The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

College football coach calls a timeout to announce his retirement, then walks off the field

Denny Douds, pictured here in 2016, retired last weekend after 44 years as head coach of the East Stroudsburg Warriors. (Bob Shank/ESU Athletics)
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Denny Douds was a 33-year-old assistant coach at East Stroudsburg University when the head coach went on sabbatical, then decided to retire. The school’s athletic director put the young assistant in charge of the football team without an interview.

Douds told his wife they’d only stay in Monroe County, Pa., for a season or two, until a bigger coaching job opened up. That was in 1974.

He vowed years ago to stop coaching when the job stopped being so much fun. Saturday, the time came.

East Stroudsburg trailed Ohio Dominican by 13 with four seconds to play. Douds had used all three of his timeouts. He asked the official for a fourth, knowing it’d be a penalty.

“I know that’s not allowed,” Douds told him. “That’s okay. I’m retiring.”

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As the official scurried away to talk to the head referee, Douds pulled out a whistle — he doesn’t typically bring one to games, but took one along for this occasion — and blew it to call his team over.

“Gang, I am stepping aside as head coach,” he said. “I’ll still teach and fundraise for the university, for the athletic program. I love all you guys.”

He turned around and walked off the field, his team still in shock behind him. When he arrived on the other sideline, referees restarted the clock. The teams shook hands. Douds walked out the gate to the visiting locker room, and then to his car, and drove home.

“I’ve had a smile on my face ever since,” he said.

He told the university president of his plans last Wednesday before leaving work. That night, he took his wife out to dinner, and when they got home, he sat down with her on the couch.

“Honey,” he said, “it’s that time.”

Douds had only ever wanted to be a football coach as a child in Indiana, Pa. In middle school, a teacher asked the students what each of them wanted to be when they grew up. He looked around the classroom at his friends and saw the son of the local football coach and the son of the local basketball coach.

“I looked at those guys and said, ‘Those dads have a great time when they leave home in the morning. They don’t go to work. They go have some fun all day. I want to be a football coach,’” he said.

He played guard and nose tackle at Slippery Rock University, the only college he knew that offered a physical education degree, then immediately jumped into coaching. By the time he was in charge at East Stroudsburg, he already gained a reputation for developing players into coaches and young coaches into veterans ready to lead their own teams.

Penn State Coach James Franklin played quarterback for Douds and coached defensive backs in 1996. Harry Hiestand, the Chicago Bears offensive line coach, was on Douds’s staff from 1981 to 1985. Pat Flaherty, now in charge of the Jacksonville Jaguars' offensive line, coached that position group at East Stroudsburg in 1980 and 1981.

Associate head coach Jimmy Terwilliger will take over the program and coach the Warriors' final two road games.

Douds planned his retirement announcement for months. He saw a basketball coach years ago retire by walking off the bench and into the locker room with a couple minutes left in the game.

“I thought, if you have to go, that’s the way to go,” he said. And Saturday, ESU’s senior day, felt right.

He talked to his brother, a retiree in Florida, months before about what it was like to stop working.

He scouted parking spaces, looking for one close to the stadium so he could make a quick getaway. Event staff locked the gate to the visitors' locker room, the one Douds planned to exit, after halftime. So he dispatched a graduate assistant in the middle of the third quarter to make sure that gate was open.

He planned to leave right at the end of the third quarter, but his team was down by 31 points. He figured he couldn’t leave them in the middle of a blowout. Then his Warriors scored two touchdowns, then two more. As long as East Stroudsburg kept the score close, he couldn’t waste a timeout just to walk off the field.

So he created an extra timeout in the game’s final seconds and sowed chaos on the field. The head referee stopped the clock as a courtesy and did not flag East Stroudsburg for the extra timeout. Ohio Dominican’s coaches lined up to shake hands instead of signaling in a final play. The game’s broadcasters tried and failed to explain the game’s stoppage.

“What is he doing? Now he’s out in the middle of the field,” said the color commentator.

“I don’t know what this is,” replied the play-by-play man. “That looks like a man who has walked off this field for the final time.”

Little did they know.

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