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Opining on Coach Paul Pasqualoni; Hall of Fame human Buck O’Neil

Paul Pasqualoni walked away, but he couldn’t stay away. His retirement from coaching football, following his resignation as the Detroit Lions defensive coordinator in January 2020, lasted less than a year. When University of Florida head coach Dan Mullen asked him to join his staff this season as a special assistant, Pasqualoni couldn’t get to the Sunshine State fast enough. At age 72, he was back at it, breaking down film and teaching young men the finer points of the game.

For anyone who remembers Pasqualoni’s days as Syracuse University’s head coach in the 1990s and early 2000s — an era when bowl games and Top 25 rankings were the norm — this news about him still coaching is about as surprising as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west. Coaching has always been his calling. It’s who he is, what he was born to do.

This son of an Italian immigrant vegetable farmer began his half-century-long odyssey as an assistant at his high school alma mater in Cheshire, Conn., in 1972. His cluttered resume includes stints as head coach at Southern Connecticut State, Western Connecticut, Syracuse and Connecticut, as well as assistant jobs at Boston College and in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins, Chicago Bears, Houston Texans and Lions. His finest moments occurred with the Orangemen, whom he led to a 107-59-1 record, nine bowl games and seven Top 25 rankings in 14 seasons.

Since Pasqualoni’s firing in 2004, SU has posted a dismal 78-125 record. Only once during that time has the Orange finished the season ranked nationally. They’ve recorded 12 losing records during that stretch, including three 10-loss seasons. As Joni Mitchell once sang, “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

Now, it should be noted that SU football was on the decline before Coach P was jettisoned, going 16-20 in his final three campaigns. His last season began with a 51-0 loss to Purdue and ended with a 51-14 pummeling by a Georgia Tech team led by one-time Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey. Things had grown stale, and a change probably was needed, but the University totally botched his departure, first announcing that he would be returning, then dumping him after the pummeling by Tech and the hiring of new athletic director Daryl Gross.

Time has healed Pasqualoni’s wounds. He expressed immense gratitude after being informed of his induction into the Greater Syracuse Hall of Fame earlier this year. The Salt City will always have a special place in his heart. It’s where he met his wife, Jill. It’s where his two sons (Dante Paul and Tito Lucian) and daughter (Cami Mae) were born. And it’s where he established himself as the second-winningest football coach in SU history, trailing only Ben Schwartzwalder. Schwartzwalder and the man who hired Pasqualoni to come to Syracuse — Dick MacPherson — are both in the College Football Hall of Fame.

And, if there is any justice, Coach P will be inducted, too. He was a better coach than many of us gave him credit for, and, beyond that, he was a good and decent man, who cared for his players and made sure they graduated and gave back.

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Speaking of halls of fame, I’m intrigued by Cooperstown’s upcoming elections, and my interest has little to do with the tainted candidacies of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, who are on the ballot for the 10th and final time, and David “Big Papi” Ortiz, who’s in his first year of eligibility.

I’m much more interested in several of the names listed on the Early Baseball Era (Up to 1950) and Golden Days Era (1950-69) ballots. They include the likes of Gil Hodges, Jim Kaat, Dick Allen, Minnie Minoso, Bud Fowler and Roger Maris. All deserving candidates, but the man I’m rooting for the most to earn a long overdue place in that hallowed hall is Buck O’Neil. I only wish it would have  occurred when he was alive.

Like most of America, I discovered what a treasure O’Neil was during Ken Burns’ compelling 1994 documentary about the history of baseball. Buck stole the show, becoming the star of the nine-part mini-series by spinning wonderful tales about the likes of Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth. From that point on, Buck became baseball’s greatest ambassador and a dogged advocate for the induction of Black players, managers and administrators who had been denied an opportunity to perform in the heretofore white major leagues because of racism.

In 2006, Major League Baseball commissioned a blue-ribbon committee featuring several prominent Black baseball historians to right some wrongs. It released a list of 17 new enshrinees. Sadly, Buck’s name was not on the list. It was a terrible oversight. And one that hopefully will be rectified with this year’s voting.

Buck’s promotion of the game and his advocacy on behalf of forgotten Black players need to be taken into account, along with his Negro Leagues playing and managing career, his status as the first Black coach and scout in the National League, his discovery and mentorship of future Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Billy Williams and his efforts to get the Negro Leagues Museum built in Kansas City.

Remarkably, despite his personal disappointment in not being elected 15 years ago, Buck agreed to speak on behalf of the 16 men and one woman (Effa Manley) at the induction ceremonies that summer in Cooperstown. Most people would have told the Hall’s officials to stick their invitation where the sun don’t shine. But that wasn’t Buck’s style. He happily accepted the invite and delivered a speech that was eloquent, humble, insightful and humorous. The sport never had a better ambassador. He was a Hall of Fame person in every sense of the word, and is truly deserving of a bronze plaque in baseball’s Valhalla.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal’s sports columnist.   

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