North Bergen legend Ascolese reaches prestigious win plateau
When Vince Ascolese first headed onto a practice field as a high school football head coach, he was all of 23 years old, barely older than most of his players. He was tabbed to become the new head coach at Hoboken High School in 1962, the first year that the school earned the distinction of the Mile Square City, shedding the old Demarest High School tag.
"I was 23 and very excitable back then," Ascolese recalled. "Hoboken had six or seven losing seasons in a row and then they hired me. I only had three assistant coaches, so I practically had to do everything. I was a nervous wreck that year. I went from 210 pounds to 180 just from coaching. There was so much responsibility, so much to do. I was going insane."
Ascolese and his wife, Pat, were newlyweds, having taken the walk up the aisle the previous February. His coaching career was only a year old, and the man who would eventually become the all-time leader in Hudson County football coaching victories was staring at the crossroads.
"I wondered if I could keep doing it," Ascolese said. "We were 1-7 that first year. But then, I became more determined. I was sure I could do it. I knew I had to get it done. I worked even harder and pushed myself even harder. I wasn't going to fail. The job also got easier because of the kids."
The Hoboken kids of the early '60s were a determined bunch. One of those kids was a sleek wide receiver named Ed Stinson, who went on to become a pretty fair coach on his own.
"Stinson was part of the group that followed after the first year," Ascolese recalled. "We turned it around pretty well in the second year and went 5-3. Stinson was one of the first top players I had at Hoboken. We kept getting more and more kids who wanted to play."
By the third year, Ascolese knew he was in coaching for the long haul. His Hoboken team managed to tie North Bergen, coached by the legendary Joe Coviello - ironically, the man that Ascolese would eventually replace at North Bergen and the coach who Ascolese would later topple as the most successful in Hudson County history.
"It was unbelievable for me to be able to tie Joe Coviello," Ascolese said. "Coviello set a standard for everyone else to follow. In my mind, he was the best to ever put the cleats on. For me, that was the sign I was making it, tying North Bergen and Coviello."
Little did Ascolese know that his Hoboken teams would go on to defeat North Bergen and the late Coviello for six of the next seven years.
Hoboken captured the Group IV state championship in 1967 and Ascolese was well on his way to carving his own niche as a phenomenal football coach. He could have stayed in Hoboken for as long as he wanted.
But in 1973, he was offered the opportunity to coach in North Bergen, where he had already established a home with Pat and their two young children.
"It was really hard for me," Ascolese said. "It was a tough, emotional time for me. I couldn't leave Hoboken, because I got so accustomed to the kids. But I had two kids in the schools in North Bergen. It was a good move for me. I had such strong ties with Hoboken. We grew up together. It really was hard."
Apparently, it got harder after Ascolese took the North Bergen job - because in his third game at the new school, North Bergen faced Hoboken.
"We went back to Hoboken and it was brutal," Ascolese said. "They hung me in effigy. There was so much pressure that game."
Ascolese found instant success at North Bergen. In his first year, the Bruins won the HCIAA championship.
"Coviello left me with a very good team," Ascolese said. "The kids accepted me right away. There was never a problem at North Bergen."
It was the beginning of a great marriage between Ascolese and North Bergen, one that would evolve to where one couldn't be mentioned without the other. Vince Ascolese became synonymous with North Bergen and its superb football program.
"North Bergen had everything rolling back then," Ascolese said. "Kids were coming out. Ira Wolfe had his weight training program. It was almost expected that you won."
In 1975, the Bruins reached a state title game for the first time. In 1977, they captured the Group IV state crown, defeating Snyder in Giants Stadium in a classic. A year later, the Bruins duplicated the feat, beating Passaic Valley in the title game at Giants Stadium, securing the position as the No. 1 team in New Jersey, winning the coveted Star-Ledger Trophy.
Only three teams in Hudson County history (the Bruins of 1978, the St. Peter's Prep team of 1994 and Stinson's Hoboken Red Wings in 1996) have ever captured the title of being the No. 1 team in all of New Jersey.
"Those are great memories for me," Ascolese said. "There was nothing like those times."
But the winning didn't end in 1978. In fact, it was just beginning.
Ascolese's Bruins won countless HCIAA titles and went on to win NJSIAA Group IV titles in 1984, 1988, 1990 and 1997, when the Bruins shocked the world by going 12-0. Six state titles at North Bergen, one at Hoboken - definitely an impressive ledger of excellence.
Last Friday night, Ascolese added another accolade to his already burgeoning list of accomplishments. When the Bruins defeated Snyder, 32-14, it gave Ascolese the 300th win of his coaching career.
Only two other coaches, Warren Wolf of Brick Township and Vic Paternostro of Pope John (Sparta), had collected 300 coaching victories. It is an elite group of three.
Wolf, a West New York native who began his coaching career at Memorial with the immortal Coviello, was pleased to hear that Ascolese had collected his 300th victory.
"I'm so glad to hear that," Wolf said in a phone interview Sunday night. "Vinnie and I are absolutely good friends. Vinnie is such a great coach and we go back together a long time. I think it means that we've been around coaching for a very long time, but it also means that Vinnie is such a great coach. I think there's plenty of room in the (300-win) club and I'm happy Vinnie is there. I'm very excited for him."
"He's a class act all the way," Ascolese said, after hearing Wolf's comments. Brick and North Bergen have locked horns several times over the years. "To be mentioned in the same breath with Warren Wolf is an honor for me."
Ascolese is not one to get caught up in numbers. He never has. He doesn't remember who he beat to get the first win or the 100th or No. 200. In fact, No. 300, putting him in such an incredibly elite class, really didn't faze him.
"I don't think it's remarkable," said the 66-year-old Ascolese, who doesn't show a sign of letting up after 42 years. "It's an honor and I'm proud to have achieved it. When I started doing this, I never thought I would be doing it all this time. It's a nice achievement and an honor to be in the same club with the other two. It's a nice feat. I'm proud of the guys who played for me and who coached with me over the years. I was blessed to have some great players and great assistant coaches."
Including his three sons, Michael, Vincent, Jr. and Gregg, all who played for their father and later became coaches with their dad.
"That is certainly something money can't buy," Ascolese said. "Not many men are blessed enough to have something like that. Each of them played on a state championship team as well. Mike was a sophomore on the '78 team, Vinnie was a defensive back on the '84 team, and Gregg was a key player in 1990. I never had conversations with them about coaching. They all volunteered and wanted to help. It's very rewarding and indescribable to have my sons with me."
He's also been blessed to have his wife alongside, every step of the way.
"I remember when I was coaching in Hoboken and we knew we had to feed the kids," Ascolese said. "So Pat went home and cooked three roast beefs and we got one of those slicing machines to give the kids hot roast beef sandwiches before the games. Every single step of the way, Pat's been there. I've had that kind of support throughout."
The coach said that his wife has missed only three games in 42 years - all in order to see their son Gregg play at the University of Temple.
Pat Ascolese had a heart attack in August. Doctors told her that she had to calm some of her habits.
"We talked about going to the Prep game (the Bruins' opener this season) would perhaps be too emotional," Ascolese said. "But she was there, like she's always been. She just likes it too much. It means a lot when you have a great family. I have a great family."
In fact, Ascolese is hoping to remain around long enough to coach his grandson, Vincent Ascolese IV, a budding 9-year-old football player in the North Bergen Pop Warner program.
"If I stay healthy enough, I would love to be around to coach him," Ascolese said. "I have a great situation here. I have great kids and a great program. I like coaching these kids. If I can't coach him, I want to be around to watch my grandson."
Chances are that Papa Bear Bruin, the man referred to by some as "Saint Vinny," will be around for many years to come, increasing that win total and refining that milestone with every passing day.