There had been a handful of times when legendary North Bergen football coach Vince Ascolese was pondering the thought of retiring. Maybe it was a decade ago or so, when a bunch of ill-advised minions tried to take a run at his job, but Ascolese wasn’t ready to walk away.
Or maybe it was a little over three years ago, when doctors told Ascolese he was diagnosed with a serious form of bone cancer. But that wasn’t the way the gridiron genius wanted to go out.
It was always when Ascolese was truly ready to step down. It was going to be his decision, his choice. He was going to go out on his terms, not dictated by someone else.
After all, Ascolese earned that right, after dedicating 39 years as the head football coach in North Bergen, after winning an astounding 356 games, seven NJSIAA Group IV state sectional championships, 14 HCIAA titles and one overall No. 1 state ranking in 1978.
His 356 career victories rank him first among active coaches in New Jersey and third all-time behind two recently retired coaches in Vic Paternostro and Warren Wolf.
So when Ascolese finally realized it was time to move on, he would let people know for sure.
Earlier this week, Ascolese told his players that he was going to retire at the end of the season. Right around the same time, the township of North Bergen decided to honor Ascolese by renaming Bruins Stadium as the Vincent Ascolese Field.
Much like the way Jersey City honored the memory of Bill Cochrane, Union City remembered the memory of Pep Novotny, Bayonne did with Don Ahern, and West New York did with Joe Coviello and the recently departed Tony Ferrainolo, North Bergen is giving a most deserving slice of perpetuity to the man who helped to put North Bergen football on the state and national gridiron map.
“I felt it was the right time,” Ascolese said. “I’m still involved in the season right now, so I haven’t given it much thought. I’ve been thinking about the next game.”
Ascolese hopes that he has a few more next games before he walks off the sidelines for good. The Bruins recently clinched a berth in the North Jersey Section 1, Group IV state playoffs, their 24th playoff appearance in the last 25 years. That’s quite an impressive streak.
When you consider Ascolese’s entire career, it’s truly remarkable. He began his coaching career at Hoboken High School in 1962 and spent the first 11 years coaching there. When the legendary Coviello left North Bergen in 1971 to become the principal at Memorial High School, he recommended Ascolese to take over at North Bergen. Ascolese has been there ever since.
“I think it’s pretty amazing,” Ascolese said, reflecting a bit on his career. “But my father worked for 50 years on the Pennsylvania Railroad and my grandfather was a longshoreman for 50 years. When I went to college [the now-defunct Upsala College], all I wanted to do was to become a coach. So I did it for 50 years. I’m a very lucky man, a very lucky man.”
Some of Ascolese’s chief rivals – men who later became close friends – also reflected on the news of the legend’s retirement.
“It’s absolutely an incredible career,” said former Hoboken head coach Ed Stinson, who played for Ascolese at Hoboken on Ascolese’s first team and later went on to lock horns with Ascolese several times over the years.
“We’ve had a 50-year relationship together since my sophomore year at Hoboken High,” Stinson said. “He’s been my mentor, my father figure. He’s all that’s good and right in everything he does. He’s family minded and civic minded. He’s well balanced in everything. He’s had a tremendous career.”
Stinson said Ascolese’s success goes beyond wins and losses.
“It’s more than 356 wins,” Stinson said. “When you take a look at the generations he has passed and all the change he’s gone through. All the changes in our culture, from the ’60s and Vietnam and the drug-filled ’70s, ’80s, ’90s and on and on it goes. He was able to adapt to those changes and still be so successful.”
Added Stinson, “When you take a look at the coaching generation, no one stays in it for 50 years. They don’t stay in it for the glory and honor of the game. Coach Ascolese is a true lifer and a true professional. Guys like him don’t exist anymore. Guys like Bill Cochrane and Joe Coviello and Warren Wolf, those are lifers. It’s a tremendous rarity to find someone who has done it as long as Coach Ascolese.”
Stinson said he owes a lot to Ascolese.
“On a personal level, he was the model coach put into me,” Stinson said. “He’s who I wanted to be like, the amount of people he has touched over the years. It’s an incredible feat.”
Stinson will remember the games where he went head-to-head with his mentor, including the 1990 Group IV state championship, a game North Bergen won in overtime, 3-0.
“That was perhaps the most dramatic, but there were others,” Stinson said. “You knew you were always going to be in a physical brawl.”
At one time, the relationship between St. Peter’s Prep head coach Rich Hansen and Ascolese would be best described as frosty. That’s no longer the case.
“I think it’s been part of a transformation over the years,” said Hansen, who is ranked fourth in all-time Hudson County coaching wins, behind Ascolese, Coviello and Stinson. “I think it stemmed from wanting to beat North Bergen so much. They were on top. They were the yardstick that you wanted to be measured to. I was young and trying to get a competitive edge. But the longer you’re in this business, you get to appreciate what he’s done.”
Now, Hansen says that he speaks with Ascolese at least twice a week.
“It’s just been an unbelievable learning experience for me,” Hansen said. “He’s a legend. I’ve grown up watching him coach, then I got to play against him [when Hansen attended St. Joseph of the Palisades] as a big rival, then I got the chance to coach against him. He was someone I always looked up to, someone I wanted to emulate. Over the last five or so years, it’s been even more so. When we talk, we have conversations about everything.”
Added Hansen, “As I’ve gotten older, I’m a little wiser and I have more experience. I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve always respected him. I really love the guy. I honestly do.”
Hansen also recalled many highly competitive games where he coached against Ascolese, games that perennially produced the HCIAA National Conference champion.
“They were classic wars,” Hansen said. “There were so many games that made the rivalry good and strong. They were also fun games.”
Hansen remembers the fun, because the Marauders have had the upper hand in recent years, winning every single showdown since 1997.
“You can’t replace what he’s done,” Hansen said. “It’s an incredible career.”
Ascolese appreciates the compliments he received from his coaching colleagues.
“The times have certainly changed,” Ascolese said. “I remember when I started coaching, no one did anything with weight training. It was all basically sit-ups and push-ups and running. I instituted weight training at Hoboken and now today, everyone does it. I remember football was only a fall sport; now it’s 12 months a year. You have to change with the times. You can’t just plant your feet in the mud and just stand there. You have to change to move in the right direction. Kids understand what’s going on. It’s all how you treat kids. You want to create a family atmosphere. A lot of kids didn’t have the right parental direction, coming from one-parent homes. I did what I had to do with a lot of kids.”
So he was a doting father and family man with his players, much like he was with his own family, like his loving wife of nearly 50 years, Pat.
“When I first started in Hoboken, Pat had to wash the uniforms,” Ascolese said. “I found out that the players weren’t eating, so we’d cook five roast beefs and cut them up to give them roast beef sandwiches. It’s unbelievable what she’s done over the years. It’s all part of the great family support I’ve received that enabled me to coach for so long.”
Over the years, Ascolese had the pleasure to coach all three of his sons, Michael, Vinnie Jr. and Gregg and also his grandson, also named Vinnie, a current standout on the team. It’s a feat that no other New Jersey coach has enjoyed, coaching his sons and grandson.
“I remember Mike Quick [of MSG Network] asking me if I would coach my grandson,” Ascolese said. “He told me no one has done it, so why don’t you be the first? I think it’s fitting that I go out with my grandson. It was a blessing for me. People think it’s a headache coaching your children and grandchildren, but it has not been that at all. It’s all about family.”
Ascolese was asked if he could have ever predicted he would last 50 years.
“Never,” Ascolese said. “I never gave that a thought. But the ride has been very enjoyable.”
And it’s a ride that will never be duplicated in Hudson County sports. Legends like Vince Ascolese don’t come along every day. In fact, they are truly unique, one of a kind.
Three years ago, Jim Hague did a four-part interview with Coach Ascolese for the Frank Maguire Foundation that can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E0SvNi_-yUE
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.
You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com