by BOB YORK
Mike Silipo got a little lucky Saturday—he didn’t get wet.
Perhaps it was because his players became mesmerized watching the final seconds tick away on the scoreboard. Maybe the Gatorade bucket was already empty. Then again, it’s quite possible that everyone opted to be on their best behavior, given the fact that Head of School Margarita Curtis was on the sidelines. Whatever the reason, it’s ok because it’s probably safe to say that being drenched in Gatorade never made it onto Mike Silipo’s “bucket list.” Ringing up his 200th victory certainly did, however.
The veteran Deerfield gridiron guru reached the coveted bicentenial plateau under the win column on Saturday when his Big Green team toppled archrival Hotchkiss, 24-13. It was Silipo’s 81st victory at the Academy. He chalked up his first 119 prep school wins during a 28-year career at Tabor before taking over the Big Green program in the fall of 1996 from the legendary Jim Smith.
“If I was any good, I would have done this four or five years ago,” quipped Silipo, after being presented with a commerative plaque from Curtis in recognition of his achievement. Then, after the applause from his staff, his players, their parents, and the 100 or so students in the stands had faded, Silipo shifted into a much more serious tone by adding, “I’ve been blessed my entire career to have been able to surround myself with outstanding coaches and tremendous student-athletes, and for that, I’m truly grateful.”
Later, after posing for pictures with family, players, and friends, Silipo was able to reflect a bit more on what close to a half-century of prowling the sidelines of prep school football games had come to mean to him.
“First of all, let me say that as far as I’m concerned, this (coaching) is the best job in the world,” said Silipo, who also tutors the varsity boys squash team during the winter. “To be able to get up every day and teach and coach the kinds of kids who attend schools such as Deerfield and Tabor, I feel very fortunate.”
Among Silipo’s 200 victories, two came during postseason play. His 2002 Deerfield squad defeated Hotchkiss in overtime, 21-14, to capture the Class A New England Prep School Athletic Conference crown.
The coach of that Hotchkiss squad was Dan Smith ’85, the same Bearcat mentor who suffered Saturday’s setback. Smith just happens to be the son of Jim Smith, who led Deerfield football to a 175-88-12 record during the 36 years prior to Silipo taking over the program.
“We’re always happy to help out Deerfield football in any way we can,” quipped Smith, following the game.
“Seriously though,” added the Deerfield grad, “Mike’s teams are always well coached and his kids always play hard, so you know you’re going to have your hands full whenever you go up against a Deerfield Academy football team.”
In 1993, meanwhile, Silipo helped guide Tabor past Suffield Academy by a 20-6 margin to ring up his initial Class A title.
As thrilling as an overtime victory can be, Tabor’s win over Suffield had to be something special for the Seawolves mentor. And that’s because it was Silipo’s son, Andy, who quarterbacked the team to victory that day. The younger Silipo made his dad proud by throwing for three touchdowns and then was presented with the game’s Most Valuable Player Award.
Silipo, who chalked up five undefeated seasons at Tabor, “but I’m still looking for my first one here,” has found himself either on or next to a football field just about his entire life. He played four years of varsity football as a wide receiver at Hobart College and wrapped up his career by earning All-Conference honors. He also played baseball and squash at Hobart, where he captured the New England Region Squash Championship in 1979.
While the meaning of the day wasn’t lost on any of his players, it probably meant more to the seniors on this year’s squad, such as tri-captain Connor Manson, who hails from Halifax, Nova Scotia.
“I’m just happy that I got a chance to be a part of all this,” said Manson. “Coach Silipo puts every ounce of himself into this program and I’m glad I had a chance to help give something back to him. In fact,” admitted the 6-3, 245-pound two-way tackle, “I had tears in my eyes when we lifted him up on our shoulders out there today. He’s taught us that if you play calm … work hard … and think about what you’re doing, everything will work out, and that’s just what we did today. We all knew how much this game meant to Coach Silipo, but we just put it out of our minds while we were out there on the field. Well,” added Manson, as a smile broke across his face, “at least until the final minute of the game.”
John Jackson, whose father (Class of ’79) and brother (Class of ’11) both played football at Deerfield, is one of the Big Green’s other tri-captains this fall (the third captain is Patrick Ononibaku ’14), and another huge fan of his football coach.
“He’s just amazing … he’s a great coach as well as a great guy,” said Jackson, also a three-year member of the varsity who was the Big Green’s leading rusher last season with 852 yards on 138 carries for a hefty 6.1 yards-per-carry average and ten touchdowns. “He just loves his players and his players love him in return.
“It’s meant a lot to both my brother and me to have had an opportunity to play for Coach Silipo,” said Jackson, who shared last year’s Tom Ashley Memorial Award, which is annually presented to the team MVP, with Billy Smith (Jim Smith’s grandson). “I couldn’t be happier for him … it’s a well-deserved feat and I’m just happy I could play a part in it.”
And Tri-Captain Patrick Ononibaku said, “Coach Silipo is a class act. He puts everything he has into our team and there is no one that has more passion for the game of football than he does. I am fortunate to have been able to play for Coach Silipo the past three years, and I am happy to be a part of this milestone in his career today.”
Assistant coaches Nick Albertson, Chip Davis, and Mark Ott have all played key roles in Silipo’s climb up the ladder of victories, especially Albertson and Davis, who both served as assistants to Smith prior to Silipo’s arrival.
“Mike was the Jim Smith of Tabor Academy,” said Albertson, who has been a part of the Deerfield family since 1978.
“Both Nick and I went down to Tabor in June for a dinner that they held for Mike,” remembered Davis. “The school wanted to honor him for what he’d done at Tabor as well as the anticipation of him earning his 200th win in the fall.
“Then, during the ride home, Nick and I began thinking about this 2013 team,” added Davis. “We knew we’d be quick and talented at the skill positions, but small up front … probably the smallest line in the league. Then, we just sort of looked at each other and figured after what Tabor had just done for Mike, we darn well better get him those two wins.
“Now,” quipped Davis, “the pressure’s off.”