Overlooked Coach Finally Receives Championship Ring Dean Smith Sent His Regards.

Posted: October 31, 1995

Vince Grimaldi walked into the banquet room of a Winslow Township restaurant two Saturdays ago.

"Surprise!" about 40 of his friends yelled.

Grimaldi was expecting to have a quiet dinner with a few friends, and he couldn't figure out what was going on. He knew it wasn't his birthday. And there was no wedding anniversary to celebrate, because Grimaldi is single.

"I was thoroughly confused," said Grimaldi, 65.

As it turned out, the gathering was a way to present Grimaldi with an NCAA championship ring that University of North Carolina men's basketball coach Dean Smith had sent him.

And to make up for an oversight.

Last winter, during halftime of a North Carolina home game, the university awarded championship rings to all the living players and coaches who were with the 1957 Tar Heels team that won it all under Frank McGuire.

All the players and coaches, that is, except Grimaldi.

North Carolina's captain and leading scorer as a senior in 1953, Grimaldi returned to Chapel Hill, N.C., to attend graduate school after a two-year hitch in the service. The Philadelphia native - Bartram, Class of '49 - coached North Carolina's freshman team in 1957.

The players and coaches, including Grimaldi, were given watches to commemorate the championship in the months after the title-game victory.

But when the university decided to award rings to that undefeated team last winter, the school forgot to invite Grimaldi.

"I found out about the rings when I went to New York last year and had dinner with some of the players and Coach McGuire's wife," Grimaldi said. ''Nobody said anything to me about it, but I figured that I was just the freshman coach, and maybe they were just going to give them to the players

because (McGuire and assistant coach James "Buck" Freeman) were dead.

"I wasn't too concerned about it. At my age, how am I going to get concerned about something like that?"

If it had been left to Grimaldi, who'd rather duck the spotlight, that would have been the end of it.

But it wasn't left to him. Bill Sheppard and Kristen Kisselback took over.

Sheppard has been the girls' swimming coach at Cherry Hill East for 11 years. Grimaldi, who retired in 1992 after 23 years in the Cherry Hill school system, has been Sheppard's assistant coach for the last decade. Kisselback swam at East and went on to swim for North Carolina.

When Sheppard and Kisselback found out about the rings being given to the 1957 team members, they wrote letters to Smith.

Neither said a word about it to Grimaldi, a 27-year resident of Medford Lakes.

"Originally, it was just going to be me, my wife and Kristen, with no fanfare (at the surprise party), but we did more talking and decided to get one or two more people involved," Sheppard said. "Then it just snowballed. Other people heard about it and wanted to know why we didn't ask them.

"I don't think Vince realized that many people thought so much of him. He said that was better than the ring. He's a humble man, and it's nice to do something like that for someone who wants out of the limelight."

Smith said North Carolina didn't intend to overlook Grimaldi. The coach said a team picture of the varsity was used to identify the ring recipients. As freshman coach, Grimaldi hadn't posed for that picture.

"I assumed he got one, but the letters were enough to alert me," said Smith, who added that he had spent time with Grimaldi in 1977, at the 1957 team's 20-year anniversary. "He was the freshman coach, and from what I understand, he contributed to varsity practices at times. And he's a man who has students concerned about him, and that tells you he had an impact as a coach. I like that."

Last month, Smith sent the ring to Sheppard, along with a letter explaining how Grimaldi had been overlooked.

After the plans for the surprise party were made, a friend almost let them slip to Grimaldi two weeks before the big day.

"Vince and I went to visit an old friend of ours, and he said to Vince, 'I heard you're being honored,' " said Ed Berger, a former teammate of Grimaldi's at Bartram High who has known Grimaldi for 50 years. "Vince looked at me, and I said, 'Don't even ask!' And he never mentioned it again."

On the night of the surprise party, Grimaldi thought he was going to dinner in honor of Kisselback, who had graduated from North Carolina.

"After they surprised me, somebody said, 'Happy birthday,' " Grimaldi said. "I said, 'This isn't my birthday.' And somebody else said, 'Well, let's go home, then.' There was a bunch of people there who I had taught middle school with, and high school with, and all the swimming coaches at East, and some students and parents. When it finally dawned on me that this was for me, I thought back to that slip of the tongue."

Grimaldi was escorted to a table and was handed a box. Inside was the letter, now framed, from Smith. And then Grimaldi was handed a smaller box, which contained the ring.

"I got emotional," said Grimaldi, who got emotional again just recounting that part of the night. "I had to read the letter to myself because I couldn't read it aloud. They shouted for me to read it, but I couldn't. I gave it to Bill to read.

"I just hope I deserved (the ring). Dean Smith told me in the letter to wear it with pride, and I will."

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