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Prep football coach celebrates 60th year

TimesLedger Newspapers

Dylan King has seen his family attempt to talk to his grandfather Vince O’Connor about retiring from coaching football at St. Francis Prep. And the answer is always the same.

“He just says, ‘Next year’ and never retires,” the senior lineman said.

The legendary head man is starting his 60th season at St. Francis Prep and 59th as the school’s varsity coach. He joked that his wife Rose wanted him to give it up 50 years ago, but he is still going strong at the age of 81. O’Connor, who has had a chance to coach his son Martin and grandsons Dylan and Patrick, is still at all of the squad’s off-season workouts, practices and games. He even was ejected in 2009 for arguing a call against Fordham Prep.

“I enjoy what I do,” O’Connor said. “It’s as simple as that.”

O’Connor started coaching when SFP was on North 6th Street in Brooklyn and Harry Truman was president. He has 326 wins — second in state history — 16 CHSFL titles, including 14 at the highest classification. He has coached nine pros, four Walter Camp All-Americans and coaches like former New York Jets and Giants offensive coordinator Dan Henning, Rutgers head man Kyle Flood, C.W. Post head Coach Bryan Collins and retired Chaminade Coach Bill Basile. The school’s new multimillion-dollar training center is named after him.

“It’s something most schools will never, ever encounter,” St. Francis athletic director Sal Fischetti said. “You are never going to find anybody now that can establish a legacy [like] he has.”

O’Connor’s legacy stretches far beyond what his teams have accomplished on the field, but playing for O’Connor has created a close bond among his former players. All but one of the Terriers coaches on all three levels have played for O’Connor from the 1960s to present day. Some will come back to help out for a few hours, often taking their lunch break to do so.

“Everybody here has that father figure relationship with him,” head assistant Richie Carroll said. “They are all looking for his approval.”

Added assistant Coach Justin Kelly: “He is the cement that holds this all together.”

A few things haven’t changed in 60 years. O’Connor played his high school football at Manual Training, now Secondary Schools for Law, Journalism and Research, and still lives in a rent-controlled apartment in Park Slope. The Terriers still practice on public park fields and have never had a goal post to work with. The team’s line of scrimmage and first down markers are still fire hoses donated by alumni in the Fire Department. There are also the cars honking their horns as they pass the team practicing at Cunningham Park.

“That’s the Holy Cross people giving us the business,” O’Connor said with smile.

The now soft-spoken coach’s strength has always been on his blackboard. Even today he challenges his coaches to solve different situations. Kelly was a sophomore on the 1966 team, considered by O’Connor to be his best. He remembers the coach coming in at halftime, making a few adjustments and watching his team run the play for a touchdown the next time they used it.

“He knew exactly what he was doing; just show him where the other team was,” Kelly said. “He was like a film in his head before film became popular.”

The support from his family — especially his daughter Rose — and his coaching staff is one of the biggest reasons O’Connor is still able to keep coaching. They provide him rides to and from games or allow him to travel to scout an opponent.

The program hasn’t played at the same level as in the past last few seasons, moving down into the CHSFL’s ‘AA-A,’ the league’s second division, last year. The Terriers went 5-4 and lost in the Class A title game. SFP expects to be better this year behind a strong junior class.

O’Connor’s presence still has a strong effect on his current players, many of whose brothers or fathers played for him. He can still recite the personal story of many of his current and former players.

“Everyone will be tired, kind of moping around a little bit,” said Terrance Stackpole, who has numerous family members play at the Queens school. “He will come over and everyone will start running more. He’s definitely still a force.”

O’Connor’s legacy will be etched in the program even after he decides to stop coaching because of the impact he’s had on the players who still come back to coach. For now he remains as a reminder of what the team is playing for and a link to everyone who has put on a St. Francis Prep jersey.

“We talk about pride and tradition,” Carroll said. “Every day we have tradition walk out on the field.”

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