BY MARC MATURO
No question about it, the North Rockland community mourns the death of the great Ralph J. Cordisco, but at the same time it can only celebrate the man’s everlasting legacy and what he meant to literally thousands of people whose path he not only crossed but helped to nourish.
Coach Cordisco, 97, who helped forge a dynamic athletics program at North Rockland High School in his many roles as mentor, coach and AD, passed away on Sunday at South County Hospital in Wakefield, R.I. (A Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Coast Guard during WW-II, he will be entombed with military honors on Saturday following a funeral service at 11 a.m. in the Redwood Mausoleum Chapel at Swan Point Cemetery, 585 Blackstone Blvd., Providence, R.I.)
The stadium at North Rockland HS is named after Cordisco, who compiled a 123-50-8 record as head football coach, and the field is named after his successor and current Red Raiders athletic director Joe Casarella.
Casarella was hired by Cordisco right out of Ithaca College and eventually took over as head coach, winning a county-record 255 games.
Casarella was just one of many hires that worked out wonderfully for a community that Cordisco loved with a passion and never abandoned.
“He was my mentor,” saud Casarella. “All I have accomplished is because of what he taught me. He was 97 years old — quite a life. I saw him a couple of months ago and he was doing great.”
Following Cordisco, notes Casarella, was tough for about a year. It’s not easy following a giant.
“But I had very good players, remember that. We won so many games, so after a year it was fine,” Casarella adds, echoing a humble sentiment that Coach Cordisco himself probably would have offered.
Casarella, however, was not alone in being mentored.
A chance for everyone
“He gave me a chance, he was very good to me and my family. I learned when it took to be a leader, to treat everyone like family; I took that with me,” said Pat Amendola of New City, who spent 22 years at North Rockland before a 13-year tenure as the athletics director at Rye HS.
“He hired me right out of college. It was my first job, when the school (North Rockland) was expanding,” Amendola fondly recalled of a time following graduation from the University of Charleston. “He picked some great people for PE (physical education) and coaches.”
Amendola recounts how Cordisco was always willing to help anyone, even the opposition.
“Ralph loved his hometown, he wanted to see all the kids do well,” said Amendola. “He was tough, but he was a father figure for players and coaches, too. He was just a good guy. Me and my wife (Victoria) visited him in Rhode Island and he had us laughing and crying.”
Bobby Cordisco, 59, was nearly brought to tears, too, in speaking about his dad, for whom he played four years.
“I learned about loyalty, being prepared, understanding character,” recalls Bobby, who is now in the high-end wine sales industry with InnoVino International.
“He was able to understand an individual, a player, knew their capabilities and then put them in the proper position to succeed,” continued Bobby. “At the end of the day it’s the person – you’ve to listen. It’s about them, not you. It’s about the privilege and honor of coaching. That still lives with me today.”
Young Bobby was part of a team in the early 70’s that outscored the opposition by a prodigious margin. He could not remember the exact figures, but put them as around 523 points for the Red Raiders and perhaps 9 or 10 allowed.
“We smothered people,” was how Bobby put it.
Asked about his dad’s response a loss, however few, Bobby said “He took the loss as his responsibility but the wins went to the team, to the players. It freed us up, we always bounced back – one game at a time, one down at a time, one quarter at a time, one half at a time. He was way ahead of his time. I can’t believe the amount of people I’ve heard from … my father never said no.”
Enduring work ethic
Bobby’s older brother Ralph Jr., commonly known as “Kip,” — who now runs his own golf rep agency and who also coached at North Rockland and Tappan Zee — points to the work ethic instilled by both his parents.
“They worked very hard, they were products of the depression. I was the oldest and things were just starting to blossom, when my mom and dad were building their lives,” Kip recounts. “The greatest gift my dad gave me, nothing financial, was the attitude that hard work, dedication and perseverance – if you stay the course, you’ll be successful.”
Cordisco the Elder was also ahead of his time, observes Kip, and not just as a coach.
“When he coached and when he taught – aside from coaching – in grades one through 12, every day every kid got one hour of PE,” said Kip. “That was ahead of his time; he was a visionary, that he was not just a jock for played football at Syracuse.
“I can’t tell you how many times people call me and say ‘Your father inspired me so much,’ ” continued Kip.
One example, he notes, was one of the managers for his dad’s football team, Harvey Wachman, whose dad died when he was in the fifth grade.
“Harvey told me that, about how much my dad helped him get through that, how my dad helped him get to NYU,” Kip said, then adding just a few of the many who uttered nearly that same thing.
“Chuck Scarpulla, he emailed me, and said if it was not for your dad … he got me a scholarship to the University of Rhode Island,” Kip continues. “And he (Scarpulla) played for an opposing team, Pearl River! That was my father.”
Kip listed some others whose lives were enhanced by the great Coach Cordisco, among them Vince Monte, who went on to become a political figure in the county.
Kip tells how Monte, who was not starting as a senior after several years as a front-liner, was going to quit the team. Monte, as it was remembered, put his stuff away and told Coach he was not coming back.
“The next day my dad brought him into his office,” said Kip. “He said to Vince, if you do this now you are setting yourself up for failure in life. I really want you to reconsider. The next day Vince came back. Years later he told me that my father was a big influence. That was my dad. He had a lot of compassion for people.”
Kip also said that Coach never prejudged anyone, pointing to another team manager, the late Jack Caffery.
“Jack was 5-foot-9, 145 pounds and in his senior year went to my dad and said he wanted to play. What does he do? He became all-state at defensive end, at 145 pounds!”
Another protégée, so to speak, is Nick Ryder, who got a scholarship to Miami and then played four seasons in the NFL with the Detroit Lions and today is the president of Structure Tone, a huge construction company; or Mike Neary, whose dad helped him get a scholarship to Princeton; or Chuck Maze, yet another player, who wrestled and played football on scholarship at Brown, and is now the director of the Nyack YMCA; or Richie Calhoun, “who had nothing and went to Florida A&M four years; or Len Stirling, who succeeded Cordisco the Elder as basketball coach.
The list, no exaggeration, seems to be endless.
“He touched so many lives,” said Bobby, the younger brother. “He certainly had a remarkable life. He was the guy everybody wanted to beat, he was the guy everybody wanted to be, he was the guy everybody wanted to learn from. He impacted people – he never saw color, religion, race. We shared our home with everyone.
“I feel emotional to a point,” Bobby went on, getting emotional. “He moved mountains. He was the type of guy … tough but filled with love, with an endearing love of people.”
A memorial mass is scheduled at 10 a.m. on January 23 at St. Peter’s Church in Haverstraw, with a reception to follow.