Every Wednesday is pizza night for the Geiler family. It’s been that way since 2002, and there are no exceptions. To Independence football coach Bill Geiler, one of the few things more important to him than football is his family, so he makes sure every Wednesday evening at 6 p.m., the family is gathered for pizza.
This is the last season that Geiler and, for that matter, his entire family will be roaming the sidelines for the Patriots, marking the end of an era. Geiler said it’s time for someone else to step in, and he’s stepping down as coach with no regrets.
Geiler has worked in football since the mid-1970s, and he’s been at Independence every season but one since 2000. He said his body’s breaking down, he’ll eventually need knee replacement surgery and many of his assistant coaches are the same ages, or younger, than his daughters – 33-year-old Bri and Kelly, who turns 31 in November.
Football has been a way of life for the Geiler family. Candy, his wife of 36 years, has always been by his side. And his grandkids – Harper, Ava and Finn – fittingly call him “Coach.”
“I just love football – it is what’s in me,” Geiler said. “It’s not a hobby, and early on (Candy) and I had to have a conversation. I let her know this is not a hobby – this is what I do, this is my life. At that point, she understood.”
Candy said she bought in right away, and made a pact to be a football family.
“It was hard, especially in our young life, because during football I have a lot of responsibilities,” she said. “I do everything else, so you have to be committed to that because it will ruin your marriage.”
Consequently, the kids grew up knowing no other way. Not that they would change their upbringing.
“It was a part of our lives from the very beginning,” Bri said. “My sister and I were kind of like the girls from ‘Remember the Titans.’ Every summer we were a part of everything. We went to the weight room, and every Friday night it was just a given that it was a football Friday night.”
Love for the game
Geiler grew up in Metuchen, N.J., and started his sports career as a baseball player, mostly because his dad, William A. Geiler, was a talented player who spent time in the New York Yankees’ farm system.
Before long, Geiler found that football was his sport. He played on the varsity team of his 10th-grader and began his senior season as a wide receiver until, two games into the year, his father got a job transfer to Charlotte.
In 1972, Geiler arrived at South Mecklenburg High and immediately joined the football team.
“I was a tall and thin wide receiver,” Geiler said. “I couldn’t catch and I couldn’t run, but I knew I didn’t want to play defense because I didn’t like the contact. I knew I wasn’t going to tackle anybody because I was too smart and knew the damage that was going to be done was going to be done to me.
“I wasn’t a good player – I was average. I wouldn’t have made the Independence teams that won all of those games. I would’ve been a backup at best.”
Geiler knew early on he wanted to coach, but at first he wasn’t sure what sport he preferred, so he dabbled in everything: baseball, softball, golf and girls basketball.
But in football, Geiler found something that he truly loved. He got his start at Spaugh Middle School. He had one assistant, a female English teacher, who helped with running and stretching and made brownies for kids after practice. The hours were long and the on-field results were mixed until 1982, when behind a talented team that “won everything,” Geiler was named coach of the year. The next season, when the players from his Spaugh team moved up to Harding High, Geiler joined them as the offensive line coach on head coach Tom Knotts’ staff.
The two would go on to form a winning partnership.
“Bill was always really hungry and willing to do whatever it was going to take to be successful,” Knotts said. “He was a good team player and helped us win (championships) while we were together. He was very loyal and had a great desire to learn as much as he could about every phase of football.”
And while it might surprise some people, at the time, Geiler actually was the calming influence on the coaching staff.
“For most of our time, it was a good give-and-take routine,” Knotts said. “I was usually the bad cop, but he could be sometimes, too. He would usually try to pick the kids up after I really got on them. That was his strong point – his relationships with the kids.”
The duo stayed at Harding for eight seasons, until they left together for West Charlotte. The first two years with the Lions, Knotts had Geiler coaching the offensive line. But Geiler wanted to coach defense and gave Knotts an ultimatum.
“Tommy asked me, ‘Well, who’s going to do the offensive line?’” Geiler said. “I said ‘I don’t care, but you are either going to let me run the defense or I’ll go somewhere else.’ I had some job offers before that and was ready to leave if he wouldn’t let me do it.
“He gave in,” Geiler said, smiling.
Three years later, Knotts and Geiler helped lead West Charlotte to a state championship. Five years after that, the duo was on the move again, this time to Independence, where the Patriots would eventually win seven state titles and a record 109 consecutive games.
The Patriots won 61 consecutive games from 2000-03. After that season, Knotts left to become quarterbacks coach at Duke University, and Geiler led the Patriots to another championship as head coach in 2004.
After the season, he was told he could have complete control at Indian Trail Porter Ridge. Geiler accepted the offer, and Knotts returned to win another state title for the Patriots that season.
“Being with Tommy, there were always whispers – out loud, whatever – that I was his puppet and his shadow,” Geiler said. “So I always wanted to prove to me that I could start my own program and do my thing with a principal that was going to give me total freedom to hire my own coaches and totally run the football program.”
Porter Ride allowed that at first. But the principal who hired Geiler left for another job early into the season, and Geiler said the new administration was not on his side. The results off the field weren’t what Geiler wanted, and the on-field results weren’t much better. Porter Ridge finished 0-11 that season. Geiler retired from teaching and went to Providence Day to be an assistant coach.
“(Porter Ridge) decided my rules (stating) ‘If you don’t come to practice, you don’t play’ were too hard,” Geiler said. “I told them, ‘Then you need to find a new coach, because I’m not going to change those.’ I turned in my letter of resignation, and that was that.”
Back in the saddle
Not long after joining the Providence Day staff, Knotts was back requesting Geiler’s services and, the two reunited at Independence in 2005.
“Tommy didn’t think I’d come back,” Geiler said. “But if you spend that much time with someone, you get to know them. That was the second-longest relationship of my life.”
The Patriots won consecutive state titles in 2005 and 2006 – the sixth and seventh – for Knotts and Geiler together. After the 2009 season, Knotts left for Dutch Fork High School in Irmo, S.C.
Knotts tried to lure Geiler. The pay was better, and they could take on a new challenge together.
“I listened to what he said,” Geiler said. “We talked about it at a family dinner, and my girls started crying and said they didn’t want to break the family up. The discussion was over at that point. I was raised (with the belief that) my family comes first and it always wins.”
Geiler told Knotts no, and the two men haven’t spoken since.
“That’s Tommy,” Geiler said. “Once he’s done, he’s done.”
Geiler agreed to take over the Independence program again in 2010, but the Patriots went 3-8 that year after more than 40 players left to go to newly opened Rocky River High.
During that year, which Geiler called the hardest of his career, he leaned heavily on his family. Knotts had left, and Geiler felt Patriots’ fans were turning on the coaching staff and – far more disheartening to him – the players.
“It was very hard,” Geiler said. “If I don’t get to come home here, I don’t know what happens. I get to come home, shut that door, and (Candy) was glad to see me, my daughter was glad to see me, so it made it easier.
“I’m a very competitive person – very competitive. Going 3-8 with the things we were dealing with in the stands and with the parents, it was hard. If you want to boo a coach, you paid your five bucks, so have at it. But how do you boo a child? How can you boo somebody else’s kid sitting two rows down from you?
“But I don’t care. I come home to (Candy), and I say, ‘How did I do?’ If she tells me I stepped over the line, then I worry. If she says, ‘Hey, you did great’ then I brush my teeth and (I know) the guy looking back at me did a good job, because I know I did the right thing.”
Candy knows best
In Geiler’s 36 years as a coach, Candy has missed just a handful of games. She believes her husband’s boisterous and demanding style has the kids’ best interest in mind.
“I’m as deep in it as he is,” she said. “I see it, live it and breathe it every day, but I look at it from his perspective of knowing what he’s put into it. My feelings are for what is happening with him. I love those kids, the coaches and the team. I see what he puts into it and how much it means to him. So when I (saw) that year parents saying he didn’t know what he’s doing, they don’t have any idea what goes into it – the blood, the sweat, the time, the family sacrifices. So don’t even say stuff like that. It was heartbreaking.”
After 2010, Geiler rebounded to go 10-3 last year with mostly the same team. He saw it as redemption for himself, as well as his family.
“I have a great fan base at Independence,” Geiler said. “I have great support there, but we went through a hard time when we went 3-8. We don’t put our hands on the kids, we don’t swear at the kids, but we are hard. I play who I want to play, and I expect them to perform at their best.”
Independence senior receiver Dequan Barnes summed up what Geiler’s meant to him.
“I love Coach,” Barnes said. “He’s the best coach that I’ve ever had. I would do anything for him. He’s like a father to me, and I hate that he’s leaving. I hate that I’m leaving him. If I had four more years with him, I would love it.”
Many of Geiler’s former and current players feel the same way.
“If he’s not yelling at you, you’re doing something wrong, but I enjoy playing for him,” senior cornerback Jack Tocho said. “He makes me, and all of us, work as hard as (we) possibly can. He wants (to get) the best out of us.”
Growing up, daughter Kelly said it was much the same way in the home.
“He’s never been a pushover in his life,” said Kelly, who’s Independence’s swim coach. “He was very strict growing up as far as academics, behavior and friend choices. His expectation is that we made the same choices away from him as when we were with him.
“Smiling is something he reserves for us because he doesn’t want anyone to know there is that soft side. He puts on that tough-guy persona for everyone else. But in all honestly, he has one of the biggest hearts of anyone. He just doesn’t want anybody to know about it.”
Kelly Lewis, the Patriots athletics director, has known Geiler for years and knows he can be gruff at times. But he wouldn’t change his coach.
“He does things his way, but the good thing is that 99 percent of the time, he does things the right way,” Lewis said. “If you want to see how gruff he is, see him after the game with his wife, his kids and his grandkids. He’s just as down to earth as anyone else once the game is over. Now during the game, he’s a bear. But he’s just as much of a family man as anyone else is.”
These days, Geiler smiles a lot, and it’s mostly about his grandkids.
“The grandkids can do no wrong – they melt him,” Bri said. “He’s an awesome grandpa. He’s just the best thing ever. My daughter thinks the world of him. She wakes up in the morning talking about him and goes to bed at night talking about him.”
Added Kelly Geiler: “He talks all of the time that if things were rough at practice or at school or anywhere else, all he has to do is see or hold one of (his grandchildren) and everything is OK. It’s awesome to see how much he loves our kids. He would do anything for them. He definitely has a melty heart when it comes to them.”
When Independence offensive coordinator Joe Evans, who’ll be a leading candidate to become the next Patriots coach, reflects on his years with Geiler, he’ll have favorable thoughts.
“It’s almost like having a fatherly figure,” Evans said. “He has helped me a lot in my coaching career. He has taught me how to be a better coach. Mostly, I will miss the personal relationships with him. It’s going to be weird. Independence will be a weird place to work without him.”
And it’ll be weird for Geiler to be any place but Independence in the fall.
“I run that little corner of the world,” Geiler said of the Patriots’ football practices. “I’m not in charge of anything in my life except for that little spot for two hours, and it’s hard to give that up. But my heart’s telling me one thing, and my brain is telling me another.
“I know it’s time. I don’t have the energy I had when I got the job. I’m perfectly fine with that, and I don’t have any regrets. It’s time to let one of the young guys do it.”
But Geiler’s not done yet. Entering their Friday, Oct. 19, game against Myers Park, he has the Patriots (8-1) tied for the Southwestern 4A conference lead (5-0). But he knows this is his swan song, and a big reason is the family that’s been such big supporters of Independence football.
“I don’t want to miss anything more with my grandkids,” Geiler said. “I’m a good assistant coach. I’ve done it since 1977, but I don’t want to do it anymore. I have an ego, but I don’t need my name in the paper anymore. It’s about (my family) now. I want to work at a private school or in South Carolina, but I am not moving. My family is too important to me. If I don’t get a job, maybe I will be a greeter at Wal-Mart or something. But people joke that I may be too intense for that.”