Greg Toal isn’t prone to public sentiment, but behind the gruff voice, behind the hard exterior, the emotion is there. Just maybe not in the way you think.
Yes, Toal will walk into Don Bosco Friday night in the unfamiliar position as football visitor, and yes, he will do everything in his power to help his new team beat his old one. But if you think his return as an assistant coach with Bergen Catholic against his former team at Don Bosco is driven by revenge, if you think his preparation across a week of practices has been fueled by anger, then you haven’t been paying attention to the reason Toal has stayed in high school coaching all these years.
“I don’t look at it as coaching against Don Bosco,” Toal said in a phone conversation this week. “They have great kids there. Great kids. This is a football game, and I’ll do everything to win it, but I’m not coaching against 17, 18-year-old kids. Am I against them? No. Do we want to beat them? Yes.”
That doesn’t mean Toal won’t experience a range of strange feelings Friday, including revisiting the sadness and disappointment at how his record run at Bosco ended, how fractured his relationship with the school is now, how irreparable his friendship and mentorship of current Don Bosco coach Mike Teel feels still, how unsettling it will be to stand on the visitor’s sideline of a field that was his domain for 19 years. Toal returned to the school only once since his February ouster, and that was just to clean out his office.
“No doubt it’s going to seem odd, I was there for a long time,” Toal said. “I think I was at Hackensack the last time I was on that opposite sideline, and it will be odd being in the visiting locker room. But it’s not about me. It’s about the kids, and that’s always been the point. That’s why I got involved in coaching. That’s why I remind myself of that all the time – I love the kids at Don Bosco.”
That connection is the reason this season’s edition of North Jersey’s most powerful football rivalry has taken on added weight, not simply that Toal coached Don Bosco to nine state championships and two national ones, but that he was replaced in such a clumsy, bungled way, billed initially by the Bosco administration as a voluntary retirement but later exposed as a simple firing. But that Toal ended up joining Bergen Catholic, taking a job an assistant coach under his former offensive coordinator Nunzio Campanile? How does it get more intense than that?
“I know he’s been pretty excited about this game, but he’s always been, and this is one of the things that makes him so unique, he has a great ability to focus on the task at hand,” Campanile said. “There is a game to be played, and though he and I talked about what it means to him, that’s what he said to the kids. ‘It’s not about me, it’s about you, about your opportunity, your chance to go out play the game.’”
And the game is rife with opportunity for Bergen, which has a chance to run through the Big North United division undefeated and move a step closer to Campanile’s first state title. But as different as the team’s might look on the surface – Bergen is 5-2, Bosco 2-5 – the margins of victory versus defeat have been similarly close.
“They’re six points away from going 5-2,” Campanile said. “I think our talent is very comparable. Last weekend we had a 20-19 win. They had a 22-19 loss. Flip a coin and maybe it goes a different way.”
These are likely the sneak peeks into the weeklong messaging Campanile has and will continue to share with his team, some of the meat of his usual Thursday night meeting with his players. Maybe this week’s meeting will have an extra special guest speaker. Maybe it won’t.
“I would absolutely let coach Toal do it – I actually asked him, just said, ‘do you want to address the team?’” Campanile said. “He said no, but we’ll see. I think he’s at his best when he’s impromptu.”
There was nothing unplanned about Toal’s past takeover of North Jersey football, nothing accidental about his toppling of Bergen Catholic to get there. He arrived with that personal mandate, to take over the head-to-head record between the two programs. He did it too, amassing a 23-5 record against the Crusaders. Now he’s out to tip the scales back toward Oradell. The journey starts by way of Ramsey, where he will take that strange walk to the visitor’s locker room Friday night, where he will stand alongside a former enemy turned friend Fred Stengel and coach the Crusaders together, where he will take one more giant step away from the place that defined him most.
Intense barely does it justice.
“It’s always been a tremendous atmosphere, I don’t think there’s a better game,” Toal said.
Hard to imagine a better high school coach, one whose record across decades at different schools has always been about more than numbers. Sure, he wants to add one more victory on Friday. Not for himself, though. For the kids.