Joe Winslow had never planned to become a football coach.
He played in Dunbar for one of the Public League’s most respected coaches, Glenn Johnson, before moving on to a college career with Loras and Iowa Wesleyan.
After college, he stopped at Dunbar to see Johnson one day. “He said, ‘Help me with my quarterbacks,'” Winslow said.
Winslow did that for a few years before taking time off to train his youngest child in Pop Warner. He returned to Dunbar, where one of his fellow assistants was a young Canadian native named Troy McAllister.
“One Christmas, Troy called me and said, ‘Happy Holidays. I want you to be my assistant head coach and offensive coordinator at Phillips,'” Winslow said.
The rest is Public League football history. From a humble beginning – 12 players showed up for the first training session of the McAllister era in 2010 and the team finished 2-7 – the Wildcats have put together a series of unprecedented successes in Public League football history.
The Wildcats reached the state quarterfinals for the first time in 2013 and have reached it so far every year since, winning Public League football’s first two state titles in 2015 (Class 4A) and 2017 (5A).
Phillips continued to play, moving to 6A in 2018 and 7A in 2019, reaching the quarterfinals each year. But a lot has happened between the last eight-place finish two years ago and now.
Like the rest of the state, the Wildcats were idle last fall in the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic. But Winslow, then still Phillips’ offensive coordinator, asked McAllister for permission to take some Wildcats to play on the seven-on-seven pitch.
It was a ray of light in a dark time. But then in January came Mike Larson’s unexpected death, the Wildcats’ charismatic and creative defensive coordinator.
“It was hard to lose him,” Winslow said. “He was an uncle or father figure to these children.”
So in May, McAllister left Phillips after 11 seasons to take the Sandburg job.
“In the beginning, it was just a question [because of] my loyalty to Troy if I was going with him, ”Winslow said. “We talked – it’s not like we’re not best friends. He said to me, ‘It’s your time. That’s what you’ve been wanting all your life. [Phillips players] trust you, they believe in you. “
Damien Thomas, a senior left guard, will testify to that.
“What makes Coach Joe a good coach is that he cares,” Thomas said. “If we fight, he takes time out of his day for us. [He’s] caring, trustworthy. “
It has helped the Wildcats deal with more adversity than most teams. Last month, training was canceled for three days after a 14-year-old student and a security guard were shot outside the school.
But the Wildcats got together on their own to run and stay in shape and called Winslow on FaceTime to show him their commitment. And they showed their dedication in other ways, such as showing up at school at 6 a.m. four days a week to work on strength and conditioning coach Joe Bibbs.
Still, there were tough times on the field. Phillps opened with road games at Batavia and Mount Carmel, losing 33-6 and 42-0. But Winslow saw improvements in the second half of the Mount Carmel game, and the Wildcats have slung nine wins in a row since.
The turning point came in a 14-12 win over Simeon in Week 5 on Tyler Turner’s 10-yard TD pass to Avante Savage with 10 seconds left.
“It boosted all our confidence,” Thomas said. “For us to get a battle-winning touchdown with something else left, it was like ‘Wow, we can actually do this’.”
It was not the only echo of past glories for the Wildcats. For the playoffs, Winslow and his defensive coaches have switched from the 4-2 defense they had run this season to Larson’s 50 games.
“I know the concepts and how to run it,” Winslow said. “I just did not know if I could learn both sides of the ball.”
But the Wildcats have adapted to the shift, and now they face Richmond-Burton (11-0) in a Saturday quarterfinal at. 16 at Gately Stadium.
It’s the latest big game for a program that has seen plenty of them in the last decade. And although some of the sideline’s faces have changed, the traditions – Larson’s defensive plan among them – have continued.
“Mike is still a part of what we do and always will be,” Winslow said.
And the first-year head coach and longtime employee is going nowhere either.