If Tommy Coyle got off to any faster of a start as Penn Charter’s head football coach, a police officer would have pulled him over for speeding.
It’s hard to imagine the debut going smoother for Coyle, who was the head coach at Father Judge from 2000-13, amassing 73 wins and guiding the Crusaders to the Catholic League Class AAAA Final in 2008 in the process. Coyle also graduated from Judge in 1987.
However, when the dust had settled in Penn Charter’s 48-20 season-opening victory over Samuel Fels on Saturday at the elite private school in East Falls, there was no doubting that Coyle had left Judge in the past to focus on his present and future. He made it known that he couldn’t be more grateful for his time at Judge, a school so near and dear to his heart, but that he was ecstatic to write a new chapter in his coaching career.
“Like I was at Father Judge, I am surrounded by great people here,” Coyle said. “Every day you look around (the campus), and it’s just a great place to be. It gives you a lot of energy to wake up every day and to come to a great place like this to coach football and be around great kids, faculty, staff and administration. I’m excited to get to school every day to work hard.”
Coyle’s first win at Penn Charter came quickly and rather easily. First, senior Freddie Perri took the opening kickoff back 77 yards for a score. Then, Fels’ Michael Turnage fumbled the ensuing kickoff, which PC freshman Denarii Beard scooped up and returned 10 yards for a score. After a Panthers three-and-out, PC senior running back James Frazier-Biggs scampered 25 yards for a score on the drive’s first play, and the Quakers led 21-0 not even two minutes into the game. A touchdown catch by sophomore Jake McCain and a 19-yard rushing score by Corey Kelley put Penn Charter up 34-0 after one, and the scoreboard read 48-0 at the half.
To the Panthers’ credit, they didn’t quit at halftime, fighting to the end for three second-half scores while keeping Penn Charter off the board. Senior Jylil Reeder broke the school’s single-game receiving yardage record, hauling in seven catches for 208 yards and all three Fels touchdowns.
But this day was about Coyle, even if the coach preferred to deflect the credit to his players and coaching staff. His return to Penn Charter has been a homecoming of sorts, as immediately after graduating from Judge, he served as a PC defensive assistant from 1987-2000, until he was tabbed to lead the Crusaders program. Now, after 13 years away, Coyle has returned to where it all started, the place where his two children — Ava, 10, and Quinn, 8 — are students in the kindergarten through twelfth grade institution.
“I feel good, but I’m really just happy for our kids,” Coyle said of Penn Charter’s roster, which lists an astounding 16 freshmen. “I told our guys at halftime, this really validated all the hard work they put in during the offseason. They’ve embraced us as a coaching staff. Everything we’ve asked them to do, they’ve done.”
Speaking of the coaching staff, Coyle’s is a mix of both Judge and Penn Charter faces. With him from Judge, Coyle brought Fran Costello (defensive backs), Casey Jones (offensive lines), Ryan Nase (defensive line) and Steve Nejman (linebackers); that quartet is joined by, among other names, Brian McCloskey, Penn Charter’s head coach from 1995-2007 who has stayed on as an assistant. McCloskey and Coyle are close friends, and both previously served as assistants under former head coach Bill Gallagher.
“Tommy stands for all that is good about high school athletics,” said McCloskey, who has been at Penn Charter for 27 years. “He is committed to excellence both on and off the playing field.”
“Because of his prior experience here, and the fact that his children attend Penn Charter, Tom has a good understanding of the (Penn Charter) student-athlete,” added Rick Mellor, PC’s recently retired longtime baseball coach who has stayed on as a Coyle assistant. “He’s a high-energy coach, and he has the kids believing in themselves and in the team.”
Penn Charter athletic director John Thiel spoke of Coyle’s ability to bring in student-athletes whom the school might have previously missed out on, mainly in Northeast Philadelphia, where Coyle spent so much time working, and still resides.
“He’s brought new life into a historic program,” Thiel said. “He’s reinvigorated football within the school. We have more freshmen out for football than in recent years, many of whom will make an impact on our team this year.”
For his part, Coyle isn’t trying to do anything different than in the past. He had success in the Catholic League while at Judge, and he sees a lot of similarities at Penn Charter, namely the type of prideful student-athletes whom both schools tend to attract.
“Anything they’ve been asked to do, they’ve done to the best of their abilities,” Coyle said. “That’s all we ask of our kids. To finish today 1-0 is great for us, and I’m doing it here with friends of mine both from Judge and Penn Charter. My wife and I are very happy that our children are here. I’ve really just enjoyed each day.”
Back in February, when Coyle decided to take the Penn Charter job, he said he was leaving one great place with great people for another. He’s thankful for his time at Judge, but also elated to come full-circle at a familiar place where his high school coaching career began. As Costello said during a lull in the second half, “It’s different, and the shirts are a different shade of blue. It’s a bit of a culture change, but I like it. We all do.”
Coyle is also an admissions associate at Penn Charter, so he gets to spend his entire day at the school, which is not a perk that all city high school head coaches can claim. As someone who’s always had a desire to see young people reach their fullest potential in the classroom and on the football field, it’s safe to say Coyle has landed in a situation that fits him perfectly.
“It’s important that these young men and women receive the instruction that will take them forward in life,” he said. “I believe — and Penn Charter believes — that once the school day is over, it’s important the kids bring the same attitude into their extracurriculars, whether it’s football or drama or music. This school takes a lot of pride in what it presents.
“Everything is first class, and it’s very humbling to be a part of that environment that they provide here.” ••