A Walk Back Through Time with An Old Friend

A Walk Back Through Time with An Old Friend

(by Bob Urban, Lehighton Times-News, 1995)

Walking is great for your heart. Walking with a friend is good for your soul.

I took a short hike with an old pal last week – my high school coach, Geno Poli. We tredded on some pretty hallowed ground – hallowed if you were ever a Coaldale football fan, coach or player.

We walked the grass that was once the old high school’s football field.

The goal posts, bleachers and the yard stripes are long gone. And the south end zone is now a building that houses the Coaldale Volunteer Fire Company.

But the old, rusted flag pole still stands straight in the north end zone. And the walkway leading from the big green double doors that hid the locker rooms still exists. It’s the same walkway where fans would form a human tunnel every Saturday afternoon before a home game and slap the players on the back, wishing them luck as they took the field for pre-game warm-ups.

Behind the green doors are the steps where I had my ankles taped so many times that hair still doesn’t grow on that part of my legs, even though it’s more than 30 years later.

Special Times

Geno and I got together to talk about the old days. I was researching a nostalgia piece on his 1962 team, the only Coaldale squad in the long and successful history of that program to go 11-0.

Poli was destined to coach football at Coaldale – on the same gridiron where names like Welsh and Tokarczyk and Jabbo and Gildea and Bonner and Shubeck and Martinec and Zukas and Priggins and Dirnberger and Swenson and Julo and Zenko and Bitsko and so many other fine athletes distinguished themselves since 1921.

It was also the home of the Coaldale Big Green, pioneers of what today we revere as the National Football League.

Geno coached only four years at Coaldale. Yet he emerged as the third winningest coach (33-10) in the 44-year history of the school, before it was merged into the Panther Valley district.

A 1948 graduate of Coaldale, where he was a fine fullback, Poli went to New York University, where his best buddy was Chico Vejar, a top-ranked welterweight boxer who appeared regularly in Madison Square Garden and on television’s Friday Night Fights.

“I used to bring Chico home a lot,” Poli remembered, “and I took the Coaldale boys to the Garden a number of times to see him fight.”

When NYU dropped football, Poli transferred to East Stroudsburg, where he earned his teaching degree.

Following a stint in the service he returned to his alma mater where he served as an assistant under coaches Tom Leonard, Bill Roller, and George Greiner.

Greiner’s one season at Coaldale, 1959, produced an 0-10 record, and Poli took over the next year. The Tigers never experienced another losing season, going 5-5, 7-3, 11-0, and 10-2.

With Tom “Doc” Raymer, the school’s winningest coach (162-60-17 from 1924 through 1948) as his assistant, Poli restored the Coaldale program to its former glory, when the school won 230 games, lost only 93 and played to 24 ties between 1921 through 1956.

“It didn’t seem we had to teach athletes in those days,” Poli reflected. ‘They loved to play the game so much they couldn’t wait to play and learn.’

But Ed Kassak, Poli’s all-state running back on that unbeaten 1962 team, had another theory.

“Geno and Doc made practice fun for everyone,” Kassak said from his Colorado home last week. “He had all these different kinds of drills, but we didn’t look at them as work, we actually looked forward to practice. We got in shape playing games – at practice.

“That’s the real trick (to coaching). When I later worked with kids there were three things I tried to accomplish, one, to make sure they had fun, to make sure everyone on the team ended up with a nickname, and then to see that they improved over the course of the season.”

Not all fun

But it wasn’t all fun and games for the players. Poli was actually ahead of his time by introducing an off-season weightlifting program for the Tigers, long before it became fashionable and mandatory for all teams.

“Tom and I went to York (home of the famous barbell factory) and bought some equipment and a book to teach it,” Poli said. “We didn’t build muscle-men, but our kids got stronger and it paid off for us.”

The weights went in the gym. The next year an isometric bar was built on the practice field.

“I went to some clinics and came home with some good ideas on the high school level, and our kids were very serious about the workouts,” he added.

Poli’s Coaldale career ended on Thanksgiving Day, 1963, when his team was upset 6-0 by arch-rival Lansford in the final game of that historic series.

He had hoped, however, to be named head coach of the new PV jointure, but it didn’t happen.

"Two of our board members told me to go looking somewhere else,” he said, “because I wasn’t going to get the PV job. There was no real explanation. Sure, I was disappointed and a little bitter. I would have had 23 lettermen coming back from my Coaldale squad alone that next year.”

So Poli went to Ashland for a couple of years, then left teaching and coaching and took a job in New Jersey as a supervisor with the RCA company.

He went back to teaching in Jersey, then returned to Pennsylvania to Hamburg, where he started that school’s grid program. Then he went to Shenandoah where he coached nine years before returning to Panther valley where he assisted then head coach Trevor Lawrence.

Some health problems forced Poli to retire from teaching a couple years ago, but he remains active in coaching, as an assistant to Stan Dick at Marian High School.

Geno has shared in two Eastern Conference and one State Championship at Marian since 1986.

“There are a lot of similarities between these kids (Marian) and the kids I coached at Coaldale,” he said. They have the closeness with each other, plus the dedication.

"The game has changed a lot, though. Now everyone has six or seven coaches. Everything is more specialized. Most kids played both ways back then. And, the weight and conditioning programs help make the kids stronger and faster.

“But in the end, it still comes down to who blocks and who tackles the best. That’s who wins.”

Alumni games

In the late 1970s, a group of former players resurrected echoes from the past and held alumni games – on Thanksgiving Day, between ex-Coaldale and Tamaqua players.

Coaldale police chief John Tonkin, who once played for Poli, asked his former mentor to coach the alumni team.

“We had fun,” Poli laughed. ȁThe guys were all old, but they were every bit as serious about the game as they were in high school.”

Local politics is another game Geno has played well. Since 1980 he has been a Coaldale councilman, serving all but 2 of those years as council president. He and wife Peg have raised three foster children.

“Coaldale people have always displayed a lot of spirit and loyalty,” Poli said. ȁI’m just thankful that those I coached became a source of pride for the town. They visit and I like when a lot of the old players still take time to talk about those days.”