For the Love of the Game
VINNIE O’CONNOR Football Coach St. Francis Prep, Queens, NYC
INTERVIEWED BY BEN WEBER
A HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL LEGEND WHO HAS WON 274 GAMES IN 48 YEARS STILL GOING STRONG AT 71
You have been coaching at St. Francis Prep in Queens, New York City for the past 48 years and have recorded the greatest number of victories (274) in state history. How have you managed to be successful over such a long period?
O’CONNOR: To ensure any degree of success, you have to dedicate yourself to the task and get the max out of every player.
In my early years, I had to work primarily with kids from first generation families and I believe they had a more wholesome outlook on things. When a coach told them something, they took it as gospel. They weren’t as scholarship-oriented and had fewer distractions.
Since I hadn’t played college football, I had to study the game. While attending NYU on the GI bill, I approached the principal of St. Francis Prep and informed him that I had wanted to be a coach since elementary school, particularly in football. He must have liked the way I put it to him because he put me to work as an assistant coach.
I enjoyed dealing with young people and I loved the aura of the sport. Coming from very modest circumstances in an Italian ghetto, I had always been exposed to sports. The coaches always knew your name and being on the team gave you status in the community.
Whatever success I enjoyed as a coach, it was because I worked hard at it.
COACH: You’ve turned out nine players who made it into the NFL, including Coach Dan Henning. Henning said that you were always “totally dedicated to getting things done the right way.” How would you define your coaching philosophy?
O’CONNOR: I know you can enrich young people’s lives through coaching. That would be my philosophy — getting young people to believe in themselves.
I try to coach everyone as I would expect my son to be coached. Anyone who uses that as a guideline will never go too far wrong. I have always found that the people whom I liked the most were the ones who took the time to show me how to do things right without being pretentious about it. I’ve always felt that if I could do that in my coaching, people would listen and appreciate it.
I work my players hard. I make them repeat a play over and over again until we get it right. My players always hear me saying, “Just one more play, guys,” and they end up laughing about it.
COACH: Where did you learn to play the game and what position did you play in high school?
O’CONNOR: I was just a fair player at best. I started out as the eighth-team center at Manual Training H.S. (now called John Jay) in Brooklyn, New York. Being eighth in anything was pretty discouraging and I figured it was time to change positions. I became a third-string fullback.
Football enriched my life so much at a young age that I wanted to do the same for other kids.
COACH: How did you become the head coach at St. Francis?
O’CONNOR: I was the JV coach at St. Francis until 1955. The whole time I was going to clinics and watching films to learn about football. The head coach, Jack Boyle, left St. Francis and for some reason they gave me the head coaching job, I think because I was already working at the school.
My assistant coaches, Vinny Gargano and Johnny Boyle, had both played at the U. of South Carolina and I learned a lot from them.
COACH: What kind of offense did you use in your early years and what did you change as you went along?
O’CONNOR: Early on, I wrote to Bobby Dodd down at Georgia Tech, who was having a lot of success with the inside/outside Belly series.
He sent me film and information that I studied and inserted into our offense in my first season. We wound up co-league champs and I thought I was pretty hot stuff.
That encouraged me to continue going to clinics and asking questions. I had a lot to learn because I realized I didn’t know all the answers. But I knew that most of the people who did have the answers would help you out if you called them up with questions.
In the ’50s, the Oklahoma people were running a Split T that required a quarterback who could handle the ball well and run with it. Since we didn’t have anyone who could do that, we had to find something that would take the pressure off our QB.
I studied what the Notre Dame people were doing under Frank Leahy, who had been one of the first big-name coaches to switch to the T formation. I liked his offense. It had good blocking schemes and handoffs and faking. It was simple and could be mastered through repetition. The Leahy T gave our players confidence whenever they had to go up against bigger and faster players.
We did the same thing with the basic 50 Defense. It was geared to stop Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma offense, and we used it with variations over the years
I think one of the major differences today is that coaches do a lot better job of training their players and helping them get into college. When I played. there was no weight training. The feeling was that you would become muscle-bound and slow if you lifted! It took years for our coaches to disabuse themselves of such erroneous mythology.
COACH: St. Francis doesn’t have a home field and you now carry much of the team’s equipment in the trunk of your car. You also work for a small stipend. It’s staggering. How do you run practices? How do you support yourself?
O’CONNOR: We never had a home field. We used to practice in a Park in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn. It was just a big, wide-open field without goalposts or sidelines.
We also used to go down to the Parade Grounds adjacent to Prospect Park. That field had goalposts and lines (sometimes). but it was hard to get a permit to practice there. We now mostly practice in a wide-open space about two blocks from school.
I cut up a fire hose to use as our line of scrimmage, and put another one 10 yards away. We still use the fire hoses. At night, we throw them into the woods and we pick them up the next day.
We don’t have goalposts, but we’ve had some pretty good field-goal kickers. We just tell them to imagine the posts in the distance!
I don’t have an office or anything else in school. I carry the cones we use for drills in my car.
Next year, for the first time, we’ll have lockers. I won an award from the Frank McGuire Foundation and they gave me a scholarship worth $5,000 plus another $5,000 for two lockers — one at the field near the school and one at McCarren Park. The kids will be able to store their pads in the shed.
It’s a fabulous award, a godsend for our program, the perfect kind of gift for financially strapped high school sports programs.
One problem is that we cannot use blocking sleds. We can’t leave anything on the field that can be damaged or stolen. Unfortunately, the lack of a sled handicaps our drills and development work with the line.
COACH: And yet you’ve won 17 league championships!
O’CONNOR: What that shows is that you don’t need all that equipment as long as you train the right way and teach your kids how to run properly and tackle properly. When we work on our goal-line offense, we tell the kids there’s a goal line — though we don’t have one!
Kids are good that way. They understand that if we do well in practice we can overcome those things. If you approach it in a way that lets the kids know it isn’t a big deal, they will respond well and understand that sound football wins games.
COACH: In 1992, you were named the National High School Coach of the Year. (You also have been named New York’s Catholic High School Coach of the Year 20 times.)
What was so special about 1992?
O’CONNOR: I had always been a member of the national high school coaches organization, but I had never gone to any of its functions.
St. Francis won its regional award and I was invited to the national awards dinner. My wife and I wondered which of the other seven regional winners would win the national award. I thought it would be a guy from Michigan.
When they called my name, I jumped right out of my seat. I was really floating and they gave me a beautiful ring. It was a great honor.
COACH: Can you choose a favorite game, player, and team during your time at Francis Prep?
O’CONNOR: That always puts me into a very sticky situation.
Our 1966 and 1982 teams were special — they were undefeated. Our ’66 team was led by Larry DiNardo, who went on to become an All-American guard at Notre Dame. Paul Houlihan, the other tackle, became all-conference at North Carolina and is now the executive director of the Sugar Bowl. The halfback, Richie Szaro, played at Harvard and went on to kick for the New Orleans Saints.
Among the other outstanding players were DiNardo’s brother Gerry, who also made All-American at Notre Dame, then went on to coach LSU and Vanderbilt; Frank Pomarico, who played on that ’66 team and went on to become an All-American guard at Notre Dame, and most recently, Marco Battaglia, who is still playing for the Bengals.
What’s interesting about those four boys is that they were all from the same neighborhood, Howard Beach.
All of those boys were outstanding in their own way and it would be difficult to pick out a “best.” In fact, I could name at least another 10 who were just as deserving.
One interesting player was Bill Pickel. He was second-string with us. He got into a few games in his senior year, but he was just a big stringy kid, about 6-4, 190 lbs. I told him he had ability, but he had to go to prep school for a year to develop it.
He went to Milfred Academy in Connecticut and he improved enough to get a scholarship to Rutgers. He improved every year as a lineman, enough to get himself drafted by the Raiders and to play 11 seasons in the NFL.
COACH: Are you aware that your alma mater, John Jay H.S., a recent NYC champion, doesn’t have a home field either and practices on a hillside in Prospect Park.
O’CONNOR: That’s right. And the guys who coach such teams are heroes.
Our first game this year will be against Holy Cross on the Bayside High School field. It has no locker room and at halftime you just sit outside. There are no pads on the goalposts and there’s no clock. You never know what the hell time is left.
COACH: What’s responsible for the erosion of programs in urban areas?
O’CONNOR: In New York, the extracurricular programs have been left without a direct budget. The coach at Erasmus Hall H.S. was buying the helmets out of his own pocket. Do you have any idea what a helmet costs?
All of our schools should be funded by their communities. They shouldn’t have to go looking around for mouthpieces or reeds for their instruments.
Look at lacrosse. On Long Island (NY) they have lacrosse programs in elementary schools. In the city, they can’t even spell lacrosse.
Track programs no longer have long jump pits or high jump mats.
They have three coaches assigned to the public schools to run the varsity and the JV. They should have six coaches.
I also think the NFL could do more to help high schools.
And the sad thing is, we’re not talking about a whole lot of money in the grand scheme of things. With the proper funding we’d be helping an enormous amount of kids.
There has to be much more of a community effort to provide full programs for their kids.
COACH: What do you think can be done about the recent spate of heatstroke deaths at summer football practices?
O’CONNOR: It used to be that drinking water at practice was a sign of weakness. Thank God we’ve moved beyond that.
We allow our players to drink all the water they want, in addition to their regular water breaks. You will always have players who will practice through a lot of pain. We need medical supervision for our high school football teams as well as guidelines for such things as length of practice at certain temperatures.
COACH: What is it about football that keeps you coming back after all these years?
O’CONNOR: It is my life, the thing I do, the medium through which I work with people. It’s what I was exposed to as a young person. I grew up on the sandlots playing football.
The unique aspects of football are the powerful camaraderie between players and coaches and the kind of challenge that doesn’t exist in other sports.
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