They Chose To Leave Head Coaching Jobs To Follow Their Sons To Continue To Coach Or Not? Sometimes The Answer Is Easy.

Posted: April 25, 1994

When push comes to shove, do you pursue your profession or your family? It's not as tough a choice as you might think.

* Sam Venuto resigned as the Salem High football coach two weeks into the 1979 season to watch his son Jay at Wake Forest. And Sam Venuto never looked back.

* Jim Horner retired as the Cherokee football coach to watch his son Kyle at Richmond. Jim Horner still calls his first game at Cherokee as a spectator a "horrible" experience.

* Wayne Colman left the head football coaching job at Ocean City two years ago to watch his son Doug play at Nebraska and says he hasn't regretted it for a minute.

Most high school football coaches dream of their sons going on to football careers. But a son playing major-college football presents a high school coach with a difficult choice - stay with a program he may have built and nurtured for years or leave in order to watch his son perform on some distant playing field.

Just three months ago, Bo Wood took a leave of absence from a highly successful career at Cherry Hill East - he had won 131 games in 21 years - so he could follow his son Erick at the University of Maryland this fall.

Wood is one of four high-profile South Jersey football coaches to choose their sons over their schools in recent years, but the way the choice has affected their careers has differed. Yet all say it was unquestionably the right move.

*

There were few people around who had been coaching high school football as long as Sam Venuto had in 1979. Salem's coach since 1953, he had produced, among others, Penn State and NFL great Lydell Mitchell.

Jay Venuto, who had starred at quarterback for Salem, was ready to take over the starting role at Wake Forest. Perhaps because he had been a coach for so long, Sam Venuto looked at his son's college career more realistically than do many fathers.

It took him by surprise to learn that Jay, then a junior, had earned the starting quarterback spot under new coach John Mackovic.

"I really didn't know how well he'd do in college," Sam Venuto said. ''That's a big jump. I just kind of went along with the flow because he had been very disillusioned for his first two years, like all-star quarterbacks who don't get to play immediately in college."

(Jay Venuto held the South Jersey record for touchdown passes in a career, with 45, from 1975 until Cherry Hill East's Kevin Foley broke it with 53 in 1991.)

The Salem football season was beginning, and Venuto still was unsure what to do. He coached Salem's opener against Schalick, a Saturday morning game. He then caught a 3:30 p.m. flight from Philadelphia to Raleigh, N.C., where Wake Forest would take on Appalachian State that evening.

Jay Venuto threw a touchdown pass in the game's final 41 seconds. His father took it as a sign that big things were to come.

The next weekend, Sam Venuto turned his team over to then-assistant Dave Whitzell and went to Athens, Ga., to watch Wake Forest play Georgia. The Demon Deacons upset the Bulldogs with a cheering Sam Venuto in the stands, and Jay Venuto was named Sports Illustrated's player of the week.

The next week was a virtual replay. Whitzell coached Salem while Sam Venuto watched his son complete 29 of 31 passes against East Carolina.

"I had to make a decision," Sam Venuto recalled. "It wasn't fair to our football team. We had an excellent coach in Dave, so I decided the time had come to turn the program over to him."

Venuto resigned on Oct. 2, with two-thirds of Salem's season left to play.

"I felt it was very important to be there for the (Wake Forest) games," Sam Venuto said. "I never gave it any other thought. I don't think I would've gone if Jay was just playing sparingly, but he was on a roll and I wanted to be there to see it."

Wake Forest went 9-2 in 1979. Jay Venuto hurt his elbow in spring practice in 1980 but wound up leading Wake Forest to a 6-5 season that year as a senior.

Sam Venuto says he hasn't had a moment's doubt about the wisdom of his midseason decision to quit.

"I had to quit sometime," he said, "and I never really considered coming back. And I'm very, very happy that I did it. Jay was very secure, knowing that I was there for the games."

Jim Horner hadn't been coaching as long as Sam Venuto, but by 1989, his influence on the Cherokee program may have been even more pervasive than Venuto's was on Salem. The Chiefs had never had any other coach since Horner founded the program in 1975.

But, like Venuto, Horner had a son ready to step into a starting quarterback position in college. Kyle Horner, The Inquirer's offensive player of the year in 1985, went to Tennessee, where he saw junior-varsity action for two years. In 1988, he transferred to Richmond, and in the spring of 1989, he won the job as the Spiders' starting quarterback.

At first, Jim Horner said, he shied away from making any long-term decisions about his coaching career.

"I had no intention of giving up football at the time," he said. "But just then our athletic director (Al Stashis) decided to retire. It was terrific timing."

So Horner moved into athletic administration, leaving him free to get to Kyle's games and - in what proved a bittersweet experience - to watch some Cherokee games as a spectator.

"It was horrible," he said. "The first time I went to see Cherokee play, my stomach knotted up. A lot of people were asking me, was it different, this and that. It was very difficult."

Horner found, however, that despite the fact that Kyle's career was cut short when he was a senior by a rotator cuff injury in the sixth game of the season, he had made the right choice.

"It was very important for me to be there," he said. "I didn't realize how important it was, to be able to spend time with my son."

Unlike Venuto, Horner soon returned to coaching, joining the University of Pennsylvania staff as an assistant in 1991. It's a position he still holds today.

He also is coaching a Little League baseball team and occasionally entertains thoughts of returning to high school coaching.

That is, when other coaches aren't talking him out of it.

"(Eastern coach) Larry Ginsburg and I were talking one time, and I told him that every once in a while, I get this urge to come back and coach.

"He said, 'You do? Well, listen. Next time you get the urge, come and see me.' I asked him why. He said, 'So I can knock some sense into you with a hammer.' "

Wayne Colman's decision was easy.

When his son Doug, the linebacker who was The Inquirer's defensive player of the year in 1991, moved on to Nebraska to play in one of the country's most high-profile programs, Wayne Colman walked away from the Ocean City head football coaching position with nary a thought.

Colman, a former NFL player - he was a defensive back for the Eagles in 1968 and 1969 - had been the head coach for only two seasons and had taken the position with a mutual understanding between himself and the administration that he would leave when Doug did.

Ocean City's head track coach and a longtime assistant in football, Colman said he had never really wanted the head football job, anyway. When Tony Galante stepped down after the 1989 season, Doug's sophomore year, no other candidate emerged from the staff, so Colman offered to step in for two years.

"I was never anxious to take over," he said. "I was very happy as a defensive coach because that was my specialty. All things being equal, I'd rather do that."

Thus, Wayne Colman's transition has been gentle.

"We (he and Doug) were fortunate enough to stay close through high school, so I wanted to keep that relationship," he said.

This fall, Wayne Colman will get a bonus: Nebraska will play West Virginia at the Meadowlands in the annual Kickoff Classic, and Doug Colman will start at middle linebacker for the Cornhuskers.

Wayne Colman will leave after freshman practice to be there.

"It wasn't that much of a sacrifice," he said of his resignation. "I never felt I was born to be a head coach."

Bo Wood now is staring the decision in the face.

For the last three years, Wood has been making it to Maryland games as best he can - often by scheduling Cherry Hill East games in the morning so he can drive to College Park, Md., that afternoon.

This season, however, he plans to watch Erick full-time.

"We really felt we needed to do this," he said. "On the other hand, I am a football coach.

"We tried to weigh everything and, hopefully, (Erick's) senior season will be his best."

Wood, who made it to just four Maryland games last season, will turn the East reins over to assistant Tom Coen. Wood will remain on the East staff as a junior-varsity coach, but he made it clear that Coen will be in charge.

Still, Wood's input will be there largely because he finds it impossible to walk away entirely.

"I couldn't do that," he said. "I think I'd be lost. I need to be involved. That's why I know I'll be back next year (1995). But I don't think I'll miss it just for the year."

Wood knew he had to make the decision after an incident late last fall. Cherry Hill East had been in the hunt for a Group 4 playoff spot, but it was eliminated late in the season.

The next weekend, Maryland was hosting Wake Forest on a Friday night and Cherry Hill East was playing on Saturday.

Wood jumped in the car Friday to attend the Maryland game. He was rewarded when Erick made a game-saving tackle on a goal-line stand.

"I thought to myself, 'What if I hadn't been here to see this?' " Wood recalled. "I would never have forgiven myself."

One left in midseason. Another walked away from a job he loved to watch a son he loved more. For one, the decision was a no-brainer. And for another, the results of the decision are still evolving.

But each of the four former scholastic head coaches interviewed was able to leave his position with no regrets.

"You always want to watch kids you coach," Sam Venuto said, "especially when it's your own son."

Jim Horner said he got support from his friend Joe Corbi, head coach at Deptford.

"Joe told me, 'You've put in a lot of time enjoying other people's sons; now it's time to enjoy your son,' " Horner recalled.

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