After an illustrious coaching career that spanned more than 50 years and saw an astounding 400 victories, Ludington native and Mason County Central alumni Mike Hankwitz is hanging up the whistle.
The 13-time letter winner at MCC started his coaching career at Michigan as a graduate assistant following his playing career where he was a tight end and primary kicker.
His coaching stops paired him with some of the greatest coaches of all time, including hall of famers Bo Schembechler, Jim Young, Bill McCartney and R.C. Slocum.
Below is a transcribed version of an interview conducted with Hankwitz following his final game, a win in the Citrus Bowl over Auburn.
Note that the quotes are edited slightly for readability purposes.
There were so many obstacles to overcome this season. How were you and all the coaches at Northwestern able to keep everybody locked in and focused?
“It was a lot harder than people can imagine. We had gotten almost three weeks of spring ball in when we went into the lockdown and that brought on all this uncertainty. We were able to come back and start working out in June with the idea we were going to play. Then the Big Ten decides that we’re not going to play which was extremely frustrating with all the work our players had put in. Then the idea floated around of a spring season, maybe starting in January. We tried to keep them engaged during Zoom meetings. They did a great job staying focused, and I think our whole program was proud of how locked in they were that we only had one positive test the whole season.”
You have coached some of the best defenses the country has seen whether it be the 1990 Colorado national title team or the Western Michigan group that allowed just 78 points. What is it about this year’s defense at Northwestern that stuck out to you?
“This group has a special place in my heart with what we went through. But the group dealt with injuries. Greg Newsome, our best corner, missed some time. We had a couple guys opt out. So to overcome the injuries and seeing guys step up was pretty special.”
Was there anybody early in your playing career that got you interested in coaching right away?
“I always loved athletics, watched my dad play basketball and softball and enjoyed the competition. My seventh grade year, the Optimists started youth football which we never had, and then my eighth grade year I managed the varsity team. I always found myself watching the way coach (Loren) Dietrich did things and loved the way he coached and treated people and coach (Duane) Ingraham was the same. That’s the thing about small town America, coach Ingraham was the driver’s ed teacher. You got to see him in different situations and both of them gave you the feeling they loved what they did, they wanted to win, but you felt they cared about you as people.”
You got the chance to play under legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler. What sort of effect did he have on you in your time there?
“I originally went to school for engineering and then thought I wasn’t cut out for that. I switched to education and physical education and then I thought it would be fun to coach. So when coach Schembechler came in he wanted to get to know everybody and you’d talk about different things, and he asked me what I was planning on doing and I told him I wanted to coach. He asked me if I wanted to be a graduate assistant (and) told me ‘you’d be breaking down film, help develop scouting reports, help call plays.’ We had JV teams then where we would coach them and go play games, and I’d be in the pres box charting and communicating and thought, wow that sounds like fun. So when I started, I thought ‘wow this is a lot more intricate than I thought.‘ There were just guys on the staff, coach Schembechler, Jim Young, Frank Milloney, they helped you learn and once I got started I got hooked.”
Was there a moment that made you think that this was going to be a long time career for you?
“I had one more year left and coach Young had an interview and thought, well we’ll see how this goes and once it’s done I’ll go find a high school job somewhere. And at the end of that ‘72 season, coach Young got the job at the University of Arizona and offered me a full-time position with him. When I got into it, I wasn’t thinking about coaching for 51 years. You’re more thinking that you’re happy to have a job and keep moving on in the profession. I think it still all goes back to my time at MCC. We hadn’t won the conference in football since 1932 and my sophomore, junior and senior years we won, and the year after when coach Dietrich left, they won. So I think moving on to different schools and raising the bar for bigger and better things was the real motivating factor for me.”
Coaching as long as you have, you’ve seen many different looks offensively. Have you been someone that sticks to what they know or tries to adapt to the personnel you’re given?
“You have to be able to adjust to the personnel. I’ve ran 4-3 fronts, 3-4 fronts, 4-2-5 fronts. As far as a philosophy, we like to be multiple in our coverages so that we aren’t too predictacale. We like to play some coverages to disguise the things that we’re running. The thing I’ve felt is most important is being able to adapt to what offenses are running because if you don’t adapt you’re gonna die on the vine. You’ve got to keep up with offensive trends whether you’re even or a half a step ahead of them. When I first started, it was I-formation running the ball, then all of a sudden the passing game became more involved with the offense more spread out. Most recently, you’ve seen offenses with athletic quarterbacks that can run and throw which added a whole different element and opened up more gaps in the offense. We’ve also seen the run-pass option where the quarterback reads the defense as the play develops. Those types of changes have made it interesting and forces you to adjust.”
You’ve coached at Northwestern for 13 years, what has helped make this your longest tenured job in your career?
“First and foremost, coach (Pat) Fitzgerald is a hall of famer in my mind. We have a great staff that really works well together. It’s a real unique place to coach. You can’t recruit everybody you may want because of the academic standards the university holds, but we don’t like to use that as an excuse. We’ll still find guys that want a quality education, that want to win at the highest level. He does a tremendous job recruiting and selling them on what we’re doing. We obviously want guys that want to play in the NFL, but we want guys that are choosing a school not just for four years but for 50 years. Jim Fisher, who is now the commissioner on the ACC, gave us tremendous support as our athletic director. It’s really just been one of the best groups of people I’ve been able to work with.”
Winning the national title with Colorado is probably your most memorable moment, but what other moments throughout your career will always stick out to you?
“There’s really been a lot. When I was at Arizona, we set the school record for wins in a season and won the first championship there in a number of years. At Purdue, we won three straight bowl games and set a school record for 10 wins in a season. Had my first coordinator job under Jack Harbaugh at Western Michigan and allowed just 78 points in 1982. Getting the chance to coach with a hall of famer in Bill McCartney at Colorado. It’d been an up-and-down program, and to go out there and win as much as we did will always stick in my mind. I think mainly, though, it’s working with so many great people because you learn from everybody. Not only that, but all the great young men I had the chance to coach. Seeing them come in as young men and grow up and develop as football players, and most importantly the guys who were able to succeed at the end of their careers who stuck with it. I think you can learn a lot from football because it takes a lot of people to contribute in different ways.”