By DAVE O’SULLIVAN Publisher Mainland Regional football coach Bob Coffey left Silver Eagle Stadium at Egg Harbor Township High School on Thanksgiving morning with his clipboard tucked firmly under his left arm. He woke up Friday morning, went down to his den and watched film of the Mustangs’ inspiring 27-25 victory over their rivals. This whole retirement thing might take some getting used to. When you coach as long as Coffey has, old habits die hard. Coffey announced his retirement after 30 seasons at Mainland prior to the annual Thanksgiving Day game, leaving behind one of the greatest legacies in South Jersey high school sports. He finished with 187 wins, averaging more than six per season, and five state championships, including a 12-0 campaign in 2008. Still, letting go might take some time. Thirty years of grinding isn’t going to come to an abrupt halt. It’s going to take a more gentle transition. Coffey hasn’t been known as the gentle type throughout his coaching career. He’s one of those gruff old ball coaches — you come to work every day, you stick your face in the mud, you run a play over and over until you get it right, you play hurt, you say ‘yes, sir’ and ‘yes, ma’am’ when addressing people. If you signed up to play football at Mainland Regional High School, you were given a job — and you were expected to do it. Even if you were the water boy, you better be there on game day, ready to go, jugs filled with water. But Coffey’s gentle side did come out four years ago, albeit under the most heartbreaking of circumstances. In August of 2011, as the Mustangs were finishing up training camp, four of his players were killed in an automobile accident on the Garden State Parkway. The accident and the loss of four young lives were like a knife to the heart of such a close-knit community. National media descended on the tiny town of Linwood and as head coach, Coffey was thrust into the position of being the spokesperson for not only the football team, but for the school, the community, grieving family members and a shocked student body. The way Coffey handled himself with honor, class and dignity came to define his coaching career as much as any of the wins or state championships had. “With how the accident affected so many different people, and with everybody having to go through everything we did, there had to be a center focal point, and it became Mainland and the football program. Homecoming was going to be a very emotional day (during the 2011 season), and Thanksgiving. And because there had to be a central contact for all of that, it was Bob. And it wasn’t all Bob, it was Bob, Donna, and Bob’s staff. The result of everything was, he got it done. He kept us together on a weekly basis, gave us a place that we could be so that we never felt alienated,” said Ted Khoury, whose son, Dean, was one of the four players killed in the accident. “It was kind of a quiet leadership he had. We always knew he was there. No matter what was going to happen week after week and month after month, there was always something coming up that had to do with the school and football, and you knew that Bob was going to be there. The football banquet (that year) was a huge emotional moment, and he was incredible. He could have let it go away, but he carried through 100 percent. It was a two-year run of constant reminders, but he never hid. He was who we went to. You have to have a focal point, and Bob was a focal point.” Mainland football coach Bob Coffey salutes the crowd at Egg Harbor Township High School on Thanksgiving after receiving a plaque commemorating his 30 years of coaching the Mustangs. (Glory Days Magazine photos/Dave O'Sullivan) Mainland football coach Bob Coffey salutes the crowd at Egg Harbor Township High School on Thanksgiving after receiving a plaque commemorating his 30 years of coaching the Mustangs. (Glory Days Magazine photos/Dave O’Sullivan) “I’ve lived here in Linwood all my life. It was a very tough time four years ago, but we did what we had to do, all of us. We stayed together, and this community is my home and I’m thankful for it,” Coffey said. “I just took it one day at a time, and one moment at a time, because things really slow down at those times. It became such a complicated issue with so many tragedies at one time. But the families stuck together. We continued to live our lives, but honor the boys at the same time. It’s something that God put on us and we all handled it. We’re all still recovering from it.” Wins such as the one over Egg Harbor Township on Thanksgiving of this year certainly help the recovery process, as the Mustangs showed the kind of heart and resiliency that Coffey-coached teams have been known for throughout the past three decades. If coach Coffey had scripted the way he wanted his final game to go, the only thing he might have changed was the time left on the clock when senior kicker Mike Juliano nailed a 42-yard field goal to give the Mustangs a 2-point lead. Then again, it was probably fitting that the defense came up with a stop in the final minute to seal the win. The Mustangs seemed to be cruising right along after coming back from a 6-0 deficit to take a 21-6 lead, but true to this Thanksgiving rivalry, the Eagles kept coming back. Eventually, EHT took a 25-24 lead on a touchdown pass from David Rice to Spencer LaSure and a 6-yard scoring run from Dante Moore, but Mainland drove down to the Eagles’ 25 to set up Juliano’s kick with less than four minutes remaining. EHT got the ball back and drove to the Mainland 25-yard line, but Taylor Dirkes broke up a pass on fourth down to seal the win. “This is right up there (among the biggest wins). It was a great Thanksgiving game. Coming from behind. I’ve never had a kicker kick the winning field goal at the end like that, and we’ve had some great kickers. This particular kick, from 42 yards, with the game on the line, with Mike Juliano, it was just an amazing thing. What a clutch kick,” Coffey said. “I thought it was going to be easy at first, and the next thing you know they started coming back, and I was saying to myself, ‘does it have to be this stressful in my last game?’ At the very end, after we won the game, I thought, you know, it was worth it to have a classic high school Thanksgiving game. The way it turned out was a storybook ending and it was well worth it. I will never forget my last game.” “It’s tough to walk away, but this is the best way to go out,” said Ty Coffey, coach Coffey’s youngest son and a senior offensive lineman for the Mustangs who was playing in his final game as a high school football player. “It was one of the best days of my life.” “It’s almost surreal. For Mike (Juliano) to hit that field goal and put them ahead was just fantastic,” Khoury said. The day began with an emotional ceremony on the field, as dozens of former Mainland players were allowed onto the field to join coach Coffey as Mainland Athletic Director Mike Gatley presented the longtime coach with a plaque honoring his 30 years of service. Mainland football has been a constant for the Coffey family, which includes coach Bob Coffey, right, youngest son Ty, second from right, wife Donna and older son Matt. Mainland football has been a constant for the Coffey family, which includes coach Bob Coffey, right, youngest son Ty, second from right, wife Donna and older son Matt. “Walking out onto the field, seeing all the ex-players who came from all over was very humbling. The pregame ceremony was a wonderful thing and I’ll never forget it. It took a lot of patience for (EHT) and I really appreciate it,” coach Coffey said. “(EHT coach) Kevin Stetser is a class act and he’s going to be a great football coach in the CAL, and (Athletic Director) Mike Pellegrino letting all the guys onto the field, I’m very appreciative of that. It was a wonderful life experience.” Perhaps it was fitting
the way Coffey’s final game ended, considering what his family has meant to the Mainland community. His wife, Donna, has been instrumental in the day-to-day operations of the football program and both of Coffey’s sons, Ty and older son Matt, grew up around the program and became outstanding players for the Mustangs. “We’ve been married to each other for 32 years, and also to Mainland football, and it’s been a great partnership. I feel so lucky to have a wife like Donna. She has provided so many good things for the kids,” Coffey said. “Around here, it’s Mainland, Bob Coffey and then everything else,” Khoury said. “Bob has been a constant for this community and the families. If we needed something, we were going to go to him and his people, and they would put it together. And that’s not going to change, as far as we are concerned. Just because he’s not the football coach anymore it doesn’t mean he’s any less of that figurehead and stability that we have needed these past few years.” Coach Coffey always has been quick to deflect praise, preferring others get recognized for the success of the Mainland football program. That hasn’t changed, even after his final game. “I’m a product of a lot of people’s efforts and energies, and I know that. Over the years I’ve had some great assistant coaches. The game is still won and lost with great players, great courage, teamwork and dedication, and all those things remain constant,” Coffey said. “Mainland has been my life, and I’m really proud of that. I’m honored and humbled to have served as the head football coach.” Ty said what he will remember most about his father’s coaching career won’t be the wins and losses, but rather the man — and leader — his dad was for so many years. “I’ve only heard stories of the 1995, ’96 and ’97 teams, but all of those games aside, I was probably most proud of him when the four boys passed away and how he handled that, how he was able to bring the whole community together,” Ty said. “He’s been nothing but a role model for me, and I can only hope to one day be half the father he is.” Contact Dave O’Sullivan: sully@acglorydays.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays [adsense]