Toiling in the High School ranks as a Career Assistant
Assistant Coaches in the NFL are portrayed as nomadic journeymen going from team to team and city to city plying their trade as teachers of the game to young men who are just as eager to make it to the pinnacle of their game as players as they are as coaches.
Assistant coaches at that level go from jobs in the NFL to jobs at major college schools and back. There really is no difference as far as furthering their careers go. The major college assistants know as much about their trade as the guys in the pros do. The stakes may be higher depending on your perception but not mine. The money being made in the NFL and the money being made at the top levels of college football is just about the same as far as the average fan is concerned. They’re both making much, much more more than the guy sitting at the corner bar will ever make and he really doesn’t care if one makes more than the other. He just wants to see good football no matter which stadium it’s played in and they’re playing in the same stadiums more and more these days.
An article in USA Today listed the salaries of Assistant Coaches in college football and the highest paid assistant was that of Will Muschamp, Defensive Coordinator at Auburn University until he was hired as Head Coach at South Carolina in December. His listed pay was $1,600,000. A guy by the name of Joe Bob Clements at Oklahoma State was the 200th highest paid Assistant at $347,288. Not bad for a year’s work. Muschamp, by the way, doubled his salary when he took the helm of the Gamecocks.
But what about the Assistant Coach who toils at the High School level? What is his motivation to stay on the job for 20 or 30 years or more. It certainly isn’t the money. That much is obvious. The typical salary for a Head Coach in the Philadelphia Catholic League is around $5,000 and it goes down from there for the Assistants.
It isn’t the fame or the glory. How many people can name the Head Coach of even one quarter of the schools in the Catholic, Public or Inter-Ac Leagues? Maybe the hard core fan but after that I would say not many.
One of those Coaches is Joe Lawinski. Joe, or Lugo as he is known in coaching circles in the Catholic, Public and Inter-Ac Leagues, is a long time Assistant Coach who has spent time in each one of those leagues over the years.
Lugo was an Offensive Lineman for the Frankford Pioneers, graduating in 1975. He played under legendary Frankford Head Coach Al Angelo and his assistant Ron Howley. It was there that Joe really caught the coaching “bug”. Even to this day Joe still uses many of the techniques and terminology that he learned so many years ago as a player at Frankford.
After graduating from Frankford Lugo started his coaching career at Holy Innocence in Juniata where he grew up. From there he followed the natural order of progression that you would expect of an assistant in the high school ranks.
He started as the freshman Offensive Line Coach at North and took over as North’s Freshman Head Coach the next year. He graduated to the varsity the next year as assistant O-line coach under Head Coach Jeb Lynch and stayed at North until 1983 when he went back to his Alma Mater, Frankford, to coach the line there. At the time it was thought that his coach at Frankford, Ron Howley, would be leaving Frankford and taking the Athletic Director’s job at West Philadelphia High School. Howley ended up not leaving for a couple more years but Joe stayed on at Frankford anyway refining the coaching skills he had learned under Angelo and Howley when he was a player there.
He left Frankford to go to Cardinal Dougherty with Head Coach Gene Kane. In the meantime Angelo had retired from Frankford but when he un-retired to return to the Pioneers in 1987 he bought Lugo back with him since by then Howley had taken the AD job at West Philly.
After Angelo retired for the second and final time Lugo got out of coaching for a few years.
Lugo returned to high school coaching in 91 at North and then from 92-98 at Father Judge under another legendary coach, Whitey Sullivan. So by now Lugo had been in the game for just about 15 years and had coached under the winningest coach in the Public League in Angelo and the winningest coach in the Catholic League in Sullivan. Two pretty good mentors if you ask me. Angelo’s record has since been surpassed by Ron Cohen at Washington but you get the point.
From there Joe took a step down in competition but he saw it as being just as important or even more important going back to coach the younger kids coming up at Frankford Boys Club. Joe said “it was always about the kids anyway” when I asked him why he got into coaching in the first place; “it was about passing on what I learned from guys who coached me when I was coming up and seeing them grow as players and as men”.
After Frankford Boys Club Joe joined Chalie Szydlik at North in 2004 until North’s last season of Football in 2009. The school would close at the end of that school year but not before it gave Lawinski his best memory in over 30 years of coaching high school football.
The North-Frankford rivalry was a special event in Joe’s life for obvious reasons. Although Joe had played for and coached at Frankford in the annual Thanksgiving day tilt he had been a part of a North Catholic Coaching staff for 13 of those contests. That particular game was really memorable for a couple of reasons. First, it would be the last game played in a rivalry that dated back to 1930 and was widely accepted as the biggest of all the Thanksgiving Day rivalries in the city. Central-Northeast were playing on Thanksgiving longer but North and Frankford seemed to grab the biggest headlines every year.
The second reason was for how the game played out before the 10,000 fans in attendance that day. Frankford jumped out to a 14-0 halftime lead but the Falcons came back with 21 fourth quarter points to defeat the Pioneers 28-22 and end the historic series with what could have possibly been the most exciting in the games rich history. As Offensive Coordinator of that North team Lugo was instrumental in helping to engineer that comeback.
After North closed Lawinski spent a year at Jenkintown with C.J. Szydlik, a year at Neumann-Goretti, and a year at Germantown Academy before wrapping up his career back at Judge the last three years.
Lugo told me he is done with coaching at the high school level but it doesn’t mean he’s done with coaching for good. As a matter of fact he has spent the last 10 off seasons doing what he loves best, coaching! Joe has been a member of the Philadelphia Blue Flame football team coaching staff. The Blue Flame is a full contact football team that participates in the National Public Safety Football League comprised of teams of Public Safety Officials like the Philadelphia Police and Fire Departments and also the Prison Guards in the city. The league has teams all over the country from as far away as California. As a matter of fact the Blue Flame travelled to Pasadena, Ca to take on the Los Angeles Centurions last year. For more info on the team and their schedule go to blueflamefootball.com
All told Lugo has spent over 35 years coaching high school football alone. I asked him if he could estimate what his total compensation was for all that time and he said if he had to guess it would not come out to anything over 75 thousand dollars. Comparing that to the salary Will Muschamp received last year at Auburn and Lugo received less compensation for over 35 years of coaching than Muschamp got for one game at Auburn ($106,666.00).
Joe Bob Clements pro rated ($23,152.00) would have had to coach 3 games and 1 quarter of the next to top him with 75,244.00. If it’s any consolation I doubt if many people outside the state of Oklahoma could tell you who Joe Bob Clements is.
I asked Lugo why he’s getting out of coaching now. After all he’s now retired from his job as a rigger. I mean all those years of going from his full time job straight to the football field for practice had to be a grind. I know because the few years I helped out with North’s Freshman team took its toll on me. I would be completely spent by the time the season ended and I only did it for 3 years. Joe kept this pace up for virtually his entire adult life.
His answer didn’t really surprise me though. The high school game had changed. When he started coaching in 1976 the rules were different. Schools had their territories that they drew from and the kids you got were the kids you went to war with. North drew from Kensington, Port Richmond, Juniata, Wissinoming and Bridesburg. Judge got Tacony and Mayfair and Ryan got the Far Northeast.
First open enrollment and then attrition of schools in the Catholic League changed all of that. It started slowly but now it’s almost become like College football. Schools vie for the best players and kids travel further distances to play at the best programs. Not all of them. Most still go to schools along territorial lines but the best know they’ll be welcomed with open arms to those schools with the best programs. Also open check books. They know that too. The system is according to Lugo “beyond repair and will never go back to what it used to be”.
This article isn’t meant to discuss the “R” word. There will be a place and time for that. I’m merely writing the response given to a question asked.
Finally, I asked Lugo if he ever had any designs on being a Head Coach and he said he had not. “I always wanted to stay behind the scenes” he told me. It’s not that he didn’t have the knowledge to be a head coach because the man has probably forgotten more about football than some head coaches out there today ever knew. No, being a head coach requires a certain amount of political correctness and if you ever met Lugo you would quickly come to the conclusion that PC isn’t one of his strong suits. He says what’s on his mind and if it offends you than you better be able to get over it because he’s probably not going to apologize for it. It’s not that he’s a mean person it’s just his personality. A no nonsense approach that is better suited for a guy behind the scenes. In other words, a ball buster.
If you want to find Lugo this summer you won’t find him on a football field. For the first time in over 38 years as a coach and over 50 years as a player and a coach you won’t find him on the practice field. Oh sure, he’ll be around the field as a fan and very interested observer but it just won’t be barking out instructions to some young lineman trying to crack the starting lineup and wondering to God what he had done wrong to put this man in his life. .
No, if you want to find Joe Lawinski this summer you’ll need to head South on the Atlantic City Expressway. On the beach or at one of his favorite watering holes like Keenan’s is where you’ll find the guy who has devoted most of his life to the game of football. He’ll be the guy down at the end of the bar telling stories of camps from years gone by. It’s what’s in those stories that had kept him in the game so many years. The relationships that were forged on those fields will be what will be missed the most.
It will be strange not seeing Joe on a sideline somewhere this fall. We’ve come to expect certain people in our lives to be at certain places. In Philadelphia high school football, Joe Lawinski on the sideline or up in a press box is one of those people in one of those places.