Simply by virtue of chance, I got to know without a doubt two of the greatest coaches in the history of the game of football on two levels.
One, Wayne Hardin, is in the College Football Hall of Fame.
The other, Mike Pettine Sr., shockingly passed away on Friday while playing golf in my favorite Florida town, Land O’Lakes in Pasco County.
The two men have a lot in common.
One retired from Temple at the tender age of 55; the other retired on top of the Pennsylvania High School coaching world after leading Central Bucks West to its third-straight state title at the age of 56.
Both loved the game of golf.
Both loved the state of Florida.
Both were fiercely competitive.
Both paid meticulous attention to detail.
In a football offseason a long time ago, I played a two-on-two basketball game with both Mike Pettines, the 40-some coach and his 12-year-old kid. Pettine guarded my taller teammate, a 6-foot-2 reporter named Jay Nagle, while the young Pettine guarded me. After I hit my third-straight jumper at the top of the key, Pettine yelled: “GUARD HIM!!!”
Just a friendly game of two-on-two, but that’s how competitive Mike Pettine Sr. was.
Both Pettine and Hardin are reasons why I do not suffer coaching fools lightly, and why, for instance, I was appalled that Temple had 120 yards in penalties against Penn State in a 34-27 loss last season. When I was a reporter at the Doylestown Intelligencer, I did a story on why Pettine’s Bucks had so few penalties each and every year. (Hell, CB West went one year with less than 100 yards in penalites.)
In it, I quoted players—past and then present—who said that Pettine would run a play until it was executed perfectly.
“Run it again,” Pettine would say if a lineman had jumped a count or something else went awry. “Run it again!” was a phrase you would hear as twilight turned to dark at every CB West practice. When the play was run four or five consecutive times to perfection, Pettine would move on to the next play.
That’s how you eliminate penalties, in the five practice days before a game, not by yelling at players during a game.
To me, penalties are mostly completely needless factors that cause losses and are directly traceable to the head coaches.
Pettine approached the entire game that way, squeezing every ounce out of the talent he had. He would study opposition film as if cramming for a final, which was a trait he had in common with Hardin. His final state championship win, a blocked punt in the last minute won the game and it was by virtue of design and not luck. “We had two punt blocks designed specifically for that opponent and the one we called we had a greater degree confidence in it working,” he said.
What Pettine did by posting a 346-42-4 career record might never be accomplished again at a neighborhood school, or a “town” school, which CB West really was sharing the same town with CB East.
I talked to Mike every Thursday night for 10 straight years in doing the Friday football previews for the Doylestown Intelligencer. Once, at the end Dick Beck’s senior year, I casually asked him: “Where is Dick Beck going to school?” He said, “probably West Chester or Towson.”
Knowing how good Beck was, I told him that wasn’t happening and I would talk to Bruce Arians. One thing led to another, as Bruce called Pettine and got game tapes. Four years later, Beck was only captain of the 1990 7-4 Owls. Now Beck is the head coach at North Penn.
Pettine knew I was friendly with coach Hardin and often our game preview talks would venture off into other areas, talking about the players he sent to play for Hardin like Doug Shobert, Tom Duffy, Jeff Stempel and Dr. Pat Carey, among others.
When my other alma mater, Archbishop Ryan, was working on a long winning streak, I suggested to Pettine that he play Ryan. I gave him Ryan coach John Quinn’s phone number and Pettine, who never backed away from a challenge, scheduled a home-and-home with Ryan.
The Bucks won both games, 22-14 and 14-7, and, after the second win, Pettine took me aside afterward.
“Mike, me and (assistant coach) Mike Carey were talking about what we would be able to do if we were coaching a high school of 2,000 boys,” Pettine said of Ryan. “I’d love to have that luxury.”
At the time, CB West had 600 boys. Most of them weren’t as talented as Dick Beck or Doug Shobert. They would fall into the category of a 5-8, 150-pound wingback named Michael Smerconish who made contributions by running the same plays over and over again. Smerconish now has his own political show on CNN.
Pettine made all the ones who played for him men.
When Bruce Arians was fired at Temple, I suggested Pettine throw his hat into the ring.
Mike politely declined.
“Mike, I think Gerry Faust ruined it for all of us high school coaches,” he said, referring to the guy who went from Cincinnati Moeller straight to Notre Dame.
“They got the wrong high school coach,” I said.
And they did because I wish everyone got to know how great Mike Pettine was the same way I did and why so many of us are heartbroken today.