After the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s controversies committee ruled last week that the North Bergen High School football team would get to keep the North Jersey Section 1, Group IV state championship the Bruins won last December, legendary head coach Vince Ascolese let out a sigh of relief.
Because frankly, the months following “The Miracle in the Meadowlands,” the thrilling 14-13 victory over Montclair on the game’s final play in MetLife Stadium, putting a victorious capper on Ascolese’s brilliant 50-year coaching career, were not easy for Ascolese and his family.
Soon after the victory, the parade and the celebrations were over, an investigation was launched, caused by an article in the Newark Star-Ledger that stated that Ascolese allegedly had illegally recruited two members of the state championship team with promises of low-cost housing and college scholarships.
The in-depth article tried to state that Ascolese was the mastermind of the plan, even alleging that the coach, as the assistant superintendent of schools in North Bergen, had gone as far as to forge documents about the players’ residences in order to make them eligible to play for the Bruins.
“It was making us crazy here,” Ascolese said. “You think about what would happen if they [the NJSIAA] took it down and we lost the state championship. You think that everything we worked hard for could be gone because of one person. A team won the championship, a group of kids and coaches. It wasn’t about one individual.”
For a 73-year-old man who dedicated his life to coaching thousands of young men over half a century, a man fighting a courageous battle daily against bone cancer, this was not the way Ascolese envisioned his coaching career coming to a close.
The feel-good fairytale ending in the Meadowlands was completely covered in a cloud of controversy – ably handled by the NJSIAA’s controversies committee.
The NJSIAA’s investigation was launched after Ingram Leitch, the disgruntled father of player Denzell Leitch, was told in January that he faced eviction from an apartment that he rented from Ascolese for failure to pay rent for several months.
Leitch then reached out to tell his tale to the Star-Ledger and the story began.
In the 13-page report detailing the final ruling of the NJSIAA’s controversies committee, the elder Leitch is quoted as saying, “My story is no way that you’re going to use my son to help get a state championship and Coach Ascolese is going to ride off to the sunset and my son is kicked to the curb. That’s why I’m going to stick it to you.”
Leitch formerly attended Xaverian High School in Brooklyn and was almost enrolled at Snyder in Jersey City (where his mother still resides) before the elder Leitch met members of the Ascolese family and talked about moving to North Bergen. The elder Leitch allegedly signed papers stating that he lived in North Bergen, when he appears to have allowed his son to live in the apartment alone.
The other transfer student in question is Eric McMullen, the standout football player and wrestler. McMullen, who formerly starred in both sports at Paulsboro in southern New Jersey, arrived in North Bergen after talking to Ascolese’s grandson, Vin, at a football combine at Rutgers.
The grandson, an All-State player headed for the University of Arkansas, convinced McMullen to attend North Bergen instead of transferring to Bergen Catholic. The entire story was detailed in the Nov. 27, 2011 editions of The Hudson Reporter, when McMullen was featured in the Athlete of the Week article.
Here are some excerpts of that article:
Eric McMullen was ready for a major change in his life. After spending three years at Paulsboro High School in southern New Jersey, McMullen needed a change of scenery for his senior year. A member of both the football and wrestling programs at Paulsboro – traditionally strong in both sports – McMullen felt like he had to leave his childhood in the rearview mirror and head somewhere to start anew.
“There were a lot of things going on,” McMullen said. “I really wasn’t happy there. I sat down with my mother [Debra Johnson] and told her that I had to transfer somewhere.”
Last June, McMullen attended a football camp at Rutgers University. One of McMullen’s fellow campers was Vin Ascolese, the standout linebacker from North Bergen. The two struck up a conversation and later a friendship.
“I heard of North Bergen before,” McMullen said. “I talked to Vinnie and he told me about North Bergen. I thought it would be a great place to go to school. I talked to my Mom and she decided to make the move for me. She’s my inspiration and I owe everything to her. She made the sacrifice to move for me.”
In the NJSIAA’s report, it states that both the Paulsboro principal and athletic director signed McMullen’s transfer form, indicating that “there was no evidence E.M. had transferred to North Bergen for athletic advantage or that he had been recruited.”
The wrong part of this story is that both Leitch and McMullen moved to North Bergen and resided in an apartment building owned by Ascolese and his family. Both were given low-rate rent deals without any lease agreement. Yes, that was a very bad move and one that even Ascolese now admits was wrong.
And the whole thing only came to light when Ascolese asked Leitch for the overdue rent. Leitch balked and went right to the Star-Ledger, which turned the investigation eventually into a witch hunt.
Did Ascolese do wrong? Sure he did, by giving these players cushy rent deals. But did he do anything to recruit these players to come to North Bergen? Even the report says he didn’t.
“There is no evidence that Coach Ascolese directly encouraged the student to transfer,” the report reads.
The recruitment came from Ascolese’s grandson, his daughter and his middle son, as the report reads.
The NJSIAA’s ruling about allowing the state championship to stand is the right one. Because there was no proof that Ascolese himself, acting as the head football coach and assistant superintendent of schools, personally recruited those youngsters to come to play for his team.
And the state association could not penalize an entire football team and its accomplishments on the field in the Meadowlands for what might have transpired behind the scenes with members of Ascolese’s family and a disgruntled parent who didn’t want to continue to pay the ridiculously low rent.
Because of these incidents and allegations, North Bergen has been placed on a two-year probation by the NJSIAA and any further transfer student will be placed under severe scrutiny in the future. The school principal, athletic director and guidance officer will have to attend eligibility seminars at the NJSIAA’s headquarters in Robbinsville for the two-year probationary period.
Ascolese maintained his innocence from the outset.
“I really wasn’t worried, because I never did anything wrong,” Ascolese said. “But after sitting through five hours of testimony, then the weeks after the hearing, was tough. It took so long to get the ruling. We were counting the days. It was five weeks. We said from the beginning that we never recruited. It was a day of vindication. My wife [Pat] said it about 100 times. We really didn’t have a chance to enjoy the championship. Now, we can.”
This columnist has been criticized because of the allegiance shown to Ascolese. Although we have enjoyed a solid and strong relationship (and yes, a close and personal relationship) for almost 30 years now, if I believed that Ascolese was guilty of recruiting, I would have said so and written such. I never once believed he was involved in the process. His family? Yes. Ascolese himself? No.
And for those who have turned their back on Ascolese in the days after the story broke and some local coaches, like Bayonne’s Rick Rodriguez, who was quoted as saying, “It’s like I robbed a bank and got probation and got to keep the money” after the ruling was released, shame on you.
The old saying, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” applies here.
In 2002, Bayonne, coached by Rodriguez, defeated Hackensack to win the state football championship – the same state sectional won by the Bruins in December – on a frozen field at Bayonne’s Ahern Veterans Stadium.
While everyone was slipping and sliding all over the frozen field, looking like Dorothy Hamill, Bayonne’s star running back rushed for more than 250 yards and scored three touchdowns.
After the game, the running back was asked how he was able to keep his footing while everyone else was skating, he said, “Coach Rodriguez told me to wear these shoes.” The player was wearing metal baseball spikes, giving him an unfair advantage over everyone else.
Rodriguez should have said, “No comment,” when the Star-Ledger reporter asked for his opinion, especially in his own county.
In any case, Ascolese can now retire in peace and his legacy, although someone stained by this incident, isn’t completely soiled and ruined, thanks to the only fair result of the NJSIAA’s investigation.
Because no newspaper report should determine the fate of 75 or so hard-working young men who won that state championship in miraculous fashion last December. This now can all be put to bed forever and Ascolese can enjoy his retirement and concentrate on recovering from his battle with cancer.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.