One of the best things about scholastic sports is the way it links the past with the present and forms an unbroken chain from, say, Collingswood’s undefeated football team in 1948 to the Panthers who will take the field in 2018.
But time is tricky.
The calendar pages tear away. The memories fade. And even players and coaches and teams most deserving of remembrance get lost to history as seasons break loose and drift down like autumn leaves, school year after school year.
So here’s a hat tip to Northern Burlington High School athletic director Dan Uszaki and New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association assistant director Bill Bruno and their supporting casts for climbing the stairs, swiping at the cobwebs and pulling some old-time coaches into the limelight before they get shoved further into the back of the attic.
On Sunday, for the first time in the event’s 45-year history, the New Jersey Scholastic Coaches Association’s Hall of Fame will honor eight deceased coaches along with 35 living inductees in long-overdue recognition of incalculable contributions to high school sports in the state.
Among the eight who will be inducted posthumously are five legends from South Jersey including Collingswood’s Howard “Skeets” Irvine and Camden’s Phillips Brooks – namesakes of the 73-year-old Brooks-Irvine Memorial Football Club – as well as Haddon Heights’ George “Cap” Baker, Williamstown’s Roger Cassi and Wildwood’s George Betz.
“You’re talking to an ex-history major at Rowan University,” said Bruno, chairperson of the selection committee as well as the NJSCA’s secretary/treasurer. “You’ve got people who have stadiums named after them, gymnasiums named after them, and they weren’t in the Hall of Fame.
“History is so important. It’s so important that the young coaches and players of today realize and appreciate the work of the men and women who came before them.”
Credit the enthusiastic Uszaki with serving as a driving force to this welcome development.
Working with fellow South Jersey Coaches Association official Mike Gatley, the athletic director at Mainland, Uszaki made it his mission over the last couple of years to dig through the archives, check the record books and identify area coaches who, for whatever reason, had not been given their state-wide due.
“I love this stuff,” Uszaki said. “How these coaches got lost somehow, who can say? It’s nobody’s fault. Time passes, and there’s turnover of coaches and administrators, and sometimes things just get lost in the shuffle.
“But I just thought it was important that we recognize what they meant to South Jersey sports.”
Accepting Irvine’s award on Sunday will be his great-granddaughter Nicole Irvine Crouse, who will travel to Princeton from her home in Gilbert, Ariz.
“I heard so much about him growing up,” Irvine Crouse, 33, said of her great-grandfather. “I’ll be proud to be there. The Irvine family is so proud of its heritage.”
Hank Rossell also is planning to be in attendance to honor Irvine. Rossell, 91, is one of the legendary coach’s last surviving athletes, having played football for Irvine from 1941-43 before graduating from Collingswood in 1944.
“A great man,” Rossell said of Irvine. “I was blessed to play football for Skeets Irvine.”
Youth are the future
Brooks was the long-time football coach and athletic director at Camden. He worked at the school on the corner of Baird and Park boulevards in the city’s Parkside section from 1918 until his death at the age of 49 in 1945.
Brooks’ death inspired the formation of the football club that bears his name “to perpetuate the memory of the late Phillips R. Brooks and . . . promote sportsmanship and team play; to help in furthering better relations between coaches and officials; and to be instrumental in bringing together those interested in the national fall pastime,” according to the club’s mission statement.
At the Brooks-Irvine Memorial Club’s annual banquet in December, an official from the organization reads an epitaph written by Harry Rasmussen and dedicated to the two namesakes that includes the opening line: “Their every act was an act of faith that America’s future lies in its youth.”
Baker coached football, basketball and baseball at Haddon Heights, where the old stadium with the concrete bleachers bears his name. He was best-known as the Garnets’ football coach from 1939-52, a stretch in which three of his teams were undefeated.
Baker’s 1944 squad, the so-called “Super Team of Second Avenue,” was undefeated and unscored upon, although it finished 7-0-1 since its annual Thanksgiving Day game with rival Haddonfield ended in an epic 0-0 tie. The Garnets outscored opponents that season by 190-0.
Betz was the long-time basketball coach and athletic director at Wildwood and one of the early proponents of girls’ sports in South Jersey scholastic competition. A bracket of the annual Boardwalk Basketball Classic at the Wildwood Convention Center is named for him.
Cassi was among the founding fathers of the Olympic Conference in 1959. He was the long-time boys’ basketball coach at Williamstown, where his 1966 team made the state finals, and served for 30 years as a track and field official.
Stuff of legends
Irvine’s career was the stuff of legends, from his remarkable record to the story-book circumstances of his death at the age of 51 on Thanksgiving in 1948.
Irvine was in his hospital bed when he heard that his last team had completed a 10-0 season that day with a victory over rival Woodbury. He died that night.
“That’s the story that’s always been told in our family,” Irvine Crouse said.
In 30 seasons starting in 1919, Irvine compiled an astounding record of 223-57-16. He coached six undefeated teams and 11 one-loss teams. His last team in 1948 outscored foes by a combined total of 240-32.
“One time when I was around Kindergarten age I was sitting on my steps in front of my house and a man walked by who I didn’t know,” Rossell said. “He looked at me and said, ‘I bet you’re like all the boys in Collingswood and you want to play football for Skeets Irvine, don’t you?’
“It was impossible for anybody to be more respected than Skeets Irvine was in Collingswood.”
Irvine, Brooks, Baker, Betz and Cassi all were respected in their time.
Fittingly on Sunday, they will be remembered, too.
New Jersey Scholastic Coaches Association Hall of Fame induction
Sunday, 1 p.m. at The Westin Princeton
- A total of 43 coaches will be honored, including the first class of post-humous inductees.
- Five deceased South Jersey coaches will be among the first class of post-humous inductees, including Collingswood’s Howard “Skeets” Irvine, Haddon Heights’ George “Cap” Baker, Camden’s Phillips Brooks, Williamstown’s Roger Cassi and Wildwood’s George Betz.
- Three South Jersey coaches will be among the living inductees, including recently-retired West Deptford football coach Clyde Folsom, West Deptford field hockey coach Linda Decker and Wildwood Catholic girls’ basketball coach Steve DiPatri.