Ron Cohen will turn 71 in September, right in the midst of his 30th season as George Washington High School’s head football coach. But ask the coaching legend about key milestones and whether self-reflection leads to thoughts about him calling it a career, and he’ll tell you that much like the statistics compiled for his Eagles, these are just numbers.
Less than three weeks away from the start of summer training camp, you can find Cohen performing his unglamorous preseason coaching duties, i.e., finalizing his team’s schedule and printing out countless permission slips and physical forms to send home with his players.
And guess what? He still enjoys it as much as ever, so forgive him for not riding off into the sunset just yet.
“I didn’t even know it was my 30th season until you told me that,” Cohen told a reporter during a 40-minute Monday evening phone interview. “I knew it was getting close to that, but I’ve never kept track of numbers. I don’t worry about that. I just want to go out and try to help these kids, because as educators and coaches, that’s what we’re here for. People have had me retiring for the last eight to ten years, but I’m excited about the season. A lot of times it helps alleviate stress in my life as I’ve gotten older.”
Despite the fact that Washington appeared in yet another Public League title game in 2013 (the Eagles were blown out by defending champion Frankford, 30-3, in one of the ugliest losses of Cohen’s career), Cohen is coming off a 5-6 season overall. Remarkably, it was his first losing season in 29 years as the school’s head coach, which was a powerful motivator in returning for season No. 30.
“I wasn’t happy about the outcome last year, and I wanted to come back for another one,” he said. “As a head coach, I think I lost focus last year with some things going on, so this offseason we’ve focused a lot more on team-building than weight training. We want to get the kids back to playing the old Washington way, which is being on time, wearing the proper attire and no excuses or finger pointing. That’s the way it will be this year. The kids believe, and they’re working hard.”
Of course, this is not to say Cohen hasn’t thought about the end of his coaching days. He acknowledged that his body is a bit slower than it used to be, although his mind is still sharp. Most importantly, his desire to help his kids graduate and make something of their lives is his chief motivator, expressing his hopes to make the most of the time he does have left.
The recent passing of Cardinal O’Hara head coach Danny Algeo — who died on July 3 at the age of 49 following a heart attack — put a lot of things into perspective for area coaches, and Cohen, who called Algeo a friend, was no exception.
“Going to Danny’s funeral, that was a really shocking thing for me,” Cohen said. “This was a man I really respected and had a friendship with. We always got along well. He nominated me for the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame and I always appreciated him. It opens up your eyes a lot and makes you understand you may not be here as long as you think. It’s out of your control, so you have to do the best you can to take advantage of each day.”
Cohen has done just that. His father died at 52, and his brother died at just 42, so the legendary head coach is grateful for the time he’s been allotted to help as many Washington youths as possible during his long career, which includes getting four players to the NFL and countless others on to college.
“I’m not happy to say I’m getting to my twilight years, but the kids keep me young,” he said. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t even know how to use my cell phone. I look forward to being out there with them from the first day of practice to the last day of the season.”
Cohen also gave credit to his coaching staff, past and present, for helping to keep him on top of his game. Any head coach knows that to win 246 games in 29 seasons (stacked against 75 losses and two ties), he needs a lot of help, and Cohen is no different. He said, “They’re always in my hip pocket when I need someone,” and that he’s not afraid to let them coach.
“It helps to surround yourself with both good coaches and players who buy into what you’re doing,” Cohen said. “I realize that I have great assistants, and I let them coach the kids. I’m not dominant, and it’s not, ‘My way and that’s it.’ I make the ultimate decision, sure, but I’ve never been afraid to listen to my coaches.”
At 70, one of the most gratifying things Cohen gets to experience is when he runs into or hears from former players who have made something of themselves. Whether it’s 2013 first-round NFL draft pick Sharrif Floyd or someone in the workforce, it warms Cohen’s heart when he sees former players rise above their disadvantaged backgrounds to get to “live the American dream,” as he put it.
Cohen told a recent story about running into an ex-player by the name of Dennis Rivers recently while taking one of his current players out to eat. Rivers, a bus driver who was in his SEPTA uniform at the time, approached Cohen and gave him a big hug. Not only that, but Rivers’ father was behind the counter of the restaurant making pizzas and sandwiches, and Rivers couldn’t wait to introduce Cohen to his dad.
“He appreciated the idea that we stood behind him,” Cohen said of Rivers. “He was so proud to introduce me to his father, and he wore his work uniform proudly, the same way he wore his Washington jersey. He has a good job, and he works hard to support his kids. Most kids won’t play in college or make it to the pros, so that’s what we try to do. As a coach, the greatest days are not winning games; it’s when I meet an ex-player who I see is a doctor, a lawyer, a plumber, a bus driver … as coaches, that’s what we strive for, to know we did the best we could to help these kids become successful.”
As far as the 2014 Eagles go, Cohen will know a lot more about his personnel when Washington hits the field on Aug. 11, the first day of summer camp. But he said fans can expect a return to “what Washington used to be,” which Cohen said was a run-oriented team that beat opponents with superior athleticism.
Another big reason to be excited is the addition of Shareef Miller, a transfer from Frankford. Miller, tight end/defensive end combo listed at 6-foot-5 and 218 pounds, was a captain as a junior for Frankford last year and ended up at Washington when he and his family moved into G.W. territory, near Grant and the Boulevard. Miller, a top Division-I recruit, is set to visit Pittsburgh and West Virginia with Cohen this weekend, and he’s already checked out Rutgers, Penn State and Temple.
Entering season No. 30 at 70, it will be business as usual for the old coach.
“The kids, they’re why I’m still here,” Cohen said. “If not for them, I would have retired years ago. As an educator and coach, it’s one of the reasons I’ve stayed around longer, because I feel as though, for many of them, we’re the only ones they have to bring the positive into their lives. To me, that’s the best part of the job.” ••