This year has been tough on a lot of people, and it became ever more difficult Tuesday morning when former Towson football coach Phil Albert passed away.
It’s hard to write this column because I played offensive tackle for Albert, known by his players as Coach A, from 1977 through 1980. He was a football icon in this state, but more importantly a great mentor of more than a thousand players at Towson, where he served as head coach from 1972 through 1991.
Coach A was ahead of his time.
When other college coaches were still running the ball out of wishbone and option offenses in the early 1970s, Coach A was throwing the ball all over the stadium with three- and four-receiver sets.
While other coaches were part of the grumbling old guard, such as Ohio State’s Woody Hayes and Michigan’s Bo Schembechler, or abusing players both verbally and physically, Coach A was passionate, yet compassionate.
His record and accomplishments speak for themselves. He was a co-founder of Towson’s program along with Carl Runk, the school’s first football coach, in 1969 and led the Tigers from Division III to its current Division I status. Coach A had a 117-91-3 record and was Coach of the Year five times as his teams competed in the NCAA postseason four times.
But that wasn’t the only thing that set him apart.
Coach A became a human library for a lot of other college and high school coaches. He talked to his players like they were young men, not just rented scholarship property. He had a quiet but confident demeanor, which is why his players played so hard for him. You wanted to make Coach A proud. You wanted to make him smile.
I never heard him use a profanity. The worst you ever got out of him was, “Run the dang play,” or “Catch the dang ball.” That’s not to say that he wasn’t intense. Once, we played Slippery Rock College and had gotten stopped inside the 10-yard line twice in the first quarter. At halftime, Coach A grabbed me, then a team captain, by the jersey collar. He put his face up to my face mask and asked me: What was going on out there?
Oh, he was a competitor who loved to win, but never strayed from his Christian faith. Once he stopped coaching at Towson, Coach A spent a lot of his time lecturing on the Christian circuit and talking to young kids within and outside the Baltimore area. He didn’t charge a fee and only asked what time he needed to be there and where. His convictions were strong.
Coach A liked tough guys. When I strained knee ligaments in training camp my freshman year and wouldn’t come out of a drill, he casually walked up to me and said, “Way to be tough.” I did miss the next two weeks.
He made me angry when he benched me after missing a block on the first play of my first scrimmage, but that set the tone for the next three years.
He once benched me for a quarter in a game because I was late for a pregame meeting. I explained to him that I had to find my uncle to get gas money to get to the game. My family didn’t have much money, but Coach A said a rule is a rule.
A lesson was learned: tough but fair.
When two-a-day summer camp practice days soared close to 100 degrees, he would yell out that it was “a great day for living, and where would you rather be right now?” And then he would finally say, “I don’t care if you do die.”
That type of language wouldn’t work now, but back then, we didn’t care. We were tough. He was our coach. He was our leader, and we knew he cared about us as people, not just players.
I used those same expressions through the years when I sent my kids up over the hill to catch a bus for school. And then they would yell them back. As adults, they still occasionally say or text those sayings, which I use while coaching lacrosse at New Town or Westminster High.
I loved Coach A and owe him a lot. Coming out of Kenwood High School in Essex, I received some informal recruiting letters to play football at Maryland and Penn State and more serious ones from Shepherd College (now Shepherd University) and James Madison. I paid no attention to them.
I was a poor kid tired of having no money and I just wanted what others had, like a nice car and financial resources to take care of my mom. Because I had little guidance, a job at General Motors or Bethlehem Steel seemed almost certainly in my future.
Then one day, I got a phone call from Coach A, and he along with my mother convinced me that material things fade away, but no one could ever take away your education.
Those years at Towson turned out to be some of the best in my life. We won a lot of games, had so much fun and developed friendships that are lasting until this day. Coach A’s nurturing process will be something that many will never understand or get to appreciate.
Back in the mid- to late 1980s, when the NCAA was conducting investigations of former Maryland men’s basketball coach Bob Wade, I called Coach A and thanked him for being a mentor and role model and running a clean program.
A highlight of my life was having Coach A coach my son when he played football at Boys’ Latin in 2009. What an honor it was for him to be coached by the same man who had been such a positive influence on my life.
Coach A has moved on now, but his legacy will live on through the eyes, hearts, minds and deeds of his former players.
I am glad I got to be a part of his life, but even happier that he was a bigger part of mine.
Editor’s note: A visitation for Albert is scheduled for Tuesday from 5-8 p.m. at the Central Christian Assembly of God Rosedale, 7411 Rossville Blvd. A service will be held at the church Wednesday at 11 a.m.