When legendary North Bergen head football coach Vince Ascolese announced last November that he was going to retire after 39 glorious seasons leading the Bruins, a career that culminated with the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV state championship in December, there was a swirl of speculation hovering around the program about who would be the one to replace Ascolese at the helm.
The rumors were rampant, with names flying about. Former assistant coaches in the program were thought to be frontrunners. Former local head coaches were in the mix.
No one could have ever predicted who eventually emerged from the list of candidates. It was a complete outsider with no local ties whatsoever.
In fact, the North Bergen Board of Education reached all the way to the state of Texas to find Ascolese’s successor.
Jimmy Crane is a 53-year-old native of Beaumont, Texas. He played football at Pasadena High School, in a town made famous in the 1980s by the movie “Urban Cowboy” starring John Travolta and Debra Winger, featuring the country/western bar Gilley’s, complete with the famous mechanical bull.
“I never rode the bull,” Crane laughed.
From Pasadena High, Crane went on to play football at Sam Houston State, but all along, he knew he wanted to be a football coach.
“It was probably my junior year of high school when I realized what I wanted to be,” Crane said.
In 1981, Crane took his first job as a football coach and began a career that somehow has brought him to North Bergen, N.J. of all places.
For the past nine years, Crane had been working as a top assistant coach at The Woodlands High School in Woodlands, Texas, a school that produced current New York Giants special teams coach Larry Izzo and current St. Louis Rams wide receiver Danny Amendola.
While Crane was coaching at The Woodlands, his wife, Debbie, got a job in New York.
“All of our girls are grown, either on their own or in college,” Crane said. “She wanted this job in Manhattan, so she moved to Edgewater last January . I stayed in Texas for a while.”
Eventually, Crane missed his wife and moved north to be with her.
“It was tough,” Crane said. “I spent nine good years with that program and didn’t know if I wanted to leave.”
But eventually, Crane decided to join his wife in New Jersey.
“Even before I left Texas, I started to apply for jobs up here,” Crane said. “I kept saying that the right job would eventually come around.”
While residing in nearby Edgewater, Crane followed the plight of the North Bergen football team and the Bruins’ remarkable run to the state championship.
“I did follow New Jersey high school football,” Crane said. “I did read about North Bergen’s state sectional run. I followed all of the stronger schools. Once high school football is in your blood, it stays there. I knew North Bergen had won.”
Soon after the season ended, Crane noticed a classified advertisement that showed North Bergen was looking for a head football coach.
“I saw it in one of the local papers and saw that North Bergen was open,” Crane said. “I also saw it in a coach’s newsletter. I decided to give [North Bergen athletic director] Jerry Maietta a call to see if there was interest and he told me to send my stuff in.”
Crane sent his resume package to Maietta, like he had done for several other schools in the area.
“Based on the other places I had applied to, I didn’t know how good of a shot I had to get the North Bergen job,” Crane said.
Crane was called in for an interview, then received a follow-up second interview with the coaching search committee that was comprised of former football coaches Frank Garguilo and Tom Roberts, along with Maietta.
“After the second interview, I felt good about my chances,” Crane said. “The committee was very professional and asked me a lot of good questions. I thought I handled it well and I got more excited about my chances.”
Last Wednesday, Maietta called Crane and told him that he was getting the job. The committee had found their man, albeit the biggest dark horse in the field.
“First and foremost, I consider it to be an honor to be the new head coach and following a guy who had done so much for football in North Bergen,” Crane said. “I mean, for Coach Ascolese to be in the same place for so long, it showed how much he loved this program and I can’t even begin to try to replace that. I am just going to try to uphold the tradition.
Added Crane, “When you stop and think about it, I’m following in the footsteps of a legend who won so many games and championship, coaching on the Vincent Ascolese Field. That tradition is amazing. I look forward to meeting Coach Ascolese and getting to know him. As a new head coach, I’m not going to try to do a lot of things differently.”
Crane said that he is already working on the transition to becoming the new Bruins’ head coach and only the third in the history of the school. Crane takes over a program that was initiated by a legend in the late gridiron great Joe Coviello, then turned over to a fellow legend in Ascolese. This is not an easy task ahead for the man from Texas.
“First, I have to get a coaching staff lined up, then I have to meet with the players,” Crane said. “I have a long list of things I have to do. Saturday night, I was sitting at home and my wife Debbie asked me what I was thinking about. I told her, ‘Special teams.’ I’m already thinking.”
Crane was scheduled to meet his new players earlier this week.
“I am very excited to meet them and get the off-season lined up,” Crane said. “I think the key to success is getting everyone on the same page. If you get your staff working together, then everything comes easier. As much success as Coach Ascolese had and left with, I still think it might take a little time for me to get to know everyone. But I’m ready and willing to get it started.”
Crane was asked if he ever could have imagined that he would end up coaching high school football in New Jersey. He does have experience coaching locally, having spent one season at Hofstra University, working under the late Joe Gardi, a member of the Hudson County Sports Hall of Fame and working with former New York Jets standout receiver Wayne Chrebet.
“It’s funny how this all worked out,” Crane said. “I knew I wanted to be a head coach somewhere. It’s something I’m really looking forward to.”
And with that, the scrutiny of taking over for a local football legend begins. You can be rest assured the minute something goes a little astray on Crane, the critics will rear their ugly head and question the move of bringing him in. It’s now up to Jimmy Crane to prove those critics wrong.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.