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Martin D. ‘Mitch’ Tullai, who taught at St. Paul’s School for more than 50 years and was program’s winningest football coach, dies

At St. Paul’s School in Baltimore where he worked, Martin D. “Mitch” Tullai was fond of creating posters with sayings designed to inspire the students he taught and the athletes he coached.

Some of his more memorable quotes included “Establish your credentials” and “Nobody ever drowned in their own sweat.” His daughter, Jaye Tullai, said her personal favorite of her father’s was “Pride — the unwillingness to accept mediocrity.”

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“To me, that was Dad’s best,” she said. “He didn’t just teach sports. He really got the most out of his academic students, and he got the most out of his athletes. That saying is kind of the key to how he did it. … That was how he influenced young people.”

Mr. Tullai, who taught American history at St. Paul’s School for more than 50 years and coached the football and basketball programs there for 40 years, died of congestive heart failure Monday at his home in Lutherville. He was 93.

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Under Mr. Tullai (pronounced TOO-lie), the Crusaders captured six Maryland Scholastic Association C Conference titles (1966 and 1989-1993) and five Tri-County championships (from 1970-1972, 1979 and 1982). According to Charley Mitchell who played on the 1971 and 1972 teams, Mr. Tullai was part of an exclusive group of coaches that included the late George Mitchell (lacrosse), the late Thomas Longstreth (basketball) and Mike Rentko (football) who also taught at the school and therefore understood their players and students.

“We have men and women who were really great teachers, but when you had them on the court or the field, they knew you as a student as well as an athlete, and they knew if you were having issues in the classroom or if there were things going on at home,” said Mr. Mitchell, who has been the institution’s director of alumni engagement for the past 10 years. “So they knew the whole kid. That’s really been part of our culture for a long time, and he was just legendary. There were others, too, but he was kind of the last legend in that regard.”

The eighth of 11 children raised by Wasil Tullai and the former Sophia Sasczyn who ran a small grocery store in Glen Lyon, Pennsylvania, Mr. Tullai discovered a talent for playing football in his senior year at the local high school. Shortly after graduating in 1946, he volunteered for the U.S. Army where he became a paratrooper in the 11th Airborne Division and served 15 months in Japan before being discharged in 1948 as a sergeant.

Mr. Rentko, who grew up in Newport Township, Pennsylvania, with Mr. Tullai, said his childhood friend was so good at pickup basketball games in Japan that he was renowned for his “Hokkaido hook shot.” Mr. Rentko said Mr. Tullai was gifted with athleticism.

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“He could beat me running backwards,” Mr. Rentko quipped.

Martin D. "Mitch" Tullai coached St. Paul's to six MSA C Conference football championships and five Tri-County titles. He's pictured here in 1978.
Martin D. "Mitch" Tullai coached St. Paul's to six MSA C Conference football championships and five Tri-County titles. He's pictured here in 1978. (Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

After returning from Japan, Mr. Tullai enrolled at what was then Western Maryland College in Westminster. He married the former Jean Beletsky, his high school sweetheart, in 1949, served as president of the Student Government Association, and starred at running back and defensive back for three seasons with an appearance in the Blue-Gray all-star game in 1951.

After graduating in 1952 with a bachelor’s in education, Mr. Tullai taught for one year at Middletown Township High School in Leonardo, New Jersey, before getting recruited by St. Paul’s to coach the football team, serve as athletic director, and teach American history. The Tullai family, which included four daughters, lived on-campus in the south gatehouse near the campus entrance, which allowed for Mr. Tullai to spend more time with his family.

“Because we lived on campus, his life and his work were seamless,” Ms. Tullai said. “He went to the school in the morning, he came back, he was available to the boarding students at night. For me, he gave me a great example of making his life’s work a seamless part of his life.”

Mr. Rentko, who followed Mr. Tullai to Western Maryland College, joined him at St. Paul’s in 1955. Because he was a calisthenics instructor in the U.S. Army, Mr. Rentko was tasked by Mr. Tullai to warm up the football players before games. That led to a memorable moment when Mr. Rentko told the players to move into a supine position and no one moved.

“Mitch came over and whispered in my ear, ‘Mike, they don’t know what the hell supine is,’” Mr. Rentko said. “So I had to tell them, ‘Get on your backs!’ We laughed about that for years.”

Martin D. "Mitch" Tullai sits next to a plaque dedicating St. Paul's athletic field to him.
Martin D. "Mitch" Tullai sits next to a plaque dedicating St. Paul's athletic field to him. (Handout/The Baltimore Sun)

Mr. Tullai excelled as the school’s football coach, compiling a record of 209-126. The number of wins is a program record, and the turf field at George L. Mitchell Stadium was named in honor of Mr. Tullai.

Mr. Tullai was renowned for banging his clipboard on the helmets of his players to get their attention. He was also a master tactician, according to Mr. Mitchell (no relation to the late Mr. Mitchell).

“We won championships in my junior and senior years, and I always felt that the difference-maker was him,” he said. “I saw how he just didn’t miss a detail in terms of where you stood, what your footwork was like, when to play man-to-man versus zone, pass routes. He just knew football so well. He seemed to know everything about blocking and tackling techniques as well as receiver routes, quarterback play, what the linebackers are doing. He was just a terrific coach.”

Mr. Tullai promoted Mr. Rentko to coach the offensive and defensive lines, and the latter recalled a game against Gilman in their first year together.

“That was a big rivalry for us,” he said. “Mitch said to me, ‘OK, Mike, now don’t get excited. We don’t want any penalties.’ Then I was holding Mitch back [during the game] when he was yelling at the referees.”

Mr. Tullai’s expertise in American history centered on the 16th U.S. president. He became an Abraham Lincoln scholar, meeting certain requirements to give presentations about him and portray him at Civil War reenactments, speaking engagements, and other formal events.

Mitch Tullai starts his day in the faculty restroom at St. Paul's School affixing a fake beard and getting dressed as President Abraham Lincoln.
Mitch Tullai starts his day in the faculty restroom at St. Paul's School affixing a fake beard and getting dressed as President Abraham Lincoln. (Jeff Leard / Patuxent Publishing)

Mr. Mitchell, who graduated from St. Paul’s in 1973, said Mr. Tullai was a teacher who prodded his students to view history from multiple angles.

“He was provocative in a good way,” he said. “He challenged students and made us kind of think about why we thought what we did. He went on to teach AP U.S. history to juniors and seniors, but he laid a great foundation. Even with his eighth graders, he would challenge us on the comments we would make, kind of, ‘Why do you think that? Have you thought about such and such?’”

Despite having never played lacrosse, Mr. Tullai was an official who worked at several NCAA tournament games and was the regional lacrosse commissioner of the Southern Lacrosse Officials Association. He also wrote more than a dozen opinion essays for The Baltimore Sun.

Besides his daughter who lives in Houston, Mr. Tullai is survived by two more daughters, Kim Marie Todd of Northport, Michigan, and Brenda Martin Hanlon of Lutherville, three grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife, who died in 2017, and a daughter, Lisa Jean Dreano, who died in 2015.

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The funeral is private. A memorial service will be held at St. Paul’s at a date and time to be announced.

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