It could have been a lot worse for the football program at Trumbull Avenue and Tartar Drive.
A day after Wayne State’s improbable playoff run abruptly ended in the Division II championship game Dec. 17, coach Paul Winters received a call everyone was expecting. It was officials from the University of Akron on the other end.
But what wasn’t expected was how late the call arrived. Without much pretense, the caravan of Akron Zips announced they were halfway to Detroit and would like to meet Winters over dinner deep into Sunday, WSU Director of Athletics Rob Fournier said.
Fournier, who had just adjourned from an informal meeting with Winters, said there was no indication the Zips’ athletic director Tom Wistrcill had contacted Winters, let alone having offered him a job, that day.
“From my understanding from Paul, he didn’t even know they were coming,” said Fournier who saw Winters dismiss a phone call he got during their conversation. But the subject came up, he said acknowledging Wistrcill had asked for permission to contact Winters weeks ago.
Moments later, when The South End interviewed Winters, he said: “I’ve heard from ‘em. I haven’t been offered anything, yet. I have no decision as of today, Probably have one tomorrow.”
Hours later, the Akron officials offered Winters, the former hall-of-fame Zips running back and assistant coach, their football head coaching position. The job became available when UA fired Rob Lanello just two seasons after the Zips chose him over Winters. But this time, the Warriors’ head coach owned the choice; so he slept on it.
This was news to Fournier who remained in the dark until the next morning. Winters walked into his office slightly tardy for a 9 a.m. meeting the two had planned.
“Basically, he told me (everything),” Fournier said. “It was in that conversation that he said to me that he had made up his mind to stay at Wayne State.”
Winters, who makes $150,000 this season, according to Crain’s Detroit Business, likely turned down a significant raise had he gone to a Division I program. Former Zips coach Lanello had a $300,000 annual salary.
“Akron was dangling a lot of money, that’s for sure,” Fournier said without revealing details.
When asked whether Wayne State could come close to matching Akron’s offer, he said:
“I could never see myself walking into President (Alan) Gilmour’s office, and saying, ‘Hey we’ve got a million dollars we owe our football coach and we need to pay him off because he wasn’t successful.’ Different schools, no disrespect, have different philosophies and different priorities. Paul fits within in our priorities and he fits within our mission.”
Akron’s Lanello, for instance, still has three seasons remaining on his initial contract.
Needless to say, relief and exhilaration filled the WSU athletic director of 11 years.
“It was almost as high as you were about playing a national championship, (then) to consider losing somebody with the character and quality of Paul Winters would have been as extreme the other way.”
What Wayne State retains is the best coach in its historically bad 94-year existence. Having finished his eighth season, Winters has already eclipsed the school record for wins (47, previously 42) and led the greatest class of players (35-14 four-year record) to a national championship game.
Fournier knew this, and even before Akron had fired its coach a new contract extension was waiting for Winters on his desk, “regardless of what anybody … was going to do.”
But the coach’s extension remained untouched during the remarkable playoff run.
“There was a lot of other things to be focused on, mainly winning football games. … He never wanted it to be about him, and he didn’t want it to be a distraction,” Fournier said. “It wasn’t like I was going pull the offer off the table.”
With Winters now installed as the face of a program, and arguably of a university (Winters’ said he dislikes this notion) through 2016, the Warriors are heading into an unprecedented off-season with an unprecedented pride in the community.
For the first time in a long while (perhaps in Wayne State history), people beat their chests and said, “I was there, I went to school there. That’s my school,” Winters said.
Fournier said: “Paul Bear Bryant said it best -- it’s tough to have a pep rally around a math class. By contrast, you could just see the spirit and enthusiasm that it brought to the campus, to the community. People were caught up in that magical five weeks.”
Winters and Fournier have been steadfast in their vision for the football program and WSU these past eight years. The on-field rewards are obvious, but the off-field monetary and prestige rewards could be even more important for institution.
“If you build a great football program it’s gonna help the university,” Winters said. “It’s gonna help the university more than it understands. Maybe now it will see that.”
If President Gilmour’s Dec. 19 mass email alerting WSU to the news is any indication: message received.
Winters decision probably shocked the Zips. Akron had announced that it would reveal its next coach on social media Dec. 18, a day after they contacted the Wayne State coach. Well, Dec. 18 came and went, and it wasn’t until Dec. 22 when UA officially unveiled Terry Bowden as its new coach.
Bowden is the son of legendary Florida State coach Bobby Bowden. Terry Bowden most recently coached for Division II University of North Alabama for three seasons, each time taking them to the playoffs. This year UNA was knocked off by Delta State in the second round.
UNA’s home stadium, Braly Municipal Stadium, is the site of the Division II National Championship where Wayne State played Dec. 17.