This season, West Chester University's opening football game was at Bentley, just outside Boston. It was a night game, so the Golden Rams stayed over, started down I-95 the next morning. Lunch was a big splurge, a roadside stop at KFC.
"It was in Connecticut — Stamford, I think,'' West Chester coach Bill Zwaan said. "We called ahead during the week and ordered it all. I was looking for a place that was kind of halfway, around lunch time. So we ordered from this KFC. They just weren't ready to handle that big of an order. They knew what time we were coming. I called a couple of times on the way to make sure everything was OK. They just weren't ready."
Rams offensive line coach Nick Sama was first to tell the story, relating how Zwaan said to the KFC manager: "Look, can I jump behind the counter and help you?"
Sama has been with Zwaan at two schools. It's nothing, Sama said, to see West Chester's head football coach painting decals on a helmet while talking X's and O's. Also, nothing to see a man in white shorts and a purple shirt filling up chicken bags, or hear college football players wander in from a bus to say things like, "Hey, Coach, I'll take a two-piece, finger-lickin'."
"We had to keep it moving,'' Zwaan said. "As a D-II, D-III coach, that's what you do — you jump in and handle things. I was frustrated because I knew we were going to be stuck there a lot longer, which meant we were going to hit more traffic along the way."
It turned out that traffic stayed clear for West Chester's football team this season. For the first time in 47 years, the 10-0 Rams are the champions of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference, after upsetting Slippery Rock on the road last weekend — upsetting them by a 33-10 score. That moves them into Saturday's NCAA Division II first-round playoff game, hosting New Haven.
Now, for 20 of those 47 years, the PSAC East and PSAC West champs didn't meet for an overall conference title. Still, this is special.
West Chester has won six PSAC East titles since Zwaan got to West Chester in 2003, reached the NCAA playoffs nine times in his 16 years, and the national semifinals twice, after his Widener team had reached the D-III national semifinals in his six prior seasons there.
"We were talking about it. … For me, this goes to the top of the list, right up there — I don't know if I want to say top of the list, but it's right up there,'' Zwaan said of winning the PSAC.
If there were a 2018 Pennsylvania football coach of the year — all levels, from NFL to pee-wee — wouldn't it have to be Zwaan?
To Sama, who has been with Zwaan the whole time at Widener and West Chester, it's no mystery how it starts. Sama remembers getting calls from assistant coaches retained at West Chester after Zwaan switched schools, asking what the new boss was like.
It's not just attention to detail, Sama remembered telling them. It's that in every detail, he expected the players to come first, "period, the end." Don't eat a potato chip after a game until every player has gotten his food. If there's a loss, first go over what you could have done better. Start there.
Zwaan feels as if he has a good product to sell recruits in the school itself. But in the PSAC, the playing field gets tilted in different directions. Sometimes in his direction, but not always. He's allowed to keep 90 players on his squad, he told me this summer, and none are on full scholarship. He has eight full scholarships, but they end up getting divided among 60 players.
"The most anybody in our program gets is about $6,000,'' Zwaan said, noting that some PSAC West schools are up in the 20s or even at 30 scholarships.
"Every little bit helps our kids, but it isn't enough for them,'' Zwaan said. "A lot of kids have to work. That's the difference for us. In the summer, I have to let my kids go home and work."
The most scholarships he's ever had is 11, Zwaan said, but when the cost of attendance goes up, the money he's raised for scholarships doesn't automatically rise with it. The coaches are primarily responsible for fund-raising for their own programs.
"Even people at our school, professors and other people, think that people are on a football scholarship – that kid doesn't have to pay for anything,'' Zwaan said. "It's not like that."
That's the game. He's not complaining. The former Delaware quarterback under Tubby Raymond, now 64, also knows you take whatever luck you get along the way.
Like after his Rams had gotten past Shippensburg by a touchdown, the closest home game of this season.
"I'm walking back to my car — a car is running,'' Zwaan said, remembering how he noticed there were no people in the cars right there. "I'm thinking it was one of the Shippensburg parents."
He got in his own car. His radio was on?
"It's me,'' Zwaan suddenly realized.
When you leave your car running, go coach a football game, come back more than six hours later and the car is still running, you know maybe your luck is holding up. Bill Zwaan has never depended on good fortune — he'll jump behind the counter first — but for his 2018 Rams, there's just no telling when they run out of gas.