GREENVILLE — Thiel head coach Jack Leipheimer is proof that you can go home.

“I was a Gator for 17 years,” said Leipheimer after his Tomcats clinched their first Presidents’ Athletic Conference championship since 1972 with a 24-14 win over Thomas More on Oct. 29. “But I have been a Tomcat for life.”

Leipheimer reiterated that mantra after the Tomcats finished practicing on Wednesday evening for their first-round NCAA playoff game this Saturday against Johns Hopkins University.

A Thiel alumnus and former defensive coordinator at Allegheny College, Leipheimer had many opportunities to move up the coaching ladder when he worked under former Gator mentor Ken O’Keefe.

He chose not to pursue those opportunities, even saying no to Thiel College on at least a few occasions.

“Kenny (O’Keefe) and I had a tremendous relationship,” Leipheimer said. “And I was very content to be his right-hand man.”

Still, the phone calls came in to O’Keefe. Athletic directors wanted the man known as Coach Leip to lead their football programs. Head coaches wanted him to lead their defenses.

“I told (O’Keefe) ‘I’m not interested, and don’t tell me anymore (when potential employers call). If people call you, tell them I’m not interested.’”

Then O’Keefe left to coach Fordham University, and Blair Hrovat took his place at Allegheny.

And soon, coaching at Allegheny wasn’t the dream job it once was.

“When Ken left Allegheny and Blair Hrovat came in, the changes that were made from a recruiting standpoint to a program-focus standpoint were not things that I felt comfortable with,” said Leipheimer. “They were things that were philosophically different than what I believed.

“I wasn’t as happy as I had been in the previous time I had been at Allegheny during those last couple years, and I realized that maybe it was the right time to check out other options if they were out there.”

It just happens that Thiel was looking for a new head coach at the time.

This time Leip was interested because he saw a new Thiel administration making changes to improve all aspects of higher education at the college.

“When I made the decision to get involved with this position, first I felt out some people to find out if I wanted to get involved,” said Leipheimer.

Once he decided it was the right time to coach at Thiel, Leipheimer went to his Allegheny connection to field his coaching staff, calling former players John Marzka and Kurt Reiser before he was even interviewed.

“I was not gonna take this job unless those two guys were gonna come with me,” said Leipheimer.

Marzka was the offensive line coach at Allegheny from 1992-97 and offensive coordinator from 1996-97. Over that time period the Gators went 55-9, won four NCAC titles and made four NCAA playoff appearances.

Reiser, who like Marzka was a player on the Gators’ 1990 NCAA championship team, was the offensive coordinator at Leyden High School, Chicago, prior to his hiring at Thiel.

“It wasn’t so much that I thought about it in terms of the Allegheny experience (they had),” Leipheimer said. “The staff is the most important part of any program. When you build a staff you have to have people that you trust, that you believe in, you respect and know can get the job done.”

That’s exactly why Marzka, Reiser and Joe Rossi, another Allegheny player, followed Leipheimer to Thiel. To them, Leipheimer had all of those qualities.

“He called me and told me he wanted me to come with him,” said Marzka. “When I first heard I said ‘boy, I don’t know. Can you win there?’

“When Leip told me the situation, I knew he wouldn’t have taken the job if he didn’t think he could be successful. And that’s the thing about Leip, if he says it, you can believe it. Period. I trust him implicitly, and I know I’m working for a great person.”

“The reason I came here is because I knew (Leipheimer) was coming here for a reason,” Reiser said. “He knew he could turn the program around and get it going in the right direction, and I know what kind of character Leip has. I wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t Leip. I trust his judgment.”

His judgment was right on, and just five years after the Allegheny crew invaded Thiel, the Tomcats are on the cusp of making a run at the national championship, just as the Gators did so many times in the 1990s.

“They just fought to the end and found a way to win,” Marzka said of Allegheny’s playoff teams. “This (Thiel) team is like that.”

“There probably aren’t a lot of people outside of Greenville that give us a shot in the national tournament, and that’s fine with me. Quite frankly, I like being an unknown.”

But the truth is, Thiel is no longer and unknown.

A few former Gators made sure of that.

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