PORTVILLE — Gary Swetland has always been an avid outdoorsman. So on the eve of making an announcement that would be life-changing, the longtime Portville football coach took a personal day earlier this month and headed to Allegany State Park.
“I was way clear to hell and gone, and my mind’s abuzz,” he recalled.
While enjoying a relaxing hike with his son, Chase, Swetland came upon a deer antler shed on the snowy terrain.
“I’ve never found an antler shed in my life,” he said, “and I found that antler shed and in the most ridiculous of circumstances. I mean, if somebody was going hunting for antler sheds, you would not go into a blizzard-like forest.
“It was the kind of thing that said to me, ‘Gary, it’s time.’”
The following afternoon, Swetland met with his players and informed them he was resigning after 26 seasons as Portville Central School’s head coach.
“Lots of times if you do this too long, you wind up dead, divorced, broken or broke,” Swetland said, “and I have many colleagues, many people for whom I have tremendous respect, who finished their careers dead, divorced, broken or broke. I’m 57 years old this year, and I’ve been doing it a long time. I think I’m healthy, youthful in spirit, mature, competent, capable, proven … I’m all the right things.”
Swetland also believes the program is in an appropriate place for a change. That’s despite the past two years — 0-8 and 1-7 seasons — being “as challenging and as difficult as ever happened in Portville.” However, 17 varsity letterwinners will return. The school’s modified team went undefeated last year.
“We have fought, battled, struggled, gotten through it, and, by God, if the next year’s coach, if all you do is get them on the bus on time, you’ll be OK,” said Swetland, who will continue to teach government and economics and coach track and field.
“We are poised to be a factor in Western New York football. Given that, it’s probable that youthful, enthusiastic, energetic and refreshing leadership is just what the community and the kids could benefit from.
“It’s the right thing to do, I’m sure of it. And I’m getting the signs,” he added with a chuckle.
Swetland steps away with a 134-96-1 record. He was the Big 30’s longest-tenured and winningest active coach. The 1979 PCS graduate long since surpassed his high school mentor, Bob Connell, atop Portville’s career wins list.
During his tenure, Swetland brought five teams to what’s now New Era Field. His 2003 squad won the program’s first Section 6 title, prevailing 7-6 over Cleveland Hill in the Class C final at the Buffalo Bills’ home.
He believes that group had the talent to win it all — the Panthers lost the following week in the Far West Regionals to eventual state champion Caledonia-Mumford by a 12-7 score.
In over a quarter-century of coaching, Swetland had only four losing seasons.
But for Swetland, coaching football was about more than coaching football. Full-disclosure, I played for him. But the majority of others who did so would agree. Odds are, their character and adult lives were shaped by him, too.
“I’d like to think that I gave everything to kids that might not be talented and might not be born to play football as the most talented and the most blessed with football skills that ever came along,” Swetland said. “I lost sleep for kids that would never be good football players as much as the ones that were going to be great.”
Upon announcing his resignation, Swetland wrote a four-page letter to his players. Among the many thank yous and memories shared were words of wisdom, including his four core values for which he wishes to be remembered: Be on time, do what’s right, do the best you can, and treat everyone with respect. They’re the keys to success in any endeavor, he said.
“We all have certain talents and certain skills,” Swetland said. “If you can put a work ethic that matches or exceeds that talent, you’re in the right direction.”
He’s always believed that the work ethic instilled through being part of a football program can be beneficial elsewhere in life. Take, for instance, Portville’s Bigger Faster Stronger strength, speed and agility training sessions held at 6 a.m. year-round.
“I can’t tell you how many times in my career I’ve had kids tell me they went off to college and they had 6 a.m. workouts or they went in the military and they had 6 a.m. workouts, and they said it was so easy for them, when their peers were (whining) up a storm,” Swetland said. “If you have a higher work ethic than the people around you, at some point, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
“I hope in the eyes of the boys who played my whole was greater than the sum of my parts.”
Although his 2003 squad was unquestionably his highest-achieving, Swetland said last year’s team was among his favorites to instruct. The 2017 Panthers won only one game and lost seven by an average score of 49-6.
“Honest to God, and it’s not because it’s just the most recent team,” he said. “I have a hard time saying enough good about the teachability, the workability, the purpose, the spirit, the attitude, the effort in the face of … you couldn’t have been a varsity player on this football team last year and looked at the films of your opponent and thought, ‘We’re gonna kill ‘em.’
“It was as challenging a group of boys, for victory on the field, that you would ever have, but on the other hand, there were victories secured in that team that maybe you have to be an old coach to see.
“I’ve taken some ribbing — I’m probably the last guy to wear a shirt and tie to a football game. But there would be no overdressing for my respect and admiration for these players.”
Not coaching next fall will certainly be an adjustment.
“Listen, I’ve done it so long, there’s no way you could not miss something,” Swetland said.
To conclude my interview, I asked my former coach to recite the prayer he’d say in the locker room minutes before every game. I wanted to have his message, one mostly of inspiration and camaraderie, on the record:
Each in your own words, each in your own way, pray not for victory, for if God is willing, we will. Pray that no member of either team is hurt or injured in competition today. And pray that each and every one of you can find 110 percent of your body and of your mind and of your spirit towards doing this on behalf of Portville football. Good luck, God bless you, I love you guys. Let’s go!
At the end, Swetland broke down — the only time during our hour-long conversation in a quiet classroom.
“When you say that,” the teary coach noted, “there’s a moment there when you break that huddle and go out there, boy, everybody’s ready.”
But amid the emotion, Swetland forgot a line that always stood out: Thank God every day for the privilege to be a football player here at Portville. Because I thank God every day for the privilege to be your coach.
(Shawn Campbell, a Times Herald sports writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)