By DAVE O’SULLIVAN

Staff Writer

In the past week or so there have been some big-time South Jersey football programs go through head coaching changes, including the likes of Delran, Paulsboro, Camden and Rancocas Valley. Add Holy Spirit to the list.

The No. 1 team in South Jersey in 2020 and a 2019 state champion, the Spartans will have a new leader on the sidelines this fall as Andrew DiPasquale takes over for A.J. Russo, who skippered the program for seven years and racked up 50 wins. It’s a long-standing tradition at Holy Spirit that a current assistant takes over the program anytime a head coach steps down, and DiPasquale has been an assistant under Russo for seven years as a quarterbacks and wide receivers coach. He’s also a former Spartans player, having graduated in 2011. Russo said he’s going to remain on staff as an assistant in charge of special teams and defensive backs, but wants more flexibility to have the time to enjoy his family more.

“I’m just turning over the head coaching responsibilities, I’ll still be on the staff doing the same things I’ve been doing with special teams and the defensive backs. I’m turning over the head coaching role to Andrew just to kind of free up some of my time. I have family things going on — my daughter is getting married and she lives down in Florida. She’s been there for 10 years and I think I’ve been able to go and visit her about four times. She’s getting ready to get married so I want to be able to get down there more often and take that opportunity if it presents itself,” Russo said. “Going into this season, Charlie and I were talking about it. His son, Gavin, will be a senior next year and (Charlie) wants to hang around for a couple more years. I’ll be here for a while, and we talked about Andrew taking over anyway, and we figured now was a good time with Charlie and myself still being here to groom him and get him going. It seemed like a really good time to do it. Andrew, the past few years, has been heavily involved in our game planning and our Game Day strategy and all those things. I’ve been thinking about some kind of exit strategy ever since I was diagnosed with (colon) cancer a few years ago, so I’ve been trying to figure it out and everything seemed to fit this year. Andrew is ready to take over and I think we’ll be set for the future.”

DiPasquale follows in a long line of successful coaches going back to Lou Paludi in 1975, followed by Jim Gallagher and the legendary Ed Byrnes. When coach Byrnes passed away, Chris Bell took over before handing the reins to Bill Walsh, who enjoys almost mythical status in the program. He was head coach for four years, leading the team to a state championship in 2007 before handing the baton off to Charlie Roman, a current assistant under Russo. Walsh also came back as an assistant and was beloved by hundreds of players through the years before losing his life to ALS a few years ago.

DiPasquale was a part of that 2007 team, and Russo played for Gallagher and Byrnes during his time as a student-athlete at Holy Spirit.  

“There have been a lot of great coaches here and I’m honored to be able to coach here. I played for coach Byrnes and coach Gallagher, and those guys taught me a lot about character and about getting into the culture of the football program — and Bill Walsh, as well — so I’m glad we’ve been able to carry on the culture that those guys set. We want to continue that tradition,” Russo said. “I loved my seven years as head coach, the interaction with the kids, and the fact that we won a lot of games made it even better. But the fact that we have young men going on to college and doing very good things in their lives is the most important thing. Winning helps get more kids interested in the school, but overall I’m just proud of the way our kids have handled themselves in the seven years I was the head coach, and they’ll continue to do that because we have good kids in the program and good kids in the school. Our future is going to be just as bright as the past has been.”

Russo said he believes DiPasquale is every bit as capable as all those coaches previously mentioned.

“He has a great rapport with the kids and over the past seven years it’s been he and I together. He understands the role (of a head coach) and with what I’ve seen him do breaking down film and putting offensive schemes together, he’s ready to go,” Russo said. “He’s a good coach, he’s dedicated to what he’s doing and it’s a perfect role for him with being a teacher (in Absecon). I think it’s a nice fit for him personally, and I know he has the same passion I have for Holy Spirit. He played football and baseball for four years for the school and has been coaching here for seven years, so he’s ready.”

As for Russo, he doesn’t envision himself hanging up the whistle completely anytime soon. At 59 and in much better health since his cancer diagnosis, he said he feels like he has plenty of good years left to make a difference as an assistant to DiPasquale.

“I’m always going to love coaching football and being around kids. I go to school every day and I’m around the 75 kids in the program plus the other kids in the building, and that brings life to you every morning,” he said. “Walking into school and seeing all those kids gives you energy. That will be the tough part (when I leave), and the camaraderie with the players and coaches — but I’m nowhere near ready to give that up yet. I’ll be around for awhile.”

Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sullyglorydays@gmail.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays