Players honor beloved former Utica High coach

By: Timothy Pontzer | Shelby - Utica News | Published September 18, 2017

 Former Utica High football coach Bob Dilday is carried off the field following a victory in 1967. Dilday helmed the Chieftains from 1963 to 1971, notching undefeated seasons in 1969 and 1970.

Former Utica High football coach Bob Dilday is carried off the field following a victory in 1967. Dilday helmed the Chieftains from 1963 to 1971, notching undefeated seasons in 1969 and 1970.

Photo provided by David Hall

UTICA — For many, the connection between coach and player can last long past the final whistle.

This is particularly true in football, where often those in charge serve as a mentor and father figure to those they teach.

Bob Dilday is an example. An accomplished leader on the gridiron for several decades, Dilday coached hundreds of student-athletes in a career that spanned five schools in two states. He oversaw the Utica High football program from 1963 to 1971, guiding the Chieftains to back-to-back undefeated seasons in 1969 and 1970.

Now 90, Dilday was joined by more than 60 of his former players at a reunion Sept. 16, celebrating a long life of leadership and love on and off the field.

“It means a lot; I sure appreciate it,” Dilday said of the gathering. “It’s just great to have these memories. When I coached, I didn’t care what color jersey they were wearing — they were all family to me. I’m so proud of these kids, to see them go through life.”

Despite many of his former players now having grandchildren to bring to the party, Dilday insisted on calling them “his kids” over and over. He considers his legacy to not be anything ever recorded on a scoreboard, but what happened after the games were over.

“It’s not about me at all — it’s about seeing these kids succeed in life,” Dilday said. “Most went on to college or business. Many are married, being good husbands and great fathers to their kids. That’s what pleases me. I love them all. It doesn’t make a difference if you’re from a 2-7 team or 9-0 — they all mean so much to me.”

Dilday’s wife, Margaret, also was a guest of honor at the event. Married in 1951, the couple is still going strong, living in Shelby Township for the past eight years.

“I’ve never found anyone I’d trade her for,” Dilday said, laughing. “I don’t know why she put up with me, but I think I also deserve a Purple Heart for sticking around. She loves sports even more than I do, and she’s just been amazing since the day we met.”

Margaret Dilday called the reunion a nice example of something that is quite common.

“Following him around has been fun, and we’ve made the rounds,” she said. “What’s wonderful is these people stay in touch. Not a week goes by where we don’t have a player of his visit. It’s really something; they bring their children and grandchildren. At Christmas, we get so many cards and presents from all over. To us, they’re still our kids.”

Born and raised in Tennessee, Dilday moved to Michigan during his sophomore year of high school. After a standout athletic career at Lansing Sexton, he graduated in 1946. Afterward, he served in the Marine Corps in the Pacific, returning home to attend Michigan State University, where he played both quarterback and center field for the Spartans football and baseball squads.

After graduating from MSU in 1953, he began his career on the sidelines as a varsity football coach, first helming a program in the Upper Peninsula at St. Ignace High. Stints at Brighton High and DeWitt High followed before taking over the Chieftains.

“I fell in love with the Great Lakes,” Dilday said. “I didn’t like desk jobs very much. I liked being the underdog, having everybody against me. I liked helping build a program and making them a winner and then finding another team to do it with.”

Dilday also spent time directing from the dugout, winning a baseball state championship at Utica in 1968. He praised the community for providing quality players on the field and a great atmosphere of support off it.

“Utica kids were great,” Dilday said. “While I didn’t like the meetings and teachers lounge, I loved the practice field. I loved showing kids how to love the game. Utica had some great parents. You couldn’t ask for better people, and it showed in their kids. I guess they liked a hillbilly coaching them.”

David Hall helped to plan out the reunion event. Hall served as a fullback, tailback and quarterback for Dilday from 1968 to 1970, fondly remembering both the demeanor and intelligence of his coach.

“He had remarkable wisdom on offense, and he had a keen perspective of the game itself,” Hall explained. “He was always able to make great halftime adjustments. He could adjust to beat any defense. Now, if you ever messed up, he let you know, but he was always cracking jokes too.”

Hall recalled how Dilday personally played a huge role in the success he had early in life.

“In eighth grade I was a size 8 in shoes, but I had to wear size 12 because it was the only thing I had,” Hall said. “Dilday found out and bought me shoes, not making a big deal about it. He saw me play then too and said, ‘You’re going to play college football.’ Neither of my parents graduated high school, and it was so off my radar. But he kept on me; he was like a second father to me.”

Hall went on to play at Central Michigan University, graduating in 1974. Along with fellow Utica grad Doug Reinas, the two former teammates planned out the gathering after a recent visit with Dilday, hosting the afternoon at Reinas’ home.

“One day Doug and I visited Coach, and afterwards thought we should have a little barbecue for him so other guys who hadn’t visited in a while could see him,” Hall said. “But then I said to Doug, ‘Why little?’ and we decided to invite every player that ever played for him.”

Players from across the state and country answered Hall’s call, and those who couldn’t make it sent countless cards and emails. In addition to those from Utica, Brighton, DeWitt and St. Ignace, several players made the trek from a high school in Tennessee where Dilday coached for several years.

“To think this many people still care about me, it is just a blessing,” Dilday said. “We had a reunion with the Brighton teams from the ’50s, and the kids wanted to go out in the yard and get in their positions. They were still talking about how great they were. We had to help several guys out of their positions because they couldn’t get up. Stuff like that is special.”

Dilday was not the only longtime coach at the cookout. Bob Lantzy, the current Rochester Hills Stoney Creek head man, was also in attendance. Prior to taking over the Cougars, Lantzy amassed over 300 victories at Utica Eisenhower, helming the program for 41 seasons.

Lantzy credits Dilday for starting his career, as he served as an assistant at Utica after finishing his playing career at Northern Michigan University.

“I had a great experience working under him — we were undefeated in 1969,” Lantzy remembered. “It was my only experience as an assistant coach, and it was the greatest experience of my career. I still use a lot of the stuff he taught me.”

After the 1971 season, Dilday stepped down from his post at Utica to become the athletic director at the newly created Utica Eisenhower. With an inaugural football team needing a coach, Dilday tapped Lantzy for the job.

“I would’ve preferred to stay an assistant under him longer, especially the part where Bob took all the responsibility of winning and losing,” Lantzy said with a laugh. “He was an incredible coach, very demanding, and he put the fear of God into every kid who ever played for him. But it was clear he loved them. He was so different. He had that Southern twang, and it was very refreshing.”

Lantzy called Dilday a true friend and one of the smartest football minds he’s ever come across. He said that without him, he would have never enjoyed a successful career on the sidelines.

“Lantzy is a class act, and watching him do well makes me so happy,” Dilday said. “He’s a great, great coach and a great example of what I tried to be. He thinks just as much of his Stoney teams as those great Ike teams he had, no matter how many wins either earned. That’s what it’s all about.”