INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana Football Hall of Fame wanted Bruce Scifres, and it wanted him immediately. And of course it did. Seven state championships as a coach at Roncalli. Before that, three rushing records at Butler. Before that, at Plainfield High? More records.
What happened after Scifres retired following the 2016 season — when Roncalli went 15-0 and won the state title — was bound to happen sooner or later. In this case, sooner. Bruce Scifres goes to his mailbox on the south side of Indianapolis and finds a letter: Congratulations, you’ve been nominated for the Indiana Football Hall of Fame. Here’s a number to call for more information. Here’s an email address.
Scifres had retired barely one month earlier. Happens all the time, this fast, for the great coaches.
What happened next? Hadn’t happened – ever. Because this is what Bruce Scifres did. He wrote a letter to the Indiana Football Hall of Fame. He told them he was honored to be nominated, but if the Hall was going to induct a football coach from Roncalli, it was inducting the wrong one.
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If you can believe this, he wanted to be a state trooper. And if you can believe this – and he swears it’s true – this 5-foot-5 dynamo named Bob Tully was told by the Indiana State Police 56 years ago: No. Sorry. You’re not tall enough.
“I think I wanted to be a state trooper because I liked their hats,” says Tully, who in 1962 was studying criminology at IU. “I kept trying to tell them: With the hat, I’ll be 5-7!”
He’s telling me this from his office at Roncalli, and he’s laughing and I’m laughing, but now he turns serious.
“It broke my heart,” he says.
That rejection set in motion another life for Bob Tully. It’s why we’re here today, talking to him, talking about him, and chronicling the careers of two Roncalli legends who will be inducted into the Football HOF on Friday night when the Rebels play host to Bishop Chatard.
That, Roncalli’s 50th year as the lone Catholic high school on the south side, isn’t just a little fact in this story. It’s another reason we’re here, talking about two Roncalli football coaches going into the Football HOF together. Because 50 years ago, two Catholic schools on the south side were shut down, combined, renamed. One was John F. Kennedy Memorial, originally known as Sacred Heart, a school dating to the early 1900s. The other was Bishop Chartrand High. The schools combined faculty, staff, coaches, you name it – and this new school, Roncalli, didn’t need two of everything. People lost jobs. Students transferred.
“Tons of turmoil, as you can imagine,” Scifres is telling me. “People were let go. It was a really difficult time. The old timers, folks who went to school at that time, will tell you: Bob Tully’s influence was crucial to bringing the two sides together.”
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This whole thing started in 1962, with Bob Tully living in a high school classroom.
He’d grown up in the southern tip of Indiana wanting to be a state trooper, as we’ve said, but didn’t qualify. Tully followed his old football coach at Our Lady of Providence in Clarksville, Jim MacGregor, to a new school opening on the south side of Indianapolis. MacGregor would coach the football team at Bishop Chartrand, and he needed assistants, and Tully had the right kind of passion. He certainly hadn’t had the right kind of body: a 5-5, 190-pound guard in MacGregor’s single-wing offense.
“The blocking back was a little chubby guy, and that was me,” Tully says. “They took a lineman and put him in the backfield. I never saw the ball.”
“I’m a stayer,” he says.
You think? Bob Tully is 77, and in his entire life he’s had one employer. Well, two, but only because Chartrand merged with Kennedy and changed its name to Roncalli. The new school operated (and still does) out of the old Chartrand building on Prague Road, the same one where Bob Tully lived in 1962 and ‘63. The merger was 1969, the same year Tully and his high school sweetheart – of course this man married his high school sweetheart – moved into a house a short walk from Roncalli. They still live there. He’s a stayer, you know.
None of this has anything to do with the Roncalli football dynasty. Unless it has everything to do with it.
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Bruce Scifres was too big to be a running back. He was 6-2 and more than 200 pounds, and in the early 1970s that made him a power forward on the Plainfield basketball team, a rebounder, an All-Sectional pick. In track it made him a thrower of the shot put and discus, and he set school records at Plainfield in both. But he could run, and he went to Butler and ran some more, gaining more than 2,000 career yardsand breaking the single-game rushing mark (215).
Then he became a coach. At Roncalli first, an assistant in 1980 to Bill Kuntz, and then seven years in public schools, mostly at Lawrence Central. Roncalli in 1990 was his first head coaching job, and his only head coaching job. Within four years the program had nearly doubled in size to 80 players, and won the first of Scifres’ seven state titles in 1993.
He knew what he knew, and he knew how to run the football, so that’s what Roncalli did. That 1993 team featured an I-formation tailback named Mike Bohn, who broke the state rushing record with 3,165 yards. Another captain on that team, Jason Simmons, is the head coach at Ben Davis.
The game changed over the years, and Scifres changed with it. In 2016 Roncalli used the spread formation to go 15-0, and senior quarterback Derek O’Connor was breaking school passing records that had been set by two earlier Scifres QB’s, Cam Smock and Robbie Strader. That 2016 team was Scifres’ seventh to win a state title, matching his undefeated teams of 1993 and ’99, and his first title since Roncalli reeled off three in a row from 2002-04. Before resigning in March 2017 to become executive director of the Catholic Youth Organization of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, he went 248-88 from 1990-2016, including 7-1 in state championship games.
Along the way, Scifres coached his boys: Luke (class of 2010) was a slotback who later played for Marian, Cal (2014) a tackle for UIndy.
Also along the way, Scifres bonded with a former Roncalli head coach now on staff as an assistant, tiny guy with a huge personality, someone Scifres says “loved the kids and shaped the coach I became.” Someone Bruce Scifres, 61, doesn’t mind saying “was a hero of mine.”
Let’s talk some more about Bob Tully.
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Before he thought he’d become a state trooper, he thought he’d become a priest. Turns out, Bob Tully didn’t meet a requirement for that vocation, either.
“I think every Irish boy brought up in a Catholic family had dreams of (the priesthood), but as a freshman in high school that went by the wayside,” he says. “I prayed to be surrounded by beautiful women. And what He did, He waited until I was about 60 and gave me five beautiful granddaughters. To this day I wish I’d been more specific with my prayer.”
Such a Bob Tully thing to say. Laughing at himself, making faith sound fun.
“Our four kids all went to Roncalli,” Scifres says, “and they all love Bob. Everybody does. He has a way – he’s funny, but he lives his faith every day in a way you just like being around him.”
“He’s a treasure,” Roncalli assistant cross country coach Rob Brown, the radio voice of the Rebels football program, says of Tully. “This school will be less whenever he decides he’s not coming in to work anymore.”
It seems we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves, talking about Tully’s granddaughters and the day when he will retire as Roncalli’s vice president for mission and ministry, when we haven’t even talked about his contribution to Roncalli football. That contribution has been significant if largely unseen, like an acorn that has its day in the sunshine until it disappears. Several years pass, and … wait a minute: Where did that oak tree come from?
At Roncalli, a towering football program with eight state championships and 11 title-game appearances in 50 years, it came from Bob Tully. He’d never say it though.
“I personally, literally, took 11 teams to the state championship,” Tully says.
OK, he’ll say that. And then, after a short pause, he’ll continue.
“I drove the team bus!” he says, and he means that. He did drive the team bus when Bill Kuntz coached the Rebels to the 1983 runner-up spot in Class 3A and the 1985 title, and he drove it all those years for Bruce Scifres. Just another hat worn by a man who has done it all at Roncalli: religion teacher for 46 years, athletic director, dean of students, superintendent for finance, assistant wrestling coach, and head coach for track, cross country, freshman basketball and junior varsity baseball.
“They’re still looking for a job I can do,” he says.
Yeah, well, they found one in 1970. One year after the Kennedy-Chartrand merger, the football coach who’d come from Kennedy resigned, leaving Roncalli in the lurch. The school asked Bob Tully if he’d become head football coach, and that’s what he did for four years. He went 21-19, retiring not long after his 1971 and ’72 teams went a combined 15-5.
“I still find this so funny,” Bruce Scifres says. “Bob Tully lived in the school – and he never left. I haven’t talked to anybody who doesn’t love him. He was instrumental through his coaching, and pulling both groups together, to creating the foundation for Roncalli football as it’s known today.”
Which is why two coaches will be inducted Friday into the Indiana Football Hall of Fame: The towering oak tree of a man, who won seven state titles – and the smaller guy, the acorn who planted the seed 50 years ago and has nurtured it ever since.