Remembering Bill Tighe, the Oldest High School Football Coach in America
Tighe died from complications related to coronavirus earlier this week. He was 95.
When your humble correspondent played football at Lexington High School in Massachusetts in the late ’90s and early 2000s for a bespectacled Bill Tighe, he was in his mid-seventies, already old for a football coach. But he kept coaching for another decade, eventually hanging up his clipboard at the ripe old age of 86 in 2010.
Tighe, who died earlier this week from complications related to the coronavirus at 95, was once recognized as the oldest active high school football coach in the country. He also might have been the most old-school.
To say Coach Tighe made a huge impression on my life would be a disservice to the tens of thousands of other student athletes he impacted over the course of the 62 seasons he spent coaching baseball, football and track in the Bay State, 32 of which were spent at LHS, where he also did a stint as a guidance counselor.
Tighe played quarterback for Boston University in the late 1940s after serving in World War II; from there, he began his life as a coach. He was a they-don’t-make-’em-like-they-used-to kind of guy who communicated on the practice field primarily via ad-libbed aphorisms, most of them accompanied by an upward kick of his leg and thrust of the arm.
“Come out of the fog!” he’d yell.
“By the time you make the hit, we’ll be singing Christmas carols!”
“Deliver the blow with no remorse — then shake his hand!”
“I should banish you to Antarctica with a slice of bread!”
Or my favorite: “Back in my day, we didn’t have face masks. I’d finish practice, fold up my leather helmet, put it in my back pocket and go home. I was the only guy in the league who had all his teeth!”
I believed him. Still do.
His commentary during locker-room film sessions — which were invariably conducted with the aid of a flickering television, VHS player and nearby assistant coach acting as the remote control — were equally memorable.
To the quarterback who threw a bad pass: “You throw like a duck on a wet day!” To the receiver who dropped a pass: “Hit you in the worst possible place! The hands!” To the player who played guitar as well as football: “If you can’t make the tackle, pick up a banjo and serenade me on the sideline!”
None of this is to give the indication that Coach Tighe was unfair, unkind or physically aggressive toward his players. He just called it as he saw it from behind his ever-thickening glasses, as happy to criticize his starting quarterback as he was a backup special teams player — and equally eager to help them. On the first day of practice each year, Coach Tighe made it known that he’d help every player on the team with the process of getting into college whether you played a down or not.
It was being there that counted. And if you were, you were one of his own.
He also gave an annual Veteran’s Day speech that was not to be missed, the key theme of which was that it was a great privilege, not a right or inconvenience, to be young men who were able to go out and play high school football. As someone who had been on the battlefields of the Pacific during WWII, he knew what he was talking about — and in 2020, with sports at a standstill and the future of football more cloudy than ever, his message only gets more obvious with each passing year.
“I remember Coach Tighe as someone who always pushed you to be better, on and off the field,” says one former LHS player. “I didn’t pursue a college football career, but I know he was very generous in helping those who did. He was my coach during 9/11 and I remember he canceled practice and instead pulled the team together and provided us with comforting words at a difficult time.”
“I’ll always remember Coach Tighe saying that I would have been a good guy to have next to him in a foxhole in World War II,” adds another player, who once served as one of Tighe’s team captains. “That’s always stuck with me. Not many people have the experience and clout to say things like that.”
Given his age and recent health struggles — he had to be hospitalized in January with pneumonia — it shouldn’t be all that surprising that William Tighe finally passed away this week. But given what I knew of him, it’s a bit of a shock Coach Tighe didn’t kill the coronavirus, too.
Mr. Tighe’s full obituary, from The Boston Globe, can be found here.
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