has allowed him to stick around and have success.
“The game itself has changed drastically from when I first started,” Schindewolf pointed out. “A lot of that comes from the addition of the three-point line. If a team gets hot against you with the threes, you can get into a lot of trouble in a hurry.
“But the way the game is played, with ball screens and the pick and roll, and the things that are important, hasn’t changed. So you’ve got to stay with your convictions and do things the right way.”
One of those fundamentals is going full-go all the time.
“As long as I have coached against him and watched his teams, they have always competed as hard as anybody,” said Manchester resident Lynn Wess, who has 380 career wins in a 3½-decade coaching career that includes two stints at Coventry. “He is a true motivator.”
Added Wess, who will bring his 11-6 Tuslaw Mustangs to Manchester on Friday night for a PAC game, “Congratulations to Gene. Not many people get to 500 wins. It is truly a great feat. To be able to coach kids in four different decades and continue to relate to them, is a testament to his coaching expertise. I admire him for his longevity, and his character.”
Other than members of Schindewolf’s family, the man who may know him best is A.J. Hite, who has been at Manchester for 20 years, including 16 as an assistant coach. He is in his first season back on the bench after an absence of several years.
“Nobody can last as long in this business without being a competitor, and Gene is definitely a competitor,” Hite said. “We’ve all seen ‘The Gene Stare.’ But he’s changed. Kids are getting away with things in practice now that, 15 or 20 years ago, he would have just told them, ‘Get out of here. Go home.’
“There’s another side of Gene, though, that most people don’t see. He used to lead the Fellowship of Christian Students group that they had here at Manchester each week for 15 to 20 years on Tuesday or Wednesday mornings for about 25 minutes before school started.
“From a much more personal standpoint, I remember another story. We were playing in a summer league at Barberton and my dad, who lived just a short distance away, would always come to the games. When he didn’t show up one time, I knew something was wrong and I raced to his house. I found him inside. He had passed away.
“Gene and Nate (Schindewolf, his son and a former Manchester star player and assistant coach) were the first ones to get there. My kids were just little at the time. Nate took them somewhere – I still don’t know where – while Gene stayed there with me and consoled me. I’ll never forget that. It meant a lot to me, and still does.”
Hite added, “I know getting 500 wins is a big deal to him, but I think he looks at it more from the angle that being around for a long time has enabled him to influence a ton of lives. I’m sure he celebrated Tuesday night, but I can tell you that the first thing this morning, he was probably right back at work and beginning to get ready for Tuslaw.”
For how much longer he will be getting prepared for games is not known, but since Schindewolf is coaching his grandson, freshman guard Jordan Schindewolf, it likely will be for three additional seasons at least.
And that’s just fine with him.
“The coolest part of Tuesday night wasn’t really me getting my 500th win, but rather that these kids won, that they continue to get better,” said Schindewolf, whose team, which was struggling coming out of the holiday break, won for the second time in three games and improved to 8-10 overall and 4-6 in the PAC.
“We’ve had some really close, tough losses. If a couple of those games had gone the other way, we’d be right up there competing for the league championship. So I’m happy that they’re starting to get some tangible rewards for all of their hard work. They’re a really good group of kids.”
Who play for a guy who’s been a really good coach for a really long time.