Pascack Valley Regional High School in northern New Jersey is one of those curious phenomena of sprawling suburbia—the high school without a town. Four communities have a hand in Pascack Valley—Hillsdale, Woodcliff Lake, Montvale and River vale; they banded together in 1955 to build a high school of their own. This produced some problems of divided loyalties, but most of all, says Superintendent James McNeil, it produced "a pursuit of excellence."
"We were starting a completely new high school," McNeil said the other day, "so we had no tradition of mediocrity, no outdated mores to uphold. The parents wanted excellence, and they were willing to pay for it."
One of the teachers they paid for was Joe Talamo (above), a graying, forthright football coach who has pursued excellence with astonishing results. Now in his fourth season as Pascack coach (he is also the school's athletic director), Talamo has won 32 games, lost one, tied two. The single loss came on Thanksgiving Day 1958, when one star back left the game with injuries, and another was banished for fighting. In track, which he coaches in the nonfootball season, Talamo has a record of 43 won, 3 lost, including 27 straight dual-meet victories. Before coming to Pascack, he coached freshman and junior varsity teams at Memorial High School, West New York, N.J. His lifetime football record ("this is gonna shock you"): 147 wins, 3 losses, 2 ties.
McNeil and Talamo toss around words like excellence and character as if they were the special property of Pascack Valley Regional. According to McNeil, "The spirit of excellence permeates the whole school. A winning football team? Certainly, we're proud of it, but no more than we're proud of our math courses and our science program. Our students can get into any college. Why, last year we had a boy turn down Princeton to go to Stanford. Our goal is to do everything to the very best of our ability. That is our constant pursuit of excellence.
December 5, 1960
"In athletics, as in everything else, we aim for participation," said McNeil. "Our track team last year had 125 boys. They called us the Green Wave and said we were trying to overwhelm them with numbers. But it's important for a boy to play his role as a male, to put on his track suit as a member of a team. That's his status symbol, you know."
On the way to the coach's office, I glanced around the halls, furtively searching for someone who was doing something other than pursuing excellence. The students seemed caught up in routine school tasks—opening lockers, talking and laughing, fidgeting in class as teacher talked.
Coach Talamo leaned on the edge of his desk and said: "Plays don't win this game. I don't do anything different—no laterals, no tricky stuff, just dives and off-tackle plays. You know we didn't even complete a pass in our first four games? That's right. You've just got to live this game. You've got to have real teamwork, not just play together. It's a matter of character. That's what we've got—no more talent, no more plays, no more coaching ability than anyone else. Just more character."
The development of character at Pascack is not left to chance. Each position on the team (left end, left tackle, etc.) has a senior "big brother." He is actually assistant coach, player and wet nurse rolled into one. "The big brother helps his guys with their plays, their homework and even gets them dates," Talamo explained. The coach lets his senior lettermen write the squad's training rules: " 'You make 'em, you abide by 'em,' I tell my kids, and the rules come out twice as strict as I would've made 'em. And now the parents don't complain that we're being too strict."
The rules for 1960 list five "purposes." The first two are to "develop an outstanding team," and "to develop tremendous team morale and cooperation." All told, there are 14 rules, including:
Off the streets and in your home at 9:30 p.m. and in bed at 10:30 p.m.
No one permitted to go out on a night before a game.
Mandatory crew cuts.
No eating after school dismissal.
Dating only on Saturday nights or on Sunday afternoons.
These strictures, together with customary warnings against drinking and smoking, provide a built-in code of moral behavior. Talamo tried to interfere with the student code just once—a bed-check rule in 1958. "I called their houses the night before games to check up on 'em. But one of the boys came to me and said, 'Coach, you've gone with us this far. Why do this now?' He was right and I stopped. I was ashamed of myself. Now the boys take an oath among themselves before each game that they'll obey the rules. I threaten 'em with bed check once in a while but it's only a threat."
Since the defeat two years ago, Talamo has had a special phobia against loss of temper. The second-stringers have instructions to punch the regulars now and again during scrimmage, just to test their reactions. Anyone who flares up gets at least a tongue lashing, maybe even dismissal from the squad. "I tell 'em to forget about punching back, to fight back by scoring touchdowns."
Talamo says his coaching is based mostly on psychology. "Everything goes back to character," he says. "If you can build that, you don't need any fancy plays. Of course we coach to win, but we're doing more than winning at football. We're building principles of citizenship." Talamo's psychological treatment includes a hefty serving of sentiment. "I'm a tearjerker from way back," he admits. His gooiest concoction is the senior farewell. One afternoon before the final game of the season the varsity (about 33 boys) gathers in a large circle on the field. One at a time, the seniors shake hands with each member of the squad, then take solo laps around the track as everyone watches. "It's one big bawling session," says Talamo cheerfully. "The seniors are crying by the time they shake the fourth hand. The coaches all cry too. They just can't help it. I never hold back my emotions anyway, not even in front of the kids. I cry when I'm really sad."
Halfway through the Riverdell game this season, Talamo really was sad. Pascack was losing 13-7, and he was fresh out of inspirational words. "Finally I said, 'What do you guys want from me anyhow?" Then I started to cry and walked out. The kids went out and got two touchdowns, and we won the game."
Will Talamo cry when he loses another game? "Nope. When we lose the kids think I'm gonna kill 'em. But I'm not. I'm gonna shake every one of their hands and tell 'em, 'Boys, that's life.' And I'll be smiling, too."
At half time, Talamo says, he makes no adjustments in offense or defense. "It makes no difference if we're winning or losing, I've done all the coaching I can during the week. In the few minutes I got I don't fool with trick plays. I get busy on their character."
For all his emphasis on character, Talamo puts plenty of work into the game itself. He is a shrewd tactician who calls all the team's plays and relies heavily on spotting opposing weakness.
Pascack often makes no attempt to return opposing punts. "We just let 'em go over our heads and roll dead," Talamo says. This also stems from the 1958 defeat, when two fumbled punts contributed to enemy touchdowns. "All the coaches want to beat me real bad, and they'll do anything unorthodox. So I have to play a standard defense and watch out for the fourth-down pass or run. Anyway, all we want is to get hold of the ball. We can score from anywhere on the field."
Statistics fully support this claim. In its first five games this season the team scored 196 points for the highest per-game high school average in New Jersey. In 1959 it was No. 1 offensively and No. 2 defensively in the state.
Early each week, Talamo and his four assistants look over game movies and draw up detailed breakdowns, which comment on individual performances on every offensive play. "Laakso," one will read, "hit man in left gap instead of going down-field.... Reisman—do not throw cross-body block on linebackers.... Pelsang—you are running hard now. Is it because you are carrying the ball?"
The movie breakdowns are copied and passed around the squad. They are studied religiously and sometimes with direct results. Before the Ramsey game last month, Talamo stepped into the locker room to pep up team spirit and character. "What did I see? Ralph Rush, my halfback, was reading off everybody's mistakes from the last breakdown. The kids were just sitting there listening and getting madder and madder at themselves. What could I add to that? I turned around and walked out of the locker room without saying a word." Pascack won 73-0.
On the practice field Talamo is a shouter. He berates his players, together and individually, and sends them to the sidelines for the slightest infraction. But he softens his harsh demands with carefully chosen psychological sweeteners. "Do you know who you're playing Saturday?" he yelled before the Mahwah game. "A team with a very high rating. The fellas who pick the all-state teams are gonna be here too. So you got your chance to look real good."
The boys themselves reflect their coach's outlook. They play good, hard-hitting football, and they keep their mouths shut. There is no horsing around and little talk during practice. They are clearly in pursuit of excellence.