Scott Spitler sat in the bowels of Canton’s Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium on a cold and overcast early-December Saturday afternoon.
The Lucas Cubs had just fallen to small-school juggernaut Marion Local 28-6 in the 2019 Division VII state championship game and rather than rehash what had just unfolded, Spitler struck a contemplative tone.
“We don’t judge ourselves on wins and losses,” Spitler said as the room full of reporters fell silent. “It’s about the type of people we are building in our program.
“When I am dead and under, my record is not going to be on my tombstone. The legacy I leave with these young guys, that’s what we’re going to be defined by as a program.”
Spitler can rest easy. His legacy is beyond reproach.
The architect of north central Ohio’s most successful small-school program, Spitler announced his retirement from coaching Tuesday afternoon.
He steps down with 102 on-field wins in 15 seasons at Lucas — but records indicate the Cubs were awarded a forfeit victory over Centerburg in 2010, making Spitler’s mark at Lucas 103-69.
Considering the state of the program when Spitler arrived, 100-plus wins seemed like a pipe dream. Spitler inherited a dumpster fire in 2009.
The Cubs were 1-9 in 2008 and coach Rod Gallaway resigned after a 41-8 loss to Riverdale in Week 8. Lucas used a coach-by-committee approach for the final two weeks, ugly North Central Conference losses to Wynford and Ontario.
In terms of wins and losses, things didn’t improve immediately. The Cubs never won more than four games in a season from 2009 to 2013, but the foundation for unprecedented success was put in place.
The 2011 Cubs boasted a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Nick Swainhart and Levi Harris as Spitler’s double-wing offense began to take root. The Cubs were 4-6 that fall and 3-7 the following year with Swainhart, Harris and little-known freshman Mason Galco leading the charge.
Galco would lead the Cubs to new heights as a junior in 2014. Lucas picked up its first-ever playoff victory, a 37-34 thriller at Plymouth secured by a Rueben Luna field goal as time expired.
Galco broke Swainhart’s single-season rushing record that fall, then broke his own record the following year as the Cubs reached the Division VII, Region 24 championship game before falling to McComb.
The Cubs reached the playoffs again in 2016 and 2017, but suffered first-round playoff losses each year.
Then in 2018, with new career rushing leader Jeb Grover leading the charge, Lucas reached the Division VII, Region 27 final before falling to Trimble in a game decided in the final minute.
Grover graduated that spring, but a talented class led by quarterback Logan Niswander and running back Tommy Zirzow took Richland County fans on a wild ride to the 2019 state championship game.
Lucas punched its ticket to the state final with a stunning 15-12 win over Harvest Prep in the state semifinals.
The Cubs trailed 12-7 and faced a fourth-and-goal from the Harvest Prep 13-yard line when Spitler called timeout and drew up a play in the dirt. Niswander found Riley Mounts for what proved to be the game-winner in the closing minute.
“We kind of drew it up in the dirt to be honest with you,” Spitler said at the time of the game-winning play.
Lucas reached the regional championship game the following year and the regional semifinals in 2021 and 2022 before falling to Dalton in the regional quarterfinals this year.
The Cubs were 17-10 in the postseason under Spitler from 2014 to 2023.
I covered Lucas’ second-round playoff loss to Western Reserve on an impossibly cold night at Orrville’s Heartland Field in November of 2014. As he would do five years later at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium, Spitler put the loss in perspective.
“I wish I could make the sting go away, but you have nothing to hang your heads about,” Spitler told his team afterward. “You have put the foundation in place.”
Whoever succeeds Spitler will inherit a program in a much better place than it was in 2009 when he arrived in town.
“One of the things that I always stressed to our young men was to always leave things better than you found them,” Spitler wrote in his farewell address posted Tuesday to social media sites. “I am extremely proud that I can say with confidence that I have left the Lucas Football Program in a better place than I found it.”
He did indeed.