Milan football coach Steve Robb leaves a legacy of winning
Lon Horwedel | AnnArbor.com
In the small town of Milan, little white signs link humble three bedroom ranches with rows of mobile homes and classic two-story Victorians that have stood since anyone can remember.
Even in the dead of winter, with a foot of snow on the ground, the signs stand straight and tall.
“Home of a Big Red Football Player.” For a quarter century, Milan High School football coach Steve Robb made that sign a badge of honor for front lawns around the city. But after 25 years on the job, Robb is finally calling it a career.
“It was just time for me to be around home more,” says Robb, 56, who will remain a physical education teacher at the high school.
Robb announced his intention to resign in February. He’d like to spend more time focused on his family. Robb and his wife, Ann - who is a teacher in Wyandotte - have a fifth grade son Joey, 11, and daughter Kylie, 15, a freshman at Plymouth High School.
“I don’t know if, at age 56, I can be the best husband I can be, and the best father I can be and the best teacher I can be and the best head football coach I can be,” Robb said. “That’s a lot of things to be good at.”
While Robb has always considered head football coach to be a full-time profession, the offseason demands have steadily increased over the years. More and more students are specializing in just one sport, which means more players to focus on in offseason programs, camps and clinics, of which there seem to be more of every year.
That’s time that Robb says he is now ready to commit to his own family.
In his time at Milan, Robb has had a front row seat for the evolution of the modern athlete, and the game of football in the state of Michigan. Robb and his assistant coaches recently sat down and compared their early teams with recent years by creating a 16-team bracket and making an imaginary all-time playoff tournament - which he, with much consternation, admits the 2007 team won.
Doing so made him think about how far the game has come in his time at Milan. Even his best teams from his early years, he says, wouldn’t stand a chance against the athletes of today.
“The kids are literally bigger, stronger and faster today,” Robb said. “Particularly in the state of Michigan in the past 10 years I have just seen an incredible improvement in the high school game.”
Robb always prided himself on teaching the fundamentals of the game, no matter the size, speed or strength of the players he was teaching. Even with recent innovations in offensive and defensive schemes, Robb always believed when it came down to it, the teams that block and tackle the best are the teams that win football games.
He was fortunate to have athletes who loved to do both and did everything he could to foster that passion.
“When I took the job 25 years ago, somebody told me ‘the good thing about Milan is the kids always hit,’ ” Robb recalls. “You can’t really make a kid that doesn’t want to hit into a hitter. He either had to want it, or he doesn’t want it.”
A passion for the game and a desire to hit and be hit can sometimes trump talent on the gridiron.
“We probably won a heck of a lot more games that maybe we shouldn’t have than we lost games that should have won,” says Rich Pelligrini, who spent 24 years as Robb’s defensive coordinator. “Come Friday night, the Milan Big Reds, we were gonna hit ya.”
Pelligrini said he never considered applying for a head coaching position elsewhere. Robb gave him complete control of the defense, a testament to the trust he had in his staff.
“A lot of coaches run their program with an iron fist and it’s their way or nothing,” Pelligrini says, “It was always Steve’s way, but the door was always open.”
While Pelligrini may not have looked elsewhere, the same can’t be said of Robb. He was a candidate for coaching positions at bigger schools over the years, but opted to stay at Milan each time.
“What I found every time was that the grass wasn’t greener on the other side.” Robb says. “The small town mentality that high school football and sports in general are still important in Milan meant a lot to me.”
Robb retires with a 163-82 record with 19 winning seasons and 12 playoff appearances. His teams had back-to-back undefeated regular seasons in 1996 and 1997, and advanced to the quarterfinal round of the state playoffs in 2000 and 2007.
He says the only regret of his coaching career is that he was never able to reach the state championship game.
“The teams, the school community, and our fans deserved that,” he said.
On Wabash Street in downtown Milan sits Fender’s, a restaurant/bar named for another longtime Milan coach and teacher, Dave “Fender” Glenn, who died of esophageal cancer years ago.
Above the register behind the bar is a picture of Glenn. On the wall opposite hangs a Milan football jersey. Across the street sits Roy’s BBQ and Burgers where a “Go Big Reds” flag hangs in a window that has been covered with its fair share of homecoming paint over the years.
Fender’s is where Robb and his coaches would often convene after games. Roy’s is a popular postgame player hangout. Tony Thompson, the owner of Fender’s, says the football tradition is so strong in Milan that he staffs accordingly on Fridays in the fall.
Of course, from 7 to 9 p.m., he may as well close up shop. Everyone’s at the game.
“It’s a great tradition,” says Thompson. “Robb and his staff have done a great job through the years. It’s almost like Texas here on Friday nights in the fall.”
It’s not just local businesses that are affected by the tradition Robb has established with the program. It’s the other sports as well.
Basketball coach Josh Tropea says Robb and the winning football tradition were two of the biggest reasons he came to Milan two years ago. He also said there’s a noticeable difference between his players that have been under the tutelage of Robb, and those who haven’t.
“They win, those kids when they come to basketball, they’re going to carry that with them,” Tropea says. “Without a doubt, the kids that play football at this school are tougher, more dedicated, committed and they expect to win.
“You’d love to throw four football players out on the court,” Tropea adds, joking that he likes to have at least one guy that he doesn’t have to worry about getting hurt in the fall. “They’re athletic, they’re competitors.”
Changing of the guard
With five assistant coaches who are teachers at the high school - three of whom actually played under him - Robb has no doubt the program is being left in good hands. While he didn’t hand-pick a successor, Milan teacher contracts stipulate coaching positions must be posted internally before going out to the general public.
If no one in the building applies, or if no applicant is deemed qualified, outside applicants would be sought. Robb doubts that will be the case, and hopes one of his assistants becomes his successor.
Regardless, it will be a tough act to follow, and a tough tradition to uphold.
Tory Martinsen, who will be a senior next year and has played quarterback and receiver for the Big Reds the past two, was shocked by the news that his coach wouldn’t be there in the fall.
Martinsen says he will do everything in his power to keep two Milan traditions alive and well: Winning and freshman singing the fight song in front of the team during two-a-days.
Tropea, among others, admits he’s nervous about what the change will bring.
“Whoever takes the job over will certainly have big shoes to fill,” says Chris Gill, who was athletic director at Milan for five years before taking a job as assistant principal at the high school this year.
Robb says he won’t miss the offseason demands, but Friday nights in the fall could be a struggle. And seeing a promising athlete in his class and knowing he won’t get to personally have an influence over him on the football field will be downright torture.
But for every student he doesn’t get to coach in the future, there are dozens that have before him that are better off having played football under Robb.
“Steve’s saved a lot of kids, put his neck out on the line, saving kids what we would call borderline. Kids that later became very successful, and not just in football. In life,” Pelligrini says with a tone that wasn’t in his voice when he spoke of how hard Milan kids hit.
“It was a hell of a run. A hell of a run.”