Washington’s Cohen amped for season No. 30

At age 70, Ron Cohen is excited for his 30th year as the G.W. head football coach; Cohen is coming off his first losing season in 29 years.

Hungry for more: Fol­low­ing his first los­ing sea­son in 29 years at Wash­ing­ton, head coach Ron Co­hen is hop­ing for a re­turn to glory in 2014. TIMES FILE PHOTO

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.” ••

You can reach at emorrone@bsmphilly.com.

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