He was usually the first person to arrive at New Paltz High School, at 5 a.m. (Sometimes Janet McDermott, who worked in the cafeteria, would beat him to the punch.) He was punctual; he was organized; he was gruff and had a voice that echoed down the halls and could make young students, who had possibly committed some infraction or two, shake in their boots. But he made sure that the kids who passed under his watch had the support they needed to reach their potential as student athletes.
John Ford, 77 – Coach, as he was known by most of his players and students – passed away on January 15, 2021, with the love of his life, Virginia “Ginny” Ford, his wife of over 50 years, by his side. The grief of his loss can only be measured by the depth of the people whose lives he impacted, and there were many.
He began his teaching career at New Paltz High School in 1966, where he continued to work for the next 33 years as a social studies teacher, dean of students, assistant principal, head football coach, basketball coach and athletic director. While some may have been moved by his ninth-grade social studies class that centered around The Good Earth, he was most known for his successful football program that ran from grades 7 through 12 and his 14-year run as head coach of New Paltz’s varsity football team. It had two undefeated seasons in 1977 and 1980 and put the Huguenots in contention for a title each year that he coached until his retirement in 1984.
Charles Davis, undoubtedly the best player ever to come out of NPHS, was the starting quarterback for the Huguenots from 1979 to 1981 and part of that 1980 undefeated season. Davis went on to be recruited by every major college, but chose Tennessee and is now an analyst for CBS Network as well as the NFL Network. During the Buffalo Bills/Kansas City Colts playoff game, Davis as the announcer said, “I want to send out well-wishes to my high school football coach, John Ford. He’s been under the weather and we are all praying for a speedy recovery.”
The loss hit Davis hard. When asked if there was a memory of Coach Ford that really stuck with him, he responded, “Just one? There are so many!” What Davis remembers clearly is what a risk Coach Ford took by making him the starting quarterback as a sophomore. “That wasn’t how things normally worked, and he took a lot of heat for that,” he recalled. “There were a lot of people who were not happy about it, who thought I should play one more year on JV; but he was never one to take the easy way out. He believed in me and he stood up for me, and that’s something you don’t forget.”
Davis remembers “all of the little things that Coach did for me. He would be running around the night before a big game to find me a rib protector. Back then I also kicked, but I didn’t do the side-kick that soccer players do now; I kicked straight on, only I kicked with my left foot. There were no left-footed square kicking shoes to be found; but sure enough, he ended up tracking one down in my size.
“He was also a high school coach. He didn’t have 32 people ready to jump up and follow his orders. He had to do it all. Back then, we’d have to get dressed at the high school and then get bused to the middle school, because that’s where we played. Coach would be driving the bus! He’d be the one to make sure the water buckets got filled or that the fields were lined.”
Although Davis was a superstar, Ford would make sure that he stayed grounded and worked to his potential. “We were doing drills and running sprints at practice one day, and he turned to me and said, ‘You’re our best player, our best athlete, so there is no reason that you should not be first in every race we run in every drill we do!’ That caught my attention. I had great teammates and one of them was Keith Schiller. His efforts were off-the-chart, and every day under Coach’s watch, I had to match his efforts.”
Davis went on to talk about a number of his teammates, who under Coach Ford and Bill Freer (who also passed away recently) went on to have successful college careers as well. “I loved seeing Chris Moriello and George McCormack go on to play for Ithaca College and help them to win a National Title, Division 3. That was so exciting!”
McCormack is now the head coach of lacrosse for prestigious Williams College. “Coach Ford was a mentor for me in high school and a good friend over my last 30 years of coaching college sports,” he said. “Growing up in a single-parent household, I needed guidance and male role models.” He said that Ford, along with wrestling coaches Frank Ciliberto and Kemball Matter, “All stepped up and provided me with a lot of support that helped me make it through high school and eventually move on to get a college degree. I chose a career in coaching because of the impact Coach Ford and my wrestling coaches had on me. I will be forever grateful to them.”
Bill Houston, who graduated NPHS in 1985, also played for Coach Ford. Like Davis, he had so many vivid memories of him, including the big combover, the low booming voice and the gruff exterior. “You did not want to hear him call your name to the principal’s office,” said Houston with a laugh. “I remember Coach called a 964 reverse in a game. It stuck with me because it was a trick play, and one that I could run the ball with. I was a wide receiver. For whatever reason, our quarterback [post-Davis it was Hugh Palcic] got into the huddle and called a completely different play. He must have seen something, because we gave him the ball and he just ran down the field for 50 yards and got a touchdown. Coach said, ‘Palcic, nice run. Don’t ever (expletive) do it again!’”
Houston, who went on to work for the San Antonio Spurs and the Portland Trail Blazers and is now in the Athletic Department for the University of Central Florida, one of the largest colleges in the US, said that what he really admired about Ford was “how he always treated us with respect. We were high school kids and we all had our own frailties, and he was tough on us, but you always knew he cared. That’s the difference. Your opinion mattered, your effort mattered, who you were as an individual mattered. I had some high school coaches where that was not the case, but Coach Ford really cared about his athletes.”
Pat Masson, a veteran English teacher, football and baseball coach as well as a lifelong friend of Ford’s, said that “John was always consistent. He was fair. He was also brusque and wasn’t afraid of hurting your feelings, but he’d meet you halfway.”
Masson recalled the early years when “John and I had to live together for a while at Colonial Arms. They hadn’t even received their Certificate of Occupancy, but we were both young teachers and new assistant coaches and needed to start the season two weeks earlier than the apartments were going to be ready, so they let us in.”
Ford went on to become head coach and Masson stayed on as one of several assistant coaches. He said that in his estimation, one of several key ingredients to Ford’s stewardship of such a successful football program was that “He was a systems coach. He started these kids in the seventh grade, and they all knew the drills and the plays and were disciplined. He was extremely well-organized and he valued his assistant coaches. He listened to us and made us feel important. He shared the power, and that’s not always an easy thing to do for a head coach, but it’s what made him such a good one.”
Everyone remembers Ford’s 1970s comb-over, a cigarette dangling out of his mouth, his intensity and the way that he could intimidate you without saying a word. Like Davis and Houston and McCormack, Masson remembers his loyalty to the kids. “He was incredibly loyal to the kids that came up through his program,” he said. “I remember this one kid; he wasn’t talented, he wasn’t even mediocre. But he began playing in seventh grade, and when he became a senior, John made him a starting player. Everyone was complaining and saying there were kids that were much better than him and what a mistake it was, and John said, ‘He’s never missed a practice. He’s the first one at practice, and he’s going to play his senior year.’” Masson recalled how this particular player, during a tight game with the Huguenots’ arch-rivals, the Highland Huskies, caught an interception and ran the ball to score a touchdown and win the game.
Although he had many great assistant coaches, there was no combination quite like Coach Ford and Bill Freer, who were like two halves of one field. “They were both the kids’ coaches,” said recently retired principal Barbara Clinton, who worked with both men for decades. “They were there to support the kids, and do whatever they could to try and help them participate in sports. I would watch John recruiting kids, not because he thought they were going to be great football stars, but because he thought they needed something extra, to be a part of something good.”
Granted, when he was dean of discipline or the assistant principal, you didn’t want to get caught leaving school without permission, setting off a fire alarm or being an athlete who was reported to be at a party where there was underage drinking. His interrogation techniques were solid, and he could give you a look or call you by just your last name and you’d want to admit to doing whatever it was, just so you could get out of his office and go back to class, out from under his stern gaze.
“He was a giant and he could scare you, but underneath it he was a giant teddy bear,” said Clinton. “He’d kill me for giving that secret away, but that’s the truth. He was all heart.”
“He was also a wonderful athletic director. He advocated for all sports and was well-respected and liked by all of the area ADs and coaches, and was instrumental in getting the state football tournament and championships up and running,” added Masson.
Ford never wanted the light shone on him, but instead to be turned toward his family, his friends, his colleagues, his assistant coaches and his athletes. When Hudson Valley One attempted to write this tribute, there were so many of his athletes who wanted to contribute regarding the ways that Ford had positively impacted their lives and gotten them turned toward their intended direction.
“They say that you should give people their flowers when they’re living, but Coach wouldn’t have that,” said Houston. “So, out of his stubbornness we’re giving him his flowers now. He ran his race and he did a hell of a job and he lives on through all of us.”