When Slippery Rock University football coach Shawn Lutz originally came to SRU, he intended to stay for a year or two before bouncing to a Division I program.
More than two decades later, and numerous promotions through the SRU football coaching staff ranks, Lutz still hasn’t left. There’s nowhere he would rather be, actually.
“I thought I was going one or two years then getting to the highest level I could,” Lutz said. “I got married pretty quickly, had three beautiful boys and it just worked out for me to be here this long. I really enjoy success here.”
The years of loyalty to the university and patience in waiting for the head coaching job paid off when Lutz coached SRU to the program’s 600th win Saturday, Sept. 21 against Millersville University.
“I wouldn’t say my name is on the same level as [DiSpirito and Mihalik], but I’m just trying to maintain [their success],” Lutz said. “To me, this will always be coach Mihalik’s program. I just want to make sure our guys are maximizing everything they can. In the program, in the classroom and just making a difference in these guys’ lives.”
Lutz, now in his fourth year at the helm of the program, has strived to continue to build upon the legacy of all the coaches and athletes that came before him in Rock football history.
The road to 600 began many years ago. Through two millennia, over the course of three centuries, Slippery Rock University has known many names during that time.
Founded in 1889 as Slippery Rock State Normal School, the school served the purpose of training teachers for elementary and secondary education until the early 1920s.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania purchased the school in 1926 and the Slippery Rock State Teacher’s College was formed to continue the education obtained under the old name.
SRSTC was known as a school only for teachers until 1960. When, that year, Slippery Rock State College was established and students were able to receive degrees in liberal arts programs.
The success of its newfound academic programs enabled enrollment to spike and as part of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, Slippery Rock University was born.
Through the many names and purposes of SRU, Rock football has been through it all.
Rock football kicked off its first season, just before the turn of the century, in 1898. Playing just one game against New Castle High School, a 10-0 win that started the program with a perfect winning percentage, the team prevailed without the assistance of a coach.
For the first eight seasons of Rock football, the team operated without a head coach. In 1906, John B. Price was named the first head coach in SRU history. His two-year stint at SRU, in which the team went 5-3-2, was followed by a stretch of three short tenures from Rock coaches until N. Kerr Thompson took over in 1920.
Thompson, who the Mihalik-Thompson Stadium is partly named for, became a legendary figure at SRU. Coaching the football, baseball and basketball teams, Thompson led SRU to unreached success in program history.
In his 25 years of coaching, SRU won 126 games, which included 12 conference titles and eight Pennsylvania state championships. Four of the five undefeated seasons in program history came during his tenure (1924, 1933, 1939, 1945).
It was under Thompson that SRU began to become known across the country.
In 1936, the consensus No. 1 team in the country was a hotly debated topic, coming down to Pittsburgh and Minnesota. One journalist provided a true scenario, through a series of games throughout the season, to show who should be ranked No. 1: SRU.
His scenario was as followed: SRU beat Westminster, which beat West Virginia Wesleyan, which beat Duquesne, which beat Pitt, which beat Notre Dame, which beat Northwestern, which beat Minnesota. By his logic, SRU had earned the No. 1 ranking.
The coverage of the sportswriter’s story was picked up by newspapers across the country and the legend of Slippery Rock began to grow.
SRU capitalized on its newfound popularity with a “guest” appearance at Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, for a game against Boston University in 1937.
The “mystique” of Rock football steadily grew over the next few decades.
Toward the end of Thompson’s run with SRU, World War II canceled the 1943 and 1944 seasons. He returned in 1945 to coach his final season, a 3-0-1 undefeated season.
William “Pop” Storer, Chester Stackhouse and William Meise combined to guide SRU to a .444 win percentage in the 13 seasons following Thomspon’s retirement.
It wasn’t until Charles Godlasky took over the program in 1959 that SRU experienced state-level success again. Winning 32 games during his six seasons, Godlasky led SRU to three PSAC-West championships and a state championship in 1962. In 1963, his team competed in the All-Sports Bowl.
However, the All-Sports Bowl, one of the numerous bowl games in SRU history, ended with a 59-12 loss to Northeast Oklahoma State.
In the next season, Goldlasky and SRU drew 15,000 fans to the Colosseum in Los Angeles (the Rose Bowl) for a game against California State University.
Following a two year run from Jack Olcutt, who took over for Godlasky in 1965, in which the team went 7-8-2, Bob DiSpirito took over the program in 1967.
DiSpirito quickly returned SRU to prominence, with future coach George Mihalik as his quarterback from 1970-1973, and changed the entire culture around the team.
“The only reason I became head coach here was because of coach DiSpirito,” Mihalik said. “I learned a tremendous amount from him. How to run a program, and how to have a family life while also having a football life. He helped me get this position.”
Winning 79 games over his 15-year coaching tenure, DiSpirito won three PSAC titles from 1972-1974. From 1971-1980, DiSpirito led SRU to a 66-30-3 record.
DiSpirito continued the tradition of traveling across the country for guest appearances against various schools. SRU played against Nicholls State in Louisiana, Pudget Sound in Washington and Texas A&I in Texas in 1972, 1973 and 1976, respectively.
The crown jewel, however, was the first game played at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In 1979, SRU played Shippensburg University in front of 61,143 fans, the largest crowd in D-II football history.
The Michigan connection, the most well-known amongst SRU’s obsession among Division I programs, began in 1959 when Michigan’s public announcer Steve Filipiak announced the SRU score in his rundown of Big-10 schools.
The reception from Michigan fans in the crowd was raucous. To this day, the announcement of the SRU score is usually the loudest applause barring a touchdown from the Wolverines.
According to Bruce Madej, Michigan’s former sports information director, Filipiak simply picked SRU because he thought the name was interesting.
Over the next few years, Michigan along with Texas, Stanford, North Carolina and other D-I programs began to announce the score of SRU games at halftime of its games. Michigan, however, was the loudest and most lasting “supporter” of SRU.
Originally stepping down in 1980, DiSpirito returned for one season in 1987 on an interim status to help SRU President Robert Aebersold in a time of need. According to Rock Athletics, he returned simply because of his passion for the university.
In 1987, DiSpirito groomed his protege Mihalik for the head coaching position before allowing him to fully take over in 1988.
“Coach DiSpirito called and said, ‘our offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach is taking a job elsewhere, would you be interested in coming back?’ And I came back and never left. I always wanted at some point to have a family and wanted my family to have roots. My two daughters, to this day, often thank me for not getting on the college football merry-go-round,” Mihalik said.
Mihalik started his career at SRU as the quarterback of DiSpirito’s PSAC winning teams in the early 1970s. He then spent 11 years as SRU’s quarterback coach and an additional season as the associate head coach—with 1976 spent as the lone season away while he served as a graduate assistant at the University of Kentucky.
Once taking over as head coach in 1988, Mihalik arguably made the greatest impact in the history of Rock sports.
In 28 years at the helm of Rock football, SRU won 197 games, nearly one-third of the current total of 601.
Continuing DiSpirito’s legacy of valuing the importance of building quality people over “winning at all costs”, Mihalik still left SRU as the most prolific coach in program history.
Mihalik led SRU to eight PSAC-West championships, including two back to back to back titles in 1997-1999 and 2013-2015. His teams also qualified for six NCAA D-II playoff berths.
At his peak, Mihalik led SRU to the NCAA D-II semifinals in 1998 during a 12-2 season. The next season, SRU climbed as high as No. 2 in the nation, finishing the season second in the country, while once again reaching the NCAA playoffs.
During 12 straight winning seasons between 1991 and 2003, SRU won 95 games. After a relatively mediocre stretch of play, by his lofty standards, between 2008 and 2012, Mihalik finished his final three seasons with a 30-8 record.
Mihalik ended his tenure at SRU with a 12-2 record and another trip deep in the NCAA playoffs. The 2015 season included a second consecutive PSAC title a national-best 17 game win streak.
Attributing a lot of his success to a great foundation of coaches and staff along with recruiting the “good guys” from western Pa., Mihalik felt as though his balance between football and academics set his program apart.
Despite being the fourth winningest coach in PSAC history, Mihalik never allowed academics to fall to the wayside. In fact, unlike almost any coach in college football, he earned his Ed. D. in safety management from West Virginia Univesity in 1986.
While coaching at SRU, he also served as a full-time staff member in the Safety Management department. Mihalik was instrumental in the forming of the bachelor of safety management at SRU.
“I valued my dual role as a professor and a head coach,” Mihalik said. “In recruiting, I’d say to the young man and their parents, ‘I won’t ask you to do anything I don’t do.’ I teach and prepare for class and that’s what he’s going to do. And we practice and play games.”
Under Mihalik, SRU continued the tradition of playing uncommon opponents. Thrice under Mihalik, his teams played in Florida.
In 1990, SRU played Central Florida at the Citrus Bowl in Miami, and in 1998, SRU played in the final game at Tampa Stadium against South Florida.
The final trip came in 2001 against Florida Atlantic University, a now D-I program, in the first-ever game for the Owls.
Mihalik handed the reins of the team to his long-time assistant Lutz following the 2015 season. Not unlike Mihalik’s transition from DiSpirito, the leap from the grizzled veteran coach to the up-and-coming young man went off without a hitch.
“Shawn had been a loyal assistant for me. He came here as a graduate assistant and he developed into a great coach and defensive coordinator. I thought for the stability of the program, he’s been here for 19 years and knows the traditions of Slippery Rock, he was it … he’s the one who knows the pluses of The Rock and the challenges. It was a natural fit and one that keeps me close to the program… although I don’t try to interfere in any way, shape or form,” Mihalik explained.
Following a ho-hum 7-4 start to his tenure with SRU, Lutz has improved upon each of his seasons.
In 2018, Lutz led SRU to a PSAC-West title and a D-II playoff berth. His 11-2 record ranks among the best seasons in program history.
The two-decade wait for Lutz, working almost every coaching position on the team, ultimately led him to be exactly where he wanted.
“I just kept working my way up and when coach [Mihalik] did finish, I wanted an opportunity to run my own program,” Lutz said.
Continuing the success in 2018, Lutz and his team have gotten off to one of the best starts in program history in 2019. The highest-scoring offense in the country and a veteran defense has led to a sort of “championship or bust” expectation around the team.
SRU has been fortunate, in recent seasons and in the history of the school, to have a team that competes for PSAC championships nearly every season, and Lutz emphasized how the friendships and relationships formed along the way have allowed the team to thrive.
“At the end of the day, football is important, but there are other aspects that are bigger,” Lutz said. “There’s life, there’s family and just having a balance between family and football means so much. I could be at a Power 5 school where I don’t value family and I don’t get to see my kids play at sporting events because the emphasis is all about pressure and winning. I value the importance of the family approach at this university.”
The intense pressure and demand to win haven’t been negative factors at SRU. They haven’t been a deterrent to winning because that balance between football and life has given SRU the secret recipe to success.
Life isn’t just about football. DiSpirito ingrained that in Mihalik who made sure Lutz knew it as well. However, when done right, it can be a huge reason why life at SRU is so good.
121 years later, with 601 wins in program history, Slippery Rock football is doing pretty well and Lutz couldn’t be happier.
While Mihalik misses the excitement from Saturday game days, he admitted the time off from Sunday to Friday might make up for it, but with the stadium named after him, he’ll never really be away from “his team”.
The chance for the 602nd win in program history arrives Saturday when SRU takes on Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania. Kickoff is scheduled for noon.