When Sam Tropiano arrived at Bishop Eustace Prep as a teacher and baseball coach in 1990, he went straight to Pete Johnston, the school's most magnetic personality, for advice.
"Pete told me, 'You can't talk to these kids enough,'" Tropiano said. "He knew it was all about relationships. He told me, 'It's not the Xs and Os, it's the Jimmys and Joes.'"
Mr. Johnston, a legendary player and coach at Bishop Eustace, died Monday at the age of 72. He had been battling pulmonary fibrosis.
Mr. Johnston was remembered by his former players as a mentor on the basketball court and off it.
"He was a father figure," said Bob Falconiero, who started for Johnston on three state championship teams in the mid-1970s. "He was the guy we listened to. He guided us in basketball, in school and in life."
Falconiero, an orthopedic surgeon who played at Lafayette and has been the Bishop Eustace basketball coach for 13 seasons, remained close with Mr. Johnston long after the end of his playing career.
"Pete was a guy who made sure we all stayed on the right path," Falconiero said. "It continued for me after high school through college, medical school, getting married and having kids. I always looked to Pete for guidance through my whole life."
Mark Lonetto was the star guard on Mr. Johnston's first state championship team in 1973. Lonetto later played at Penn.
"Next to my father, nobody had more influence on me than Pete," Lonetto said. "He would do anything for me, for us. He would go above and beyond and when you have a coach like that, it makes you want to do more and more because you don't want to let him down."
Bishop Eustace has won seven state titles in boys' basketball in its history and Mr. Johnston was connected with each of those teams.
He played on Crusaders state championship teams in 1961 and 1962. He was teammates with the legendary Billy Melchionni, who later was a member of the 76ers' 1967 NBA championship squad and played seven seasons for the New York Nets in the ABA.
Mr. Johnston was an assistant under Joe O'Connor for the 1969 Bishop Eustace team, which went 26-0 and is regarded as one of the best teams in South Jersey history.
Mr. Johnston was the head coach of Bishop Eustace teams that won four state titles in a row, from 1973 through 1976.
"He had a way of getting us to buy into the system, of doing the things he wanted us to do," Falconiero said. "He just communicated all the time."
Lonetto, who was classmates and teammates with future Villanova star John Olive on the 1973 squad that is regarded as one of the top teams of that era, said Mr. Johnston had the unique ability to get the most out of his players.
"He didn't over-coach," Lonetto said. "He let us play."
Lonetto said Mr. Johnston always stressed sportsmanship.
"That was such a big thing with him — 'Win with class,'" Lonetto said.
Tropiano, who has been Bishop Eustace's baseball coach for the last 28 years, said Johnston's death was "devastating" to the school community.
"Such a special guy," Tropiano said.
Mr. Johnston grew up in Oaklyn. He was a 1963 Bishop Eustace graduate. He attended Mt. St. Mary's on a basketball scholarship and spent 39 years at Bishop Eustace as a coach and guidance's counselor.
Mr. Johnston loved to golf and play cards. He was remembered as a friendly, fun-loving and family-oriented man.
"Pete always was in a good mood," Falconiero said. "He was always positive. Even through this [his illness]. I talked to him two weeks ago and it was always, 'How are you? How is your family?' It was never about him and what he was going through."
Mr. Johnston is survived by his wife of 39 years, Michele (Tinney) as well as five children, Megan, Lisa, Peter (Stephanie), Shannon and Jennifer (Philip) as well as five grandsons – "his own basketball team!" according to his daughter Megan.
Visitation is Thursday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and Friday from 9 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. at Christ Our Light church on Kings Highway in Cherry Hill. A funeral mass will be held at 10:30 a.m.