Coaching marks: Retiring Datka shaped lives at Germantown
He spent 42 years as coach
Four appearances in the WIAA state championship game. Two state titles. Eight conference crowns. A total of 277 wins. A spot in the state coaches' hall of fame.
And a stadium that bears his name.
Without question, Phil Datka has accomplished pretty much everything a coach can in his 42 years at the helm of the Germantown Warhawks. Despite all of that, the focus within the program remains the same today as it did the day he took it over in 1969.
"It's always been about the kids," said Gary Soike, Datka's offensive line coach and right-hand man since 1970. "It's never been about him."
Datka, 65, will coach his final regular-season game on his namesake field Friday against Grafton. His Warhawks, 4-3 overall and 3-2 in the North Shore Conference, can clinch a playoff berth - their 15th overall under him - and win, lose or draw he'll be honored afterward by the school's athletic department and booster club.
And while it's impossible to truly quantify how many lives Datka touched as a coach, teacher, assistant principal and athletic director during his time at Germantown, there are plenty still involved with high school football in the area who remain grateful for the time they spent learning from him.
For instance, there's Dave Keel at Homestead, whose Highlanders have won 59 consecutive North Shore games and counting and three Division 1 state titles since he became head coach there in 1989. Datka gave Keel his first shot on the sideline as a fresh-faced student teacher from UW-La Crosse in 1976.
"My first year he let me handle the freshman B team, and I think we won one game," Keel recalled. "I kiddingly tell folks he fired me."
There's also Jamie Meulemans, a former all-conference running back for Datka in the early 1980s. He spent 2007-'09 as an assistant at Germantown before taking over this season as head coach at Brookfield Central.
"He's all about the kids first," he said. "He was my coach and then my mentor in the profession, and now we're friends."
The same can be said for Jeff Wallack. A self-described role player for the Warhawks in the late 1980s, Wallack credits Datka as well as Keel for helping him land his current job as head coach at Milwaukee Hamilton.
"I'll put it this way: When I came to Germantown my sophomore year, he made such an impression on me that next to my father, he probably was the second-most important guy in my life," Wallack said of Datka. "I knew right away I wanted to get into education and eventually coach (because of him)."
Datka went 3-14 his first two years at Germantown before stringing together four consecutive winning seasons highlighted by back-to-back 9-0 campaigns in 1973 and '74. The Warhawks first made the playoffs under him in 1979, losing to Beaver Dam, 6-0, in the Division 2 championship game, and again finished as runner-up in 1997.
Germantown finally broke through in 1998, finishing 14-0 and beating Ashwaubenon, 21-14, for the Division 2 title. Datka and the Warhawks then beat Menomonie for their second crown in 2003.
One would assume those two seasons would be the most memorable of Datka's career. But that's not necessarily so, Soike said.
"The highlight of the whole thing, win, lose or draw, has just been the kids," said Soike, who joined Datka in the WFCA Hall of Fame in 2009. "We've been blessed with some great kids, some great people. Personally it was neat to be there and be a part of it, but the best part - and Phil will attest to this - has been the kids.
"The approach has always been, 'You're a high school football player now. Where will you be in 10 years? Will you be a good husband? A good father? A good neighbor?' That's been the approach from Day 1. We want to make them better citizens, better people.' "
Underscoring his commitment to his charges, Datka for many years has spearheaded the Germantown Football Scholarship Fund, which Soike estimates has raised about $150,000 for college-bound seniors.
"Every cent we've ever raised has always been donated to the kids," said Soike, who will retire alongside Datka. "It was Phil's idea, Phil's plan, and over the years it's been very, very well-received."
Should Germantown beat Grafton, it will mark the first time since 2007 the Warhawks will have advanced to the postseason. That shouldn't be taken as a sign that the game passed Datka by, however.
He's gone from the option to zone principles to the spread on offense with everything in between over the years and has tweaked his defenses plenty as well.
"We're always trying to adapt and give the kids the best chance of winning here in relation to what we've got," Soike said. "He was real instrumental in doing different stuff, and fortunately it's worked."
Added Keel: "Phil's never been afraid to find a better way to do things. I think it's safe to say Phil has forgotten more football than most of us know."
Perhaps it's fitting, then, that Datka will close out his final regular season next Wednesday at Homestead against Keel's Highlanders. The first time the two matched wits in 1989, Keel came out on the short end of a 35-0 affair.
No matter what happens this time around, Keel said he's honored to have one last chance to coach against his mentor.
"Without a doubt we've had some incredibly memorable games that have gone both ways over the years, and anytime you get an opportunity to coach against one of the guys that's really doing it the right way, it's an honor and a special thing," he said.
"There's a time for everything. I'm sorry to see him go, but I'm happy for Phil."
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