Legend of the Fall: West Community Mourns Iconic Pettine
Run in the March 2nd Bucks County Herald
Spots two through four on the Mount Rushmore of Bucks County sports make for an interesting debate.
But there is zero debate on the first slot: Mike Pettine. “Legend” is a tired word but the Central Bucks West legendary football coach earned that moniker. Arguably the greatest coach in Pennsylvania high school football history, Pettine suffered a heart attack near his winter home outside of Tampa and passed away Friday at 76.
The numbers Pettine assembled in his 33-year helm at West were astounding: a 326-42-4 record which included PIAA state titles in 1991, 1997, 1998 and 1999. Pettine’s Bucks were voted or declared state champions four additional times prior to the PIAA’s current playoff system.
“It was a great opportunity to play with Mike Pettine. It was a lot of hard work for sure,” 12 year Miami Dolphin Jim Jensen ’76 told the Herald in October 2009, “but he molded me, got me ready for college and then on to the pros.”
CB West principal Tim Donovan played for Pettine during two undefeated seasons. In a letter to Pettine last year, Donovan wrote: “Winning championships was great, but more importantly, you tapped into something in me that I didn’t know existed. Thank you for being tough on me, pushing me beyond my limits and teaching me what it really means to reach excellence.”
Between 1985 and 1999, the Bucks finished in USA Today’s national top 10 seven times. Pettine won the last 45 games of his career, 10 shy of the 55-game unbeaten streak that he assembled in the 1980s.
The documentary The Last Game chronicled Pettine’s final season in 1999. It ended in a thrilling 14-13 win over Cathedral Prep and their star player, future Indianapolis Colt All-Pro Bob Sanders, to give West a three-peat state championship.
“When you look back on what you’re proud of, of course the championships come to mind,” Pettine told the author in a 2010 Maxwell Club interview. “But also when you see the kids come through your program have success. Every now and then, you get the feedback that what they learned lesson wise has helped them in their endeavors.”
Pettine’s coaching and player tree extends deeply. His CB West successor Mike Carey ’71 helped to coach Archbishop Wood to a state title in December while Dick Beck ‘85 won a 2003 state title leading North Penn. Scott Green ‘68 refereed Super Bowl XLIV. Randy Cuthbert ‘88 is still Duke’s all time total yards leader and the head coach at Wissahickon. The Dolphins voted Jensen as one of their all-time 50 greatest players. Jim O’Neil ’97 is the defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers.
A final protégé served as the Cleveland Browns’ head coach for two seasons: Mike Pettine, Jr ’84. Yet the reflections of former players and coaches focus far more on Pettine’s positive influence on their life than the voluminous trophy case he filled.
“Coach Pettine taught me a lot about work ethic and setting high standards,” O’Neil reflected in the November 24th Herald. “One thing they did at CB West all of those years was maximize everybody’s potential. They squeezed every ounce out of everybody.”
“I always felt we were tough on these kids,” continued Pettine. “We had a demanding program. A lot of them were able to use what they did at West to get to the next level. One of the nicest moments as a coach was to see the joy of signing a letter of intent or help his admission into school.”
A man who coached in the same era as Bear Bryant and Joe Paterno, Pettine’s Bucks reminded people of 1970s Alabama or 1980s Penn State in the way they methodically won with discipline and class.
“I would probably attribute that to striving for perfection, his knowledge, and then a fear of failure,” observed Chris Cleland ’92, a starter and assistant coach under Pettine. “You never wanted to let a guy like him down. You may not get to perfect but you’re going to try your best to get there.”
Pettine hailed from Conshohocken and played football at Villanova. He accepted a position as a Social Studies teacher and assistant football coach at CB West in 1965. Two years later, he took over as head coach.
Pettine and his wife Joyce would have celebrated their 56th anniversary in July. Besides Joyce and Mike Jr, he is survived by daughters Linda and Sandy, and six grandchildren.
“Outside of my Dad, he was a father figure and he had such a profound influence on who I am today,” Cleland noted, “and I hear that repeated over and over again. We had a 25th reunion for our State championship team this summer. Coach Pettine was there. He apologized for his coaching style and said ‘I was really tough on you guys.’ I think he actually felt that way.
“But no one else felt that way. I wouldn’t have traded him for the world.”
Sidebar: Several players and coaches shared remembrances of the late coach. Pettine had a reputation for being demanding, but many who reflected pointed out his sense of humor, and all spoke of the fraternity of West players who became better people through his coaching and his life.
“Coach Pettine’s impact went far beyond his amazing records of wins because he made a lasting impact on the lives of many, many young men. He taught them life-long lessons about hard work and perseverance. His dedication and commitment to excellence created leaders throughout our community and country who are making great contributions.”- Central Bucks Superintendent John J. Kopicki
“With the passing of legendary high school football coach Mike Pettine, Sr. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Pettine family.”- Tweeted by the Cleveland Browns. Re-tweeted by ESPN’s Adam Schefter
“I learned so much from him and a couple of things stand out: his attention to detail was tremendous. When he said he wanted you to take a six inch step at a 45 degree angle, that is exactly what he wanted and when you knew why, it made so much sense. He was a great motivator. And he saw the big picture. He drove the kids and he was very demanding on the field but off the field, he was there for them.”- Jim Weber, assistant coach under Pettine from 1984-1989
“The way he commanded attention was second to none. One thing I always appreciated about Coach was his brutal honesty. I’m sure you hear his attention to detail over and over, but that is what it was. You could be up 49-7, having scored two touchdowns and you weren’t thinking about that. You were thinking about the missed block in the second quarter and how you’re going to fix it. It was the little things that got the job done. When I’ve struggled, I’ve found myself using his tutelage to plug into life. It’s amazing how much Coachspeak you use in the rest of your life.”- Dennis Cliggett ’97, starting running back and defensive back
“He was a great teacher, great coach and a great guy. It makes you reflect on what he was able to create and sustain, and all of the people he made a difference on by going above and beyond. He was tough on you when you played but he’d go out of his way to help players at any point in their lives: I felt like I had an unfair advantage in college because of where I came from…When you look at the innovations in football, West was doing it before anyone else like lifting weights year-round. There is a special thing at West: It really is a fraternity where a lot of those guys stay in touch. He is the one who put it all together and put West on the map.”- Randy Cuthbert
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