Al Wolski had too many things he still wanted to do.
And at age 63, time isn’t on his side.
So after 10 years at State College High School, Wolski plans to retire at the end of the school year, giving up the head football coaching post and his teaching position.
“I’m old,” Wolski said with a chuckle Tuesday evening about his decision to retire. “I have a lot of things I want to do before I can’t do them anymore. I live a pretty active life. With golf, riding bikes, running, playing squash and things, you just don’t know how many years you have to do them.”
Wolski patroled the Memorial Field sidelines for 10 seasons after arriving from Reading High School in 2004 to replace Dave Lintal. He amassed an 87-42 mark and led the Little Lions to multiple district titles, a PIAA Class AAAA semifinal berth in 2006 and a trip to the PIAA title game in 2009.
The trademark of his program was well-coached players, who often beat teams that may have had more natural talent.
Wolski, who teaches in the school’s motivational resource center, said he will leave the program with plenty of memories — both tough ones and good ones.
“In 10 years, the ones that you think about are the ones that got away,” he said. “The Harrisburg game was one where all we had to do was field a kickoff and we would have won. Playing McDevitt one time, we went for two and didn’t get it. Those are the ones you think back on, but there were some great wins, too.
“In the last minute, we won two this year. Against University Prep a couple of years ago, it was a great win where we had to kick a field goal to tie and won it in overtime.”
Wolski said he will always cherish the run to the PIAA title game. The Little Lions eliminated heavily-favored WPIAL champion Woodland Hills 14-3 in the quarterfinals and bounced Cumberland Valley 35-13 in the semifinals before falling 24-7 to LaSalle College in a blizzard in Hershey in the finals.
“The 2009 season of course, it was a special group of kids,” Wolski said. “Beating Woodland Hills and losing in the snow down in Hershey. Having a chance to go to the state championship game was great.”
But Wolski said the memories he’ll cherish aren’t the ones from Friday nights.
“The best thing is the kids who went through the program,” he said. “We had some great kids go through and some great players. The thing that stands out the most is our guys who maybe didn’t get a chance to play on Friday night who stayed out. This year we had 36 seniors of which 16 or so didn’t play on a very regular basis, but they stayed out, got something out of it and contributed. Those are the guys that I think are a little bit special. Everybody knows the great players we’ve had, but not too many people those guys that stay out, give scout team looks and give everything they have even though they don’t get a chance to play a lot on Friday night.”
Wolski said the success that he had at State College, which included three 12-win campaigns, was a three-pronged attack.
“Overall, we had great coaches, great kids and good parents. You need all three of those factors — to have great kids first, great coaches and parents. Our parents have been very supportive and we’ve had very few problems with parents. I know one of the things that drives people out of the profersion is parents, but our parents have been excellent and supportive in the booster club. We can’t please everybody and we tell them that in the beginning of the year. I think overall we’ve had excellent parental support.”
While many high school coaches struggle to keep a staff together, Wolski had many of his assistant coaches stick with the program.
“The core group — Mark Baney, Mike Snyder, Rick Hall and Chris Weakland — have been there forever. I tried to give them ownership and decision-making power in their areas of responsibility. They’ve done a great job with that. I think that’s one of the reasons why they have stayed, they feel like they have ownership in what we do. It’s not a ‘me’ show. It’s an ‘us’ show. I solicit their input all of the time and they come up with great decisions. You’re never going to be successful without good assistant coaches.”
Wolski has spent more than 30 years on the sidelines at eight different stops, both on the high school and college level. He was a graduate assistant at Penn State (1974-75) and was part of a staff at Ithaca College in 1979 that won the NCAA Division III national championship. As a player he was a standout offensive lineman at West Chester, where he is a member of the university’s Football Hall of Fame.
Wolski says leaving the game that’s been such a big part of his life probably won’t hit him until fall.
But, he knew that the time to retire was now.
“I’ve been thinking about it for a year or two,” said Wolski, whose wife Mary also teaches in the State College system. “Now I’m 63 and said, ‘Jeez, how many years can you keep doing things? How many years have you got left to be active? If you wait another year, that’s one less year you have to do some of the things. ... I had a bad year with people close to me passing away this year, so that kind of makes you think a little bit more.
“You can’t buy time is my motto. The things that I want to do, you have to be active and I want to do them for as long as I can. It was time.”
While he looks forward to many activities away from the sidelines, Wolski won’t close the door on coaching for good.
“Somewhere along the line, I might go back and be an assistant again,” he said. “Right now, I want to play golf every day. I want to ride my bike every day. I want to fish and do those kind of things.”