Smerconish: Pettine lessons remembered most weren't about football

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Central Bucks West football coach Mike Pettine gives a serious stare at one of his players for running a play wrong during practice.

Mike Pettine's passing from a heart attack at age 76 has deservedly been afforded widespread coverage in both the Inquirer and suburban newspapers. The legendary football coach at C.B. West earned that sort of fame in his 33-year head-coaching career, which garnered him one of the best records among coaches in Pennsylvania history while leading his teams to four state championships. Pettine produced countless blue-chip players who went on to the college and even professional ranks. Many of the recent tributes have underscored his proficiency with the X's and O's of the game. All true. But let me give you the view from the bench.

My name never rose higher than third string in the two years I played for Coach Pettine. And if I had any doubt as to my standing, I was always able to consult the depth chart that hung in the locker room. Long before the age where everyone got a trophy, there was no ambiguity as to where you stood on a Pettine squad. Although I'd previously quarterbacked a championship team in junior high school (surrounded by a three-person backfield of future college standouts), my best days were behind me by the time I got to high school.

Coach Pettine never did get my time in the 40 under 5.0, teach me to throw a consistent spiral, or effectively run the option - though he tried. Each of those would surely have helped me in the short term. Better, however, was the influence he had on me for the long haul. If I were to list examples he set for his players, it would sound like those posters you see advertised in the magazines found in the storage compartments of airline seats.

Hard work. Commitment. Organization. Preparation. Discipline.

See, there never was any secret sauce in the C.B. West football dynasty. Pettine was an old-school practitioner of the fundamentals. He won by executing the basics. He was the Warren Buffett of high school football. And no better proof of how he inspired can be found than the success of his namesake, Mike Pettine Jr., who at age 47 was named head coach of the NFL's Cleveland Browns. To the extent I've had any modicum of success in life, it has been by following the Pettine playbook, even if not appreciating the origin of the lesson plan. And that is his true legacy. But don't take the word of this benchwarmer. Consider the perspective of a superstar.

There was no shame in my standing as No. 3 given who was No. 1, Kevin Ward. Ward was a gifted athlete in all sports, recruited while in high school to play both football and baseball in Division I college. Nationally, among the high school graduating classes of 1979, there were three studs coveted by major schools: Dan Marino, John Elway, and Kevin Ward. After being recruited by Notre Dame and Penn State, Ward chose the University of Arizona because he was able to play both football and baseball. In football, he began as a quarterback and then moved to wide receiver. In baseball, he led the Pac 10 in hitting in his junior year, batting .404. Ward then spent 8½ years in the minor leagues and overcame two serious injuries en route to fulfilling his lifelong dream of playing Major League Baseball. And when he made it, as a San Diego Padre, you know who was there to watch.

"Coming to Veterans Stadium, where I had watched my heroes from the 700 level as a kid from Chalfont was a dream," Ward told me. "I was finally playing center field on a Sunday afternoon, and Harry Kalas and Richie Ashburn were up in the booth. Countless friends and family came and watched. It was surreal. As I was exiting the players' tunnel after the day game, getting ready to board the bus for the drive north to play the Mets at Shea, I heard this unforgettable deep voice, 'Hey, Ward,' that bellowed out and echoed off the concrete slabs. I looked to my left and there was Coach Pettine with that big smile of his. I went over to the rope line and shook his hand and we gave each other a backslap hug. 'I wanted to tell you how proud I am of you,' he said. He knew my story. He knew I'd never give up. That was the part of him that was out there with me on that major-league field."

Today Ward applies Pettine's work ethic to his successful restaurant, Greystone Steakhouse, now celebrating its 18th year in San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter near Petco Park. Having played sports from sandlot to professional, Ward regards Pettine as his greatest coach.

"There's not even a close second," Ward said. "Anything I ever faced, every difficulty, every adversity, as an athlete and off the field, I was prepared to face as Coach Pettine taught us. Never give up. Expect great things to happen. Make them happen by outworking your opponent and relying on your team and your brothers around you to seize the day," Ward said.

There's a debatable point as to whether a coach starting today could succeed in his mold. Coach Pettine was not for the faint of heart. He was a drill sergeant. Intense. Vocal. Today, more than three decades later, I can picture him standing on the practice field behind C.B. West in his trademark baseball cap, with wide frameless lenses, whistle around the neck, clipboard in his hand, and yelling things like, "Get him out of here" or "Who can't go, who can't go?" And if I close my eyes I'm back in the locker room during summer camp - a makeshift series of hangers erected in the school's underground rifle range - and hearing all the guys imitate Pettine's voice and mannerisms, while out of the coach's earshot.

His record was astounding: 326-42-4. But his life shouldn't be reduced to even those impressive numbers. Instead it will be perpetuated by the many young men he coached.

Michael Smerconish can be heard 9 a.m. to noon on SiriusXM's POTUS Channel 124. He hosts "Smerconish" at 9 a.m. Saturdays on CNN.