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Greg Toal put Don Bosco Prep football on a national map during his 18 seasons at the Bergen County Catholic school, and his retirement from coaching also leads to other thoughts on his immense impact on Jersey football including in the public school ranks which suffer more than ever. (Photo by Glenn Kross)
Greg Toal compiled amazing 178-29 record in 18 seasons on Bosco sidelines and won nine state titles during that time. (Photo by Todd Mundt/actionkids)
Toal Left His Indelible Mark
No one could ever say that Greg Toal couldn’t translate his coaching success at mega parochial power Don Bosco Prep to the public school ranks since he had already etched his mark at Saddle Brook, River Dell and Hackensack before he ever set foot in Granatell Stadium as the Ironmen’s new head mentor in the fall of 1999.
As the news spread on Thursday about the 63-year-old Toal’s retirement as head coach at Bosco, plaudits and remembrances were many, whether it were his boyhood friends like Hasbrouck Heights coach Nick Delcalzo, longtime coaching rivals like St. Joseph’s Tony Karcich, or the man replacing him, 31-year-old former Ironmen and Rutgers standout Mike Teel, who had been on the Bosco staff the past two years, and was apparently a strong favorite of the administration at the Ramsey-based school.
They all proclaimed what a competitor he is, and how he put Jersey football on the national map, and all that may be true, but at what price?
One of the sportswriters who covered him earlier in his tenure at the Ramsey-based school, current Giants beat reporter Art Stapleton of The Bergen Record, more than alluded to what many people who follow high school football in New Jersey think, but few would say publicly when he wrote, “Some still say what he achieved at Don Bosco ultimately ruined New Jersey sports for good, helping create a mammoth shift in competition that splintered into public and non-public factions.”
Stapleton quickly shifted tone when he next wrote, “Many others, especially those who played for him at Saddle Brook, River Dell, Hackensack and Don Bosco – celebrated his presence as a game-changer, in sports and life.”
And, both paragraphs probably have a great deal of truth; however, there is more to the ‘splintering’ of public and non-public factions he alludes to, and a big part of it is the slow death of public school football since Toal put Bosco on the map.
In fact, ever since Toal’s influence became a huge factor in Bosco’s football success, and players from all over North Jersey and parts of New York began to make the program one of the strongest not only in Jersey but on a regional and even national basis, his Catholic school rivals followed suit, and public school football started to erode at the core.
While one would eventually see adults wearing jackets and ball caps of North Jersey Catholic schools on hand Sundays viewing the talent arsenal of seventh and eighth graders at Pop Warner football games around towns such as Montclair and in cities such as Newark and East Orange, the landscape of public school football was beginning to change for good.
Athletes, including the recent Heisman Trophy runner-up Jabril Peppers of the University of Michigan, went from EO to Bosco and then transferred to Paramus Catholic. Bergen Catholic has drawn its share of Essex County players as well, while Paramus Catholic enjoyed having Rashon Gary of Scotch Plains in Union County eventually make his way up to that Bergen County school.
While those aforementioned players were the elite of the elite, there were also top players from nearby Bergen County communities such as Ramsey, Paramus, Fair Lawn and so many other towns who wound up at any one of the North Jersey Catholic school gridiron programs that all looked to keep ahead of the other nearby parochial power in terms of procuring the best talent.
And, many of the public schools kept eroding in quality in terms of their football programs, and you now have a situation where there are a few ‘haves,’ such as Wayne Hills, Madison, Montclair or Westfield, who are highly-competitive virtually every season, and a host of many others who have seen their teams struggle on a yearly basis.
The result - especially during recent seasons – is an unending number of blowout games with the lopsided scores more prevalent perhaps than ever before.
The emergence of a few ultra-powerful Catholic school football programs, spearheaded first by Bosco under Toal, has coincided with a decrease in the number of even just decent public school programs, many of whom have been fleeced at least in terms of some top Pop Warner eighth graders deciding to make the commute to Bergen or Hudson (St. Peter’s Prep) counties instead of playing for their hometown schools.
As Stapleton wrote briefly about and then moved quickly away from in order to instead praise Toal for embarking “on the path as a gridiron trailblazer, joining the likes of powerhouse basketball programs by getting on a plane to play a game in another state hundreds of miles from home,” there is indeed more than a simple, one-sided story to be told when it comes to an undeniably successful football coach exiting stage left.
You can’t take away from what Toal did in terms of putting Bosco and Jersey on a more national level while competing in games in football bastions such as Ohio, California, Florida and Alabama; however, there is more to his impact than that and – ironically – for a guy who blazed his initial trail in those hometown public school settings (winning two sectional playoff championships at River Dell and then five titles in a row from 1992-96 at Hackensack) he has also been part of a coinciding process where with the emergence of Bosco and its Catholic school neighbors there is a dissolution in terms of the depth and quality of a very big part of neighborhood-oriented Jersey football- namely the many public schools out there still struggling to keep numbers up in a sport that is dying a slow death.
At a time where a new transfer rule has been approved by the NJSIAA - which was mainly because of vagabond basketball recruits and transfers, but also in part due to the alleged actions of a few football schools – public school football is in bad straits, and in addition to increased awareness about concussions and other head injuries leading to athletes leaving the sport in growing numbers, there is the undeniable influence of the mega-parochial powers in Jersey contributing to that downfall in terms of helping to erode the overall quality of the sport here; and, that’s an indelible mark Toal has left along with being such an outstanding coach and motivator of young men.
Follow Steve Tober on Twitter @Chattermeister
Greg Toal began coaching career at public schools Saddle Brook, River Dell & Hackensack where he combined for 7 playoff titles. (Photo by Glenn Kross)
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