The soap opera holding North Jersey football in its grip took another dramatic turn Thursday, pitting a local high school powerhouse against its longtime, legendary head coach, two characters on opposite sides of an increasingly ugly fight for public opinion.
The latest salvo came from Don Bosco’s (Ramsey, N.J.) president, Father Jim Heuser, who sent an email to alumni in the afternoon that was obtained by The Record. The email puts the onus of Greg Toal’s sudden departure squarely on the coach himself, claiming Toal had reneged on a “handshake and the clear understanding that he had agreed to retire from his position” after 17 years at the helm.
But Heuser’s letter served more to muddy some already murky waters. He described his decision to move beyond Toal as one a “few years” in the making, that he had decided more than a year ago to “evaluate our plans for the future leadership of our football program.”
This was a public admission of Don Bosco’s desire to change the narrative that has consumed the area’s football community since the Feb. 16 announcement of Toal’s retirement, a story that quickly mushroomed into controversy when the man himself was not at the subsequent news conference. Toal’s absence during the introduction of Mike Teel, his onetime star quarterback and two-year offensive coordinator, as his replacement raised more questions than it answered. While Toal has yet to say anything publicly, it’s become clear the man with 305 career wins, two mythical national championships, nine state titles, one finalist selection for national coach of the year, one induction into the NJSIAA Hall of Fame, and a parade of Bosco grads in the Division I college and NFL ranks was not ready to walk away.
It’s been one week since the shocking end to Toal’s Don Bosco career, leaving the 63-year-old coach with no job and no answers.
In short, how could this happen?
He transformed a relatively unknown North Jersey Catholic high school into a national football brand. He changed the dynamics of local football by taking his team all over the nation (a 26-8 out-of-state record, including games in California, Florida, Ohio, Utah and Pennsylvania) to beat larger, more prominent programs. He alerted the Division I college recruiters across the country that they needed and wanted players from North Jersey.
How could this man earn nothing more than a swift, backdoor exit from the school?
That is the question being asked by a stunned high school football community, whose collective reaction across dozens of phone calls with The Record is that Bosco grievously miscalculated the reaction to what it had to know would be an earthquake-level move., Heuser’s Thursday email is little more than an attempt at damage control.
For all of Toal’s dominant, at times difficult, personality, one that might see him alternately revered or reviled, he has always been respected. In the words of Tony Jones, a Paterson native and 2010 graduate of Don Bosco, “With everything coach Toal has done, he earned the right to say goodbye when he wanted to say goodbye.”
So why didn’t he?
Good luck getting an official answer. Don Bosco has been closed this week, its students and teachers on vacation and athletic director Brian McAleer declining to comment. Toal and his lawyer, Barry Guaglardi, have told The Record for days, “We have no comment at this time.”
There is a storm brewing, with a clear threat of legal action from Toal’s side and plenty maneuvering on Don Bosco’s side. Heuser tried to mollify the differences between himself and Toal on Thursday, writing, “Coach Toal’s record of achievement on the field and with our students is a distinguished one,” and expressing hope the school could celebrate Toal’s career after reaching “an agreement with Coach Toal that will allow us to do so.”
But sources familiar with both sides describe a frosty relationship in which the two men have barely spoken for two years, in which Heuser is not comfortable with such a nationally renowned figure with a bigger profile than the relatively new president himself. That’s led Heuser to align with several well-funded board members who’ve begun to bristle at Toal’s advancing age and panic at Teel’s potential departure for a different job. There are many who believe Toal’s uncharacteristic 2016 season record of 6-5 has been seized upon as an indicator of oncoming decline.
This is a man who never once in his football life backed down from a challenge, to himself, to his team, to his players. He proved as much by moving his program into the national scene, beginning with a 2006 trip to participate in the second annual Kirk Herbstreit Ohio vs. the USA Challenge in Cincinnati, a two-day, nine-game showcase featuring national powerhouses such as De La Salle of California and Lakeland of Florida.
Telling The Record at the time, “People want to know how good Don Bosco is, we’re going to see how we stack up,” Toal boarded his team onto an unprecedented pair of flights from Newark Airport, booked his practice time at Mason High School’s local field, and lodged his players into a nearby Courtyard by Marriott. Then, he took them onto the University of Cincinnati’s field and put a 21-0 beating on Centerville High. In the seasons that followed, Don Bosco made out-of-state trips for high-profile games against De La Salle and Prattville (Alabama), opening a nation’s eyes to what was going on in North Jersey.
“I think it really was an eye-opener to not only the rest of the high school football world but an eye-opener to New Jersey itself, like, ‘Holy God, we really do play that level of football here,’” said Fred Stengel, the longtime Bergen Catholic coach and decade-long Toal foil. “We would not have known that without those out-of-state games. And Greg Toal carried that banner.”
Speaking for so many young viewers who would end up finding their own way into the North Jersey game, current Paramus Catholic coach and former Bogota player Dan Sabella recalled watching those national games on the likes of ESPN. “The whole state would be rooting for them,” Sabella said. “We had never experienced anything like that before. He was representing everyone in New Jersey.”
“He was a pioneer,” said Greg Schiano, the Ohio State assistant head coach and former Rutgers coach. “He went out and played a national schedule before anybody else, and wasn’t afraid to do it. He wasn’t afraid if they won or lost, he just wanted the competition. To me, he changed New Jersey football; he grew the game of football in the state of New Jersey.”
Now, it’s a behemoth.
What Toal started, others are continuing, and Don Bosco, no longer in charge of the market, endured high-profile, controversial transfers like that of Peppers, who left Don Bosco for Paramus Catholic after two seasons. When recriminations spilled into the public conversation, many felt uncomfortable that dirty laundry was being aired. There are many who speculate it was the Peppers episode that powered the freight train that just leveled Toal.
“But for every Peppers, there are 40 other kids from Don Bosco who didn’t do it that way, who did it the right way,” former Bosco quarterback Gary Nova said. “This whole situation with what’s going on is just blowing my mind, that this would happen to coach Toal. Everyone is confused right now. All I can say is there are two people who have had the most impact on my life, one is my father and the next is coach Toal. And Don Bosco and coach Toal go hand in hand. When I meet people and they ask where I played football and I say Don Bosco, they say, ‘Oh you played for that guy Toal!’ He built that program. All the credit goes to him. Nobody else deserves the credit. He did it all.”
Loyalty like Nova’s is echoed through generations of players, and through their parents, too. Whether from high-profile families whose kids went on to NFL careers or lower-profile ones who peaked in college, from Division I stars to kids who rarely got off the bench, the theme is the same.
This man changed their lives.