By Greg Gielczyk
That, and his 400th career victory accumulated over a 51-year career as an assistant under some heavyweight head coaches at various colleges.
It came after the 14th-ranked Wildcats had defeated Auburn, 35-19, in the Citrus Bowl on Friday, Jan. 1, 2021 to give the Scottville native a stylish farewell.
Afterward, while speaking at a press conference via Zoom, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hankwitz said it was his first Gatorade bath he’d ever experienced.
He added that it was also his best shower.
“You know, I mean, it’s been a very emotional year, but particularly the last couple weeks,” Hankwitz said. “I’m still having a hard time coping with it.
“But, it means the world to me when they show you that kind of respect. I just want them to know how much respect I have for them in return.”
Hankwitz, 73, a 1966 graduate of Mason County Central High School and a charter member of the Mason County Sports Hall of Fame in 2005, finished his career with a 400-205-7 record … which included a couple stints as an interim head coach at Arizona and Colorado.
As an All-Conference running back at Mason County Central, Hankwitz helped lead the Spartans to West Michigan Conference football championships in consecutive seasons, 1964 and 1965, the program’s first since 1932.
An accomplished basketball player, Hankwitz led the Spartans in scoring in 1966 when they made it to the state semifinal. He owned the school records for points in a career (1,312), season (521) and game (42). And he could dunk.
He also won four letters in track and field, qualifying for state and setting a school record in the high hurdles as a senior.
Despite his achievements in basketball, Hankwitz received scholarship offers in football and eventually signed with the University of Michigan of the Big Ten, where he played linebacker and tight end.
Later, he became the Wolverines’ primary kicker and it was in that capacity that he played on the nationally-ranked teams in 1968 and 1969.
As a senior, Hankwitz traveled with the team to the Rose Bowl after sharing the Big Ten title.
That was after Bo Schembechler was hired to coach Michigan, and it was he who influenced Hankwitz to become a football coach after he graduated.
“When he came in, he wanted to meet with every player to get to know them,” Hankwitz related. “Wanted to know a little bit about you, you know.
“He asked me ‘What are you going to do when you graduate?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m going to coach.’ I was thinking of basketball initially, because I liked basketball, and there’s a lot of teamwork.
“He goes, ‘Well, have you ever thought of being a graduate assistant? You’re helping us coach. You’re breaking down film, you’re scouting. You’re learning football thoroughly.’
“Well, I thought ‘That sounds interesting.’ So, I did it. And I was hooked. My freshman year they allowed us to play two freshman games.
“Then, by the time I became graduate assistant, you could play JV games. So, we’re doing all the stuff a grad assistant does, breaking down film, making scouting reports, coaching the demonstration team.
“But, we’re also coaching the JV team, getting them ready to play a game and calling plays. That was a blast.”
Hankwitz still had 1 year left as a graduate assistant and had decided to see if any opportunities developed, and if nothing did, he would look for a high school coaching job.
But, after the 1972 season, Jim Young, who had come to Michigan with Schembechler to be the Wolverines’ defensive coordinator, landed the head coaching job at Arizona and offered Hankwitz an assistant’s position there.
So, the two of them left Michigan in December of 1972.
It was the first of several different stops along the way in his long career as an assistant and coaching in 25 bowl games. Hankwitz coached in every major New Year’s Day bowl games — Rose Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Fiesta Bowl, Orange Bowl, Cotton Bowl Classic, Outback Bowl and Capital One Bowl.
Playing in the Rose Bowl his senior year was special. “That was a big deal for a kid from Scottville,” he said. “That stood out.”
So did winning a national championship at Colorado in 1990.
Hankwitz spent his early years coaching as a positions coach, such as defensive backs, linebackers or defensive ends.
“Then, I became a coordinator, I coached a position, but oversaw the whole defense, called the plays and stuff,” Hankwitz said.
“I had different responsibilities that went along. I had interviews for different head coaching jobs. Looking back, I wish that I had done more to prepare myself for it.
“But, when it didn’t happen, I just said I was going to be the best coordinator I can be.”
As a defensive coordinator, his defenses were ranked in the nation’s top 25 nearly 20 times and have had 36 or more wins over ranked programs. And he’s coached numerous All-Americans and those who were selected Defensive Players of the
Year and over a dozen team Most Valuable Players.
The game has changed since Hankwitz played and coached.
“Young men seem to be maturing earlier,” Hankwitz said. “You have 300-pound linemen in high school. When I was a senior at Michigan in ’69, Dan Dierdorf was the biggest lineman we had and he was 260. And he was a lean 260.
“Now, almost every college lineman is 300. And there not fat kids. They’re just big kids. As the game changed, the offenses changed, the defenses had to change and come up with new ways to stop them, and new ways to defend them.
“So, it was always fun. I was fortunate that I was with some great people, a lot of Hall of Fame coaches. You don’t do something 51 years and it’s work. I never felt like it was work.
“It was like I was still playing. You’re still competing. You didn’t think about the hours, you just wanted to enjoy what you were doing.”
But, now it’s time for Hankwitz’s other passion … history. Specifically, the lumbering era in Scottville and the role railroads had in it.
He’s acquired thousands of photos, postcards through purchase and trade amongst his fellow collectors.
But, he still has pangs when he thinks about his football career.
“The thing you miss the most is the people, being around them,” Hankwitz said.
“The coaches were great to work with and the players.
“You had a great support group all the time. You just enjoyed being around everybody. The X’s and O’s, I did that long enough. I’m okay with not doing that again.
“Now, I’ve got time to pursue other interests, like history and doing things. It’s interesting, the ebb and flow of retirement. It’s all unchartered territory.”
He says his wife of 34 years, Cathy, doesn’t mind his hobby of researching history.
“It keeps me out of her hair,” Hankwitz joked. “I was always working, so she was used to me being gone a lot.”
This is a revised version of the story appeared in the Oct. 6-Nov. 7 issue of the Fresh Water Reporter and is being printed here with permission. (Photo Courtesy/Northwestern University