• Dan Russoman

Sacco ready for 40th season at St. Joe


St. Joseph Academy football coach Paul Sacco (right) gives instruction to several Wildcats players during a practice session on August 11. (THG/Dan Russoman.To purchase photos in The Gazette, call (609) 704-1940.)

HAMMONTON—When St. Joseph Academy’s football team takes the field for its season opener on August 27 in Ocean City, it will mark the start of head coach Paul Sacco’s 40th season leading his alma mater.


Sacco, who is the all-time leader in victories among coaches in southern New Jersey and who ranks near the top totals in wins for any New Jersey coach with 343, will look to add onto that mark when the Wildcats take on Northeast (Pa.).


Last week, Coach Sacco took some time from the Wildcats’ preseason workouts to discuss his four decades at St. Joe.


“Forty years, it’s hard to believe it’s been that long. That’s why my wife calls me a dumbass,” Sacco joked.


Sacco had been an assistant coach at St. Joseph before taking the head job at the start of the 1982 season. His plan then was to last a few years, then possibly move on to another program.


“My whole plan was five [years]. I was always close with [coach] Chuck Donahue, and he said, ‘make it your focus in a Catholic school, three to five years. Put your feet under you, and then you move on.’ You get into a good public school system where you’re going to be paid and have a pension. And, the first three to five years, then it was eight, then 10, and it was like, this is it. How it got to be 40, I’ll never know,” Sacco said.


Throughout his tenure, Sacco has been offered other coaching positions, but in the end, turned them all down.


“[T]here were some great opportunities that all came in between there, a couple of college opportunities that were accessible to me where I wasn’t going to have to pick up and move and there were good high school programs in this immediate area. But I guess my heart was here, so I hung in here. It’s been a long road, a lot of ups and downs, but I have to say most of it was good. If it was for the money, I wouldn’t be here. If it was for the notoriety, I wouldn’t be here,” Sacco said.


Under Sacco, St. Joseph grew into a perennial championship contender, success that came from the coach’s commitment to weight training, something he stressed from the start.


“I felt from day one learning weight training was important,” Sacco said.


Sacco began a powerlifting program at St. Joe, one that has performed well on the state level.


“I knew that all we needed to do was build a good foundation in the weight room, and we’ve done that. Not just because we’ve won 30 out of 32 state championships in power lifting. Power lifting is just something that goes along with this. You don’t power lift when you’re on the field or practice, but it was something that I think, our weight training program is the best around,” he said.


Last season, when players weren’t allowed to lift at the school or private gyms because of the pandemic, Sacco was worried his team would fall behind.


“I was nervous because we could not be in there and we spent all that time out of the weight room. I was giving my equipment to as many kids as I could because they couldn’t go off and go to gyms and I knew that was going to be something that we were going to lack in, being in the weight room three or four days a week like we are now,” he said.


Working hard in the weight room has been just one ingredient in Sacco’s success. Hard work on and off the field have also factored in him lasting 40 seasons.


“I think the one thing that Chuck Donahue told me that was totally incorrect was, ‘get through the first three or four years and after that you’ll just get into a groove or a pattern and it’ll get easier.’ It didn’t get easier. And it could be that to keep the program up at a top level, we had to work twice as hard. My whole thing is that my job is to outwork all the other coaches, including my own. Just outwork everybody. The good Lord has given me that ability and that energy and drive to do that. I’ve always said that when I didn’t have that anymore, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t just come out here and coach. You know, I want to always be at the forefront with their training, and everything that we do. And when you can’t do that anymore or you don’t have it in your heart to do it anymore, or you don’t have the energy, then you have to stop,” Sacco said.


When you coach for 40 years, you go experience many highs and lows. Last year was one of the toughest Sacco has had during his tenure. First there were COVID-19 restrictions, and then the potential closing of St. Joseph.


“I think the last two to three years, if there’s been any time [that’s been tough] with the COVID and what happened with the school, that started to sidetrack me a little bit. You’re focusing not on what you should be focusing on,” Sacco said.


Sacco also had to deal with a two-game suspension in 2018 for an off-the-field incident involving several St. Joseph players, as well as a health emergency he had late in the 2010 season that forced him to miss a game.


“The year I had my suspension, that was tough. I had only missed one game my entire life and that was when I had that head thing. And I was fortunate with that, because they said, ‘you’re not finishing the season, you’re done, your season’s over.’ You always want to keep your nose clean, a clean slate, and I felt that kind of damaged it a little bit. To miss those two games, I really appreciate the kids and the coaches who tried to keep us up. When I got sick, and they said the season was done for me, I was like, ‘What? It can’t be.’ And I got lucky, somebody was looking out for me and I was able to come back for that game and the Hammonton game I’ve tried not to miss a beat since,’” Sacco said.


The game has changed a lot since Sacco began coaching, on the field and off, and there has sometimes been talk that St. Joe’s coach has fallen behind the times in dealing with players and strategies on the field, areas where Sacco strongly disagrees.


“Players, I think we still have a good number of kids that no matter what you tell them, they’ll do it. They’ll run through a wall for you. But I’ve seen a big change in some of the other players as far as their work ethic. Everything is me or I, it’s about them, not about the team. We’re going through that right now. That’s the big thing. I get so tired of coaches, including my own, who say, ‘kids have changed.’ They’ve changed, but I think the biggest changes are coming from the coaches. Just be the same coach you’ve been before and straighten things out. That’s what I’m doing right now. I’m not going to let them change the program,” Sacco said.


Today’s players often focus more on individual goals and achievements, something that frustrates Sacco.


“We have the parent-player meeting and the first thing I say is, ‘Is anyone here because you’re being forced to be here? Are you here because Mom and Dad want you to play? Uncle Bob wants you to play? Or are you here because you want to play?’ If you’re here for someone else, your girlfriend wants you to play, then you’re not gonna make it. Because I’m not changing for anyone. I’m stuck in my ways,” Sacco said.


As for players who are only seeking to attract college scouts, Sacco hopes they focus more on the team and their education.


“I’m sick of that. Am I gonna get an ‘O,’ an offer? If that’s why you’re here, you should go somewhere else. You should be here because it’s a great school system, great family atmosphere, safe atmosphere and get a great education. Football should be the last thing. People are probably gonna chuckle at that last statement, but the end product is, you’re not playing football forever. The few lucky ones go to college and play for four years, that’s where it stops. But your education is what’s going to carry you through, make money, pay your bills and take care of your kids. That’s it; that’s the end product,” he said.


Outside the classroom, Sacco wants his players to concentrate on the team.


“Do I think there are kids who come here just because they think they’ll get a scholarship? Yeah. And I tell them, don’t come here for that. Find another program. Because that tells me, you’re not in it for the team. I think more and more kids think they’re entitled and I get to the point that I don’t even pay attention to those kids when they’re talking. I just continue to coach, don’t listen, let’s go. I don’t want to hear about what I’m going to do for you today, what are you gonna get me; what are you gonna give me? I don’t want to hear that. What are you doing for this team today in practice? Are you giving everything you’ve got? Some of them are. Some of them aren’t,” Sacco said.


Sticking to his principals carries onto the field as well, where Sacco remains confident his style of play produces winning teams.


“I think when you look back, playing in the small Cape Atlantic League division, it was power-I and wing-T came onto the scene, wishbone, I-formation, now it’s all 7-on-7. And I tell the kids if they want to play 7-on-7 and go to those tournaments, go ahead. But there’s nobody blocking you, nobody chasing the quarterback, there’s nobody rushing, you just throw the ball. It’s pitch and catch. And that works for some people. It doesn’t work for us. If we’re gonna spend all that time in the weight room with the linemen that we have, then we’re going to try to control the tempo of the game, the line of scrimmage and keep the ball out of your hands,” Sacco said.


St. Joseph’s grind-it-out style may not attract many fans, but it produces solid football teams that win much more often than they lose.


“Perfect example, the Hammonton game [last season] in the end. We went from the eight-yard line and we drove for eight minutes, we kept the football. You’re gonna win games that way. Burlington Twp. it’s 31-30 at halftime because we’re trading possessions. Second half, we go to a run-oriented game, eight-man line, we had the ball 19 minutes, 46 seconds out of 24. We ran 59 plays; they ran nine. We scored 21 points; they scored none. That’s how you’re gonna win game,” Sacco said.


Detractors say St. Joe’s style has cost the Wildcats a few top players who would rather play in a more wide-open style offense. The coach disagrees.


“We’re throwing more now. Our plan this year is to throw the ball 10-15 times a game. I hear it from my coaches, ‘how are we ever gonna get good quarterbacks and wide receivers?’ Ryan Simone was pretty good. The twins, [Salaam and A’Laam Horne] were pretty good. Anthony Giagunto was pretty good. OK? We don’t need kids who want to catch 10-12 passes a game. I’m not knocking that, but we are going to try to get after you. And what good is doing you when you’re three-and out? We tried that last year, and you see what happened. You’re three-and-out, three-and-out a lot and you’re turning the ball over to your opponent. So, we’re trying to wear you down,” he said.


“There have been a lot of teams that run spread, run it very well, and they’ve never beaten us. So, what value is it to them? I tell people if that’s good for you, do it. If it works for you, do it. For our style here and my mindset, I might have to do that more this year, but we’re going to try to run the ball first,” Sacco said.


That style has led to a record 27 state and sectional titles at St. Joseph. Despite the success, Sacco has always refused to compare his teams at St. Joe.


“Each one was special in one way or another,” he said.


The best teams, Sacco said were ones that had a sole focus, winning.


[Some of those teams] were all business and you didn’t hear a peep out of them. They just came to work. It’s like we tell these kids, ‘This is your job today. Come to work and go home.’ You know, it’s not a playtime. And I think of some of those teams. Those teams were business-like. They weren’t in detention after school. They were all in the weight room first and last and they just enjoyed playing. I’m starting to wonder how many kids still enjoy playing or are out here for another reason. See what offer I can get. And if anything’s changed, that’s it,” Sacco said.


Success has led to recognition for Sacco and his program. What started as a small, Catholic school in the middle of South Jersey has become a perennially-high ranked program that is a model for success throughout the state.


“I remember when I got here, some of the goals that I had. Let’s win the Cape Atlantic League division and then that happened. And then I used to see the top 25 in South Jersey, and it would be nice to be in that or the top 10. I never thought about being third in the state. That’s why I ask people how much more can a program like this achieve? We’re fighting our tails off, to stay up top. I say that would be nice to be recognized in the state. And I remember years ago [statistician] Mike Ford saying, ‘You know, St. Joe’s never been undefeated.’ And then in 1997 we go undefeated. I was like, ‘We’re undefeated, what’s that?’ And then we had a string of undefeated seasons. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, and I’ve seen it with last year’s team, it’s not one play at a time, one game at a time, it’s one step at a time,” Sacco said.


In close to 40 years of coaching, Sacco has garnered many awards and received a lot of accolades, but he’s the first to credit his assistants and players. St. Joseph has produced many stellar players in the last four decades, but there have been many who were just average athletes who embraced their coach’s philosophy and work ethic.


“I think [a St. Joe player is] that kid that if you asked him to stand on his head against the goal post for 10 minutes, I know that sounds funny, but to put it on other words, is that kid that comes in and he knows what you expect, way before he even gets here and he makes that commitment. He wants to play in this program. ‘Coach, I want to play in your program.’ Knowing that it’s 11 months, three weeks a year that you’re gonna be in that weight room, even during baseball, basketball, wrestling season, holidays and stuff. And the kid that carries himself as an adult, [he] respects everybody, his teachers, his fellow classmates, the lunch people, the janitorial people. That makes a special kid and they’re the kind of kids I want,” Sacco said.


Helping athletes grow as players and people has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of coaching for Sacco. When asked what else he enjoyed, he took a long pause before answering.


“Believe it or not the time spent in the weight room and the time spent on the practice field. The games are one thing, but they go so fast, especially when they’re not going the way you want them to. I mean, you get out there and you blink and it’s the end of the first quarter. You put all that time in for 48 minutes. It goes so fast,” he said.


In 40 years of coaching, Sacco has impacted the lives of all his players. Many keep in touch, something he appreciates. He also hopes they’ve taken away some of the lessons he hopes to instill in each of them.


“[I hope they remember] that discipline and hard work can take you anywhere in the world you want to go. That’s it—discipline, hard work, commitment. Those three things, I’ve always said when I talk to the kids, I talk about the ‘three D’s,’ desire, discipline, dedication. If you can put those three into effect every day when you’re here, I think you’ll be a winner; you’ll be a champion,” Sacco said.


As for his own legacy, Sacco hopes people remember him one way.


“One thing. The kids laugh, they say it’s from “A Bronx Tale”, it’s would you rather be loved or feared? First of all, nobody fears Paul Sacco. Only his immediate family loves him, at times, OK? When I walk away, I want people to say, even the hardcore Hammontonians who may not like me much, that no matter what, you gotta respect him because he did what he did and he didn’t have all the frills. We don’t have a field. We have one goal post that when the wind blows if falls over. That’s it, in the end when I get a chance to walk away, have people say, ‘I hated the guy, he’s a jerk,’ whatever, ‘but I respect him.’ That’s it for me. One word and I’ll be happy with that,” Sacco said.