By Joseph Staszewski
The St. Francis Prep and Holy Cross football programs have new head coaches for the first time in more than six and four decades respectively. The only thing that has really changed, however, are the names next to the titles.
Both new coaches, Rich Carroll at St. Francis Prep and Tim Smith for the Knights, were properly groomed for the job. So when legendary SFP head man Vince O’Connor died in February at the age of 85 and Tom Pugh chose to retire after 42 seasons at Holy Cross, the transition for both programs was almost seamless, outside of Smith having to wait four months to be officially hired.
Smith only pointed to a few minor changes.
“Maybe they will have green in their cleats now,” he said. “That’s about it.”
Both he and Carroll have in a sense been doing their new jobs already and have long relationships with the programs. Carroll, previously the associate head coach, played for O’Connor in the ’80s and has coached at SFP on-and-off for 13 seasons since 1997. As O’Connor slowed down over his final few years, more repsonsibility fell on Carroll’s shoulders.
“It’s a lot easier,” Terriers senior safety Marco Minichino said. “We are all used to him.”
The relationship between Smith and his players is very similar. He has coached in the Knights program for 17 of the seasons since 1996, taking three years off to be the head man at Nazareth. Pugh gave Smith, his defensive coordinator, more responsibly and decision-making opportunities the last two years. It has helped ease him into his new job.
“He had been telling me for years, ‘Eventually it is going to be you. So you might as well starting doing it now,’” Smith said.
The Knights players were hoping he would get the job, but the four-month wait for him to officially get it led to a few players choosing to transfer. Smith understands players’ concern that a new coach could have come in and thrown Holy Cross tradition out the window.
The guys in uniform couldn’t be happier to have him back, because in their mind he has already proven himself.
“The whole team was pushing for him to come back because he is a familiar face,” Knights linebacker Jeremiah Nelson said. “Coach Smith is a great coach. Even when he wasn’t head coach he was still kind of like a head coach for us.”
It continues to show that the best way to replace a legend is to learn from one. Smith will still reach out to Pugh for advice and Carroll wants his players to continue to learn from O’Connor through him and the other coaches who played for the legend. The stories they can tell and lessons they pass on make him a presence. O’Connor’s offense is also still in the playbook.
“We’ve run the belly series since 1957,” Carroll said.
It’s just another sign of how both he and Smith will take their cues from their mentors. Each is their own man and changes will be made here and there along the way, but for the most part you don’t throw way philosophies that aren’t broke and histories that are irreplaceable.
Choosing to maintain their schools’ traditions is the first and best decision that both could make in their new jobs.