NORTH ANDOVER – Back in the late 1990’s, Wilmington had a handful of extremely talented football teams. Certainly the 1998 team was remembered for being one of the biggest (size wise) teams in recent memory, while there was tremendous talent up and down the roster.
One of the tri-captains on that team was Mike Gennetti. He was one of those players, who lived, breathed and ate football, who wore his heart on his sleeve on every second of every play, and always, always gave second, third and fourth efforts every time he carried the ball and every time he tried to make a tackle.
After graduating from WHS in 1999, he went on to have a stellar career at Worcester State. He was a four-year starter as a defensive back, served as a captain as a senior, was named to the Worcester All-Area First Team, finishing sixth in the entire nation for Division 3 schools in defensive interceptions, making eight in nine games. Later that academic year, he was named the Senior Male Athlete of the Year winner for his leadership in sports at the school.
Knowing that his playing days were over, it didn't take Gennetti long to figure out that the game would never leave him. He joined the Worcester State coaching staff as an intern, before spending two years as the team's defensive backs coach and strength and conditioning coach. He helped the Lancer pass defense make an incredible improvement, going from 17th in the nation in 2003 to first in 2004.
Through a connection with another former WHS star player, Danny Ballou, Gennetti left Worcester State and joined the Merrimack College program. That was the spring of 2005 and he's been there ever since. He's served in various roles, including linebackers coach, before being named the Defensive Coordinator in 2011. He is entering his 17th season with the team, having worked for three different head coaches, which certainly says a lot considering new head coaches usually bring in their own guys.
This Saturday, Merrimack will open the 2021 fall season with a game against Holy Cross and Gennetti will again led the defense, hoping to shut down the Crusaders' offense.
“It's been pretty amazing. To be here this long is great. I never envisioned myself to be someone who was going to bounce around and try to chase down that Division 1 (head coach's) dream or anything. It's been great to be here and help build this program along with Coach (Dan) Curran. I have been lucky,” he said. “I've been through three head coaches, so it started with Jimmy Murphy, then John Perry and then Dan. I got here in the spring of 2005 after I had been with Worcester State for two years as an assistant coach/intern and just kind of learning from those guys there. I got an opportunity through Danny Ballou, who was on the staff here at the time.”
Gennetti immediately made an impact as the DC. In his first season, the defense ranked second in the NE-10 in yards allowed per contest, and third in total sacks and fumble recoveries. Two years later, the DL led the conference and was one of the best groups in the entire country with 36 QB sacks. In 2017, the Warriors ranked second in the league in rushing yards allowed per game.
Then in 2019, when the team was elevated to play D1, Merrimack led the conference in sacks, ranked among the leaders in interceptions and tackles for a loss, all while coming through with a winning record.
“We've changed quite a bit and have evolved defensively in the past probably five years or so,” he said. “I was very much a different scheme and a different philosophy coach, and in the past five years I just changed. The game has changed quite a bit, the college game. Just with all the different types of offensive schemes you see now so I have settled in to playing a lot more man-to-man, aggressive style (of defense). I'm away from the bend, don't break and more of attack, attack and attack, try to put the offense back on their heels a little bit more. It's been unbelievable for us adopting that type of philosophy. The kids have done a great job of relishing that challenge of playing man-to-man and pressuring the other team.”
With Merrimack competing in the NCAA Division 1 Football Championship Subdivision Northeast Conference, Gennetti said that there's a lot of spread offense with many wrinkles.
“There's a lot of spread offense here, a lot of quarterback run plays, zone read stuff where they are trying to really put guys into run-pass conflicts,” he said. “I decided at some point that I didn't want to live in that world anymore. I wanted to live in a world where we would be a little bit more dictating the flow of the game of stopping their offense as opposed to accepting what they are giving us. I was trying to make the most of it and the philosophy was shifted about five years ago to let's attack. Let's make them adjust to what we do as opposed to us adjusting to what they do. Make them kind of defend what we're doing.”
That philosophy change resulted in a brand new playbook.
“We're a middle closed defense, a single high safety team for the most part,” he explained. “We have some sub packages where we will have two high safeties in the game, but for the most part what we do is we close the middle of the field off and play aggressive type man-to-man. We pressure you, we attack you, we give you different fronts, different looks and we send people from different areas of the field.
“A lot of our interest comes from some of those higher level programs like the Michigans and the Ohio States and watching what they do. Then you also go out and network with other coaches, trying to find different ways to do things and kind of adopting it, seeing it and putting it into our system and trying to have it make sense for what we have and what we do. We play a ton of guys on defense. Our big thing is trying to find guys who can do certain things, let them do those certain things and let their confidence build and grow from there. Now everybody has a piece of it and you're not just playing eleven, twelve or thirteen guys, now we're playing probably twenty-two, twenty-three or twenty-four guys. If they can do something well, get them on the field and let them play.”
Starting with Saturday's game with Holy Cross, Merrimack has some high expectations competing in its second full season of D1 football. In order to be successful and win more than they lose, the defense has to shine.
“I look at Mike as more of a partner of this whole thing than just as my Defensive Coordinator,” said Curran. “If I have son, which I do, I would want him to go play for someone like Mike. He's a tremendous teacher and leader. He's done a great job of evolving as a DC and we're all excited to see where the defense is headed.”
Gennetti was asked if he ever thought about 'heading elsewhere' and become a head coach somewhere else, or even a DC at another program.
“No, no. I'm here just taking it year-by-year and just taking it in. I'm really focusing on what I'm doing here and not focusing on what could be. I'm just really dealing with the present. I'm not worrying about what happened in the past, and I'm just trying to look forward to the future doing the best that I can for Merrimack College. That's how I have to be,” he said.
He has to be that kid from Wilmington – and now resides in Derry, New Hampshire with his wife and three kids – who eats, breathes and lives the game of football.
“There's no question how much I love this game. I have been fortunate here. I taught and was part-time until 2012 and then I got the opportunity to go full-time. This is what I have always wanted and it just happened to have worked out here, while I was here,” he said.