Poli Meant So Much To Coaldale

(by Rudy Bednar, Allentown Morning Call, September 14, 1995)

A given is the fact that nobody choses a career in education for the money.

There are so many other greater rewards like what happened recently when Geno Poli was honored by his former football players, students and friends during a heartfelt testimonial dinner at Costello's Restaurant in Coaldale.

What went on that night, all the money in the world couldn't buy.

The former Coaldale High educator and grid coach was the object of the adulation of those whose lives he touched so genuinely.

More than 100 people turned out to pay tribute to a very special person who earlier this year was inducted into the Carbon County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.

He was the last coach at Coaldale before the school's merger into the Panther Valley district and the one responsible for restoring its winning tradition on the gridiron.

Poli took over in 1960 after the first winless (0-11) season in the school's history and compiled a 33-10 record in four years including the most successful season (11-0) ever, in 1962.

The Coaldale native, who was a standout athlete for the Orange and Black in the mid 1940's, before returning to join his alma mater's faculty to teach and coach, at last received the praise and thanks he so richly deserved.

There were so many highlights during this program. I hardly know where to begin.

Visualize, if you will, a room full of joyous folks, seated at tables of four, exchanging stories and memories over dinner, about one revered individual who meant so much to so many.

Several representing their teammates stepped forward to speak glowingly of his attributes. Master of ceremonies Jack Evans, who was a fullback on Poli's 1961 team, began by explaining "We are not here to salute Coaldale; we are here to honor a man who restored the winning traditions of Coaldale football, and taught us how to win."

He added, "To many of us, Geno was like a second father, he was always there for us and cared for us."

Evans recalled that his coach was "a man who was ahead of his time. Yet, at the same time he was in touch with his players, creating a male bonding, before the term ever became popular. He can take pride in knowing that he developed very good people. People of good moral character and solid work ethics. He touched the hearts of whoever played for him. We can never repay him for all he has done. We thank him."

Marian High coach Stan Dick followed as an unscheduled speaker. Unknown to most of those in attendance, Dick played for Poli at Shenandoah and Poli was later an assistant at Marian for a few years, including the Colts' state championship season of 1990.

Before presenting a plaque to Poli from the Marian football program, Dick pointed out, "All I am in coaching I owe to this man, but I hope that you don't hold what happened this afternoon (Marian dropped its season opener at Dallas) against him."

Then Evans called on a player from each of the four teams Poli coached to take the mike.

Tom Sopko, a guard on the 1960 team, talked about that first year especially how the school's new coach developed a winning attitude and made everyone one big family. Beating both Blue Mountain and Lehighton in scrimmages set the tone, he said, and the team broke even during the season with a 5-5 mark.

On behalf of his teammates, Sopko, who maintained that per capita, "Coaldale High, as small as it was, was THE best school in the world," presented an Orange and Black jacket and an autographed football to "a great teacher, coach and friend."

Bob Urban, a lanky end on the 1961 squad proclaimed his senior year, "Coach Poli's greatest coaching job." He said, "Coach Poli instilled a newfound feeling of pride and had great support from the community as he made friends for life."

He read a letter from teammate Ed Kassak, who was an All-State and Big 33 selection, but was unable to attend. Urban concluded, "You can take the boy out of Coaldale, but you can never take Coaldale out of a football player."

Retired Navy commander Mike Panchura, captain of the unbeaten 1962 team, spoke eloquently, using symbols as mementos of the game of football at Coaldale.

He produced an old folding chair, (bronzed for the occasion) which he said was used by Tom Raymer, the school's legendary football coach, who preferred sitting on the chair at the end of the bench.

Panchura also unveiled a large, framed animated caricature showing one of the Tigers' special blocking techniques and then concluded his presentation with a very unique keepsake --an empty, clear-glass jar which he held up for everyone to see.

"It might look empty, but it's not, he said." What this jar is filled with you can't pour out. It won't spill, even if you turn it upside down. You can fill the jar with jelly beans or rice or whatever you want and it will still be in there."

"What's in this jar is gratitude, gratitude for what Coach Poli did for us and for what he meant to us."

Lastly, Thom Terry, one of the dinner's co-chairmen along with Evans, remembered that the 1963 team he played on had "no fancy nicknames. We were just Coaldale Tigers and all drank from the same sponge bucket. If that doesn't make you teammates, nothing does."

Poli himself was overwhelmed. Humbly, he admitted "each team was special and each game was special. I'm so glad that I was there to share those moments and memories."

The former mentor, who after graduating from East Stroudsburg University coached briefly in New Jersey before returning to Coaldale, said "coming back here to my alma mater as head coach was the highlight of my career."

He added, "Many good things have happened to me during my life and coaching you men here in Coaldale was one of the greatest."

Poli paid tribute to his two deceased assistants, Raymer and Frank DeFebbo, saying "I was fortunate to have people like them."

The program concluded with the presentation of a silver bracelet to Poli's wife, Peggy, after which the final highlight of the night took place-the awarding of a solid coal-sculptured football trophy, inscribed with Poli's achievements and record.

Evans said the committee had this trophy specially made in Ashley and that "only two other trophies like this were ever made before. One was for Dan Marino (Miami Dolphins quarterback) and the other for Jimmy Cefalo (Dolphins receiver). I guess you have to be Italian to be eligible for one," he added jokingly.

Seriously, though, I would say it is awarded out of love and respect.

Afterward, Poli confessed that he enjoyed his 39 years in education and particularly coaching at Coaldale. "It was easy, I always had the ingredients and only had to put them together."

The Morning Call