It has been the kind of night that would send many football coaches into a frenzy. Trouble started well before the game, when the Central Dauphin High School team bus was late departing from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, for the 45-minute drive to Gettysburg High. Then the driver got lost, leaving the players—many of them young and inexperienced—little time to warm up on this chilly September night. Now Gettysburg, which Central Dauphin beat handily last year, is driving for a touchdown that will tie the game with a little more than a minute to go. And one of Central Dauphin’s best players is injured in a painful pileup of bodies.
One imagines that these setbacks would be all the more frustrating to Central Dauphin’s coach, George Chaump. After all, a mere six years ago, he was the head coach of the U.S. Naval Academy football team. The Navy buses didn’t get lost. Each Saturday, Chaump’s players—hand-picked recruits—took the field before 30,000 or so fans in a stadium worth tens of millions of dollars. Television commentators analyzed every play and Chaump’s every move, making a game of mishaps seem tragic and important—not like the comedy of errors playing out on the high school field here.
But the glory days don’t seem to weigh on Chaump’s mind as he stands on the sidelines, watching the players with a Zen-like focus; he’s calm as he strides across the field to help the injured player back to his feet. The truth is, say friends and family, Chaump coaches high school football with as much intensity as he did his college teams. “There isn’t as much glory, but he definitely has the same passion for the game,” says Melissa Chaump, one of his 27-year-old twin daughters.
“As long as he’s coaching football at any level, he’s happy,” adds his wife, Connie, who has missed only one of his home games in their 35 years of marriage. “He loves to coach, and he loves to teach.”
Chaump is a high school coach whose career has come full circle—in the process teaching him and those around him that it’s the job, and not the glamour, that matters.
Chaump got his first shot at the big time in 1968. Legendary Ohio State University coach Woody Hayes, who often recruited players from Pennsylvania, spotted him on the sidelines at John Harris High in Harrisburg. Chaump was in his first job out of college, but he had built a 39-game winning streak. Hayes asked Chaump to join his staff, and the young coach, who had long dreamed of working at the college level, eagerly signed on.
After several years with Hayes at Ohio State and a few years as an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Chaump got his first college head coaching job, at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in southwestern Pennsylvania, and led the team to its first winning season in 20 years. Five years later, Marshall University in Martinsburg, West Virginia, hired him to rebuild its program at a time when it was low on talent and morale—the result of a 1970 plane crash that had killed players and fans. Marshall posted winning records each of Chaump’s four years there, and the team won its first Southern Conference championship and a trip to the Division I-AA title game.
In 1990, the Naval Academy plucked Chaump from Marshall to work similar miracles with its football team, which hadn’t had a winning season since 1982. But Chaump couldn’t turn things around. His backers say he was handed an impossible task at Navy—pleasing a school that wanted instant results. To make matters worse, the academy at the time was hit by a major cheating scandal involving 30 students, including six football players.
After five seasons and a dismal 14-41 record, Chaump was fired. The coach has often been asked to offer details about his dismissal and the academy— afterward, reporters lingered on his doorstep in Annapolis late into the night—but he talks little about it, saying only that he was frustrated with the school’s inner workings and changes in administration. Whatever the problems at Navy, Chaump for the first time felt the sting of failing in the big time. In 1997, sports writer John Feinstein released a best-selling book, Civil Wars, about the Army-Navy football rivalry and sharply criticized Chaump. Feinstein claimed the coach repeatedly hired and fired his assistants and moved players in and out of positions—flux that hurt Navy’s morale. (Neither Chaump nor his family has read the entire book, but they dismiss its allegations.)
After Navy, Chaump suddenly found himself, at 59, a coach without a team. It was a strange position for someone who ate, slept, and breathed football, a man who was constantly sketching x’s and o’s on scraps of paper. Football was such a part of his life that family vacations always included long detours to college stadiums. Most of the clothes in his daughters’ wardrobes were the color of whatever team their father was coaching. Though Chaump immediately began searching for a new job with a college or pro team, first one year passed, then another.
He was supporting his family by hosting sports seminars and training camps when he heard that the football team at Central Dauphin High, a school of 1,800 students in the same city where he’d started his career 40 years ago, needed a coach. There was little prestige associated with the position—the team was typically not a contender in its division, and attendance at games was down. “I wasn’t really certain I would want to come back,” Chaump recalls, but he decided that he was through proving anything to himself or others. He simply wanted to coach again. So Chaump returned home to Harrisburg and to high school football.
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s state capital, is a blue-collar town. Here, students tend to stick close to home; they’re eager to get married and have families. Many of the students Chaump coaches at Central Dauphin are children of his former pupils at John Harris; one of his assistant coaches is the son of one of his former assistants at Harris.
It took Chaump just one year to whip the Central Dauphin team into shape: It’s made the state playoffs three out of the four seasons since. Before Chaump arrived, the school was lucky to get 3,000 people to attend a Friday night game. Now, at least 8,000 or 9,000 people pack the stands, many of them fans or former pupils of Chaump. “He is a treasure and a legend,” says Kathy Stone, head of the local boosters’ club. “When people realized he was coming here, there was tremendous excitement, not just because of his experience, but because he’s been here before.”
During the August through November football season, Chaump is rarely at home, working seven days a week. After teaching math and coaching during the day, he scouts other teams, completes administrative work, and watches football tapes until the early hours of the mornings. And he expects his assistants to do the same. During games, Chaump doesn’t get excited or show much emotion, focusing instead on the other teams’ formations and plays and plotting his team’s counter moves and strategies. His assistants joke that sometimes he’s watching so closely that he doesn’t notice his own players—even when they are standing directly in front of him. Though his colleagues rib Chaump about this, they agree his intensity has taken the team far. He doesn’t necessarily have the strongest or most talented players, says one; he “just coaches the hell out of them.”
There are, of course, trade-offs to coaching in high school. He can’t recruit players—he simply works with who he gets. And while a college coach focuses exclusively on football, Chaump handles many administrative details of Central Dauphin’s athletics department and teaches several math classes each year to earn the bulk of his pay.
But upon his return to Harrisburg, Chaump rediscovered the many pleasures of high school ball. He speaks enthusiastically about how, sometimes, a sophomore with seemingly little potential will suddenly blossom into an outstanding player as he grows both physically and mentally. “You get a strong sense of satisfaction seeing the maturing process take place,” he says. “You miss that at the college level.” And in Harrisburg, he’s a local celebrity who can’t walk into the Colonial Park Diner after a game without being recognized and congratulated by customers and waitresses—the kind of small-town appreciation he never experienced at Navy.
Chaump has made few changes in his approach to the game. He is an old-style disciplinarian who demands promptness, hard work, and dedication to the team. He occasionally skirmishes with his students and players, but they also respect his meticulousness and work ethic. “He genuinely likes kids, and the kids want to do well for George,” says Richard Mazzatesta, Central Dauphin’s principal. And Chaump is happy to mine his connections to help his college-bound players. He recruited a former Oakland Raiders player, Tom Robsock, as an assistant coach, and he frequently calls college recruiters to take a look at his players with scholarship potential. “I think he’s a great coach, and I’m just glad I had the opportunity to play for him,” says Central Dauphin’s quarterback Bryson Lewis.
Football parables permeate Chaump’s conversations and even his math classes. “Sometimes you are a better man if you rise up and win than if you keep winning and winning and winning,” he tells a third-period class struggling with fractions and probability the week of the game against Gettysburg High.
Perhaps that’s a philosophy Chaump developed as a college football coach, but he sees it play out for his high school students on this September night. After Chaump helps the injured player to his feet and the game resumes, Central Dauphin recovers a Gettysburg fumble and hangs on to its touchdown lead for the remaining seconds of the game.
It’s another win for Chaump, 34-27.
A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 2001 edition of Teacher