By Joseph Staszewski
Legendary St. Francis Prep football coach Vince O’Connor’s, who led the Terriers for more than six decades, died Saturday at the age of 85.
O’Connor just completed his 62nd season coaching at the school and his 61st as varsity coach. He won 341 games during his career, good enough for second place in New York state behind the 364 by Howie Vogts of Bethpage. While doing so he instilled lessons that went far beyond wins and losses.
“The life lesson he taught his former players was do for others,” Terriers associate head coach Rich Carroll said. “He was just an amazing man and it is a huge loss for our program.”
O’Connor had gradually turned over the coaching reins to Carroll in recent years. Carroll said O’Connor, a Park Slope resident, finally started cutting back last season. He made all the games and about 90 percent of practice, after rarely missing any. O’Connor’s health had declined in the last two weeks, according to school Athletic Director Sal Fischetti. The news of his death hit the St. Francis Prep community and football family hard. He died at his daughter’s home in Floral Park.
“I think one of the things that makes this a big issue is that he’s been there so long, nobody thought he’d not be there,” Carroll said.
O’Connor began coaching in 1953 when St. Francis Prep was on North 6th street in Brooklyn and he was one of the founders of the Catholic High School Football League, which just celebrated its 60th anniversary. He won a record 16 CHSFL titles, including 14 at the highest classification.
“This is the death of a legend here,” Fischetti said. “You lose a guy like Jack Curran. You lose a guy like Vinny O’Connor, forget it”
Under O’Connor the Terriers had six undefeated seasons and won five Class AAA titles in a span of eight years from 1983-1990 and lost in the next two finals. O’Connor’s last crown was in 2005 when the Terriers beat St. Peter’s for the Class AA championship. He was the league’s coach of the year 20 times.
“He’s a tremendous coach and a tremendous man,” Holy Cross football coach Tom Pugh said. He did so much for so many people. One of the class guys.”
O’Connor coached nine pros, four Walter Camp All-Americans and coaches like former Jets and Giants offensive coordinator Dan Henning, Rutgers head man Kyle Flood, C.W. Post head coach Bryan Collins and retired Chaminade coach Bill Basel. St. Francis Prep’s multimillion-dollar training center in Fresh Meadows is named after him.
“Mr. O’Connor was a special guy, in my life and the lives of countless of other people who had the opportunity to play for him,” Flood said.
O’Connor was born in Brooklyn and attended Holy Name Elementary School and Manual Training High School. He played football and ran track in high school. O’Connor earned a bachelor’s in physical education from New York University and a master’s from Brooklyn College as well as one from Teachers College, Columbia University.
When he returned home from serving 18 months in Korea in the U.S. Army, he was named the junior varsity football coach at St. Francis Prep. O’Connor, who then made a career in education, was a physical education teacher and guidance counselor. He was also the field events coach for the St. Francis Prep track team from 1953-61 and at John Jay High School from 1962-66.
Even as his role with the football team decreased in recent years, his message and lessons still resonated. The staff made sure the players heard from O’Connor as much as possible, knowing the importance of his wisdom being passed on to another generation.
“Every time I spoke to coach he always ended up making me not only a better football player but also a better person,” senior quarterback Robert Einersen said.
O’Connor is survived by his wife Mary, his son Martin, daughter Mary Rose and four grandchildren. His wake was held in the St. Francis Prep auditorium and the funeral was scheduled at the school on Thursday.
“They’re going to need every inch of space they can get,” Flood said before the funeral. “I’m sure it will be standing-room only for somebody who has impacted a number of lives.”