Harry Gamble dies at age 83

Posted: January 30, 2014

HARRY GAMBLE was a South Jersey native. That's where his football career began, at the high-school level. But he would become the coach at Penn, then later become general manager and team president of the Eagles. So Jim Murray considers him a Philadelphian. For another guy with ties to those two institutions, there is no higher compliment.

"We're all part of the same family," said Murray, who preceded Gamble as the Birds' GM. "It's like the foundation of our existence. We have this thing that's extremely special. It's a kind of bonding.

"We live on tradition. Philly people know what that means. He was like that."

Gamble, whose son, Tom, is the Eagles' vice president of player personnel, died yesterday morning at age 83. Murray said he was able to visit his old friend in hospice care a few weeks ago. They hadn't spoken in a while, because of Murray's "crazy life." But it allowed them to catch up one last time, as only friends can.

"The [St.] Francis de Sales quote probably describes him best," Murray said. "Nothing is so strong as gentleness, and nothing is so gentle as real strength. He was both gentle and real strong.

"You know what's great? We talked like it was the present. He was fully alive. We shared good memories, happy thoughts. It looked like he still had the second half going, he was talking so strong. There are just some things that are hard to describe, I don't care how verbal you are. God had a better plan. You won your Super Bowl, come on in.

"There are coaches that are super teachers. He was one of them. When you talk to his guys, you find that loyal streak from everybody. Just to see his son, I know he's going to be a GM someday, too . . .

"I felt like I had a gift, having the chance to talk to him right before he went to heaven," he concluded. "It was very meaningful for me. It was like being there for Leonard [Tose, the Eagles' former owner]. I was still surprised when I heard the news. But I would have felt like most of my term papers, incomplete. It gave me a chance to pray for him in a more active way. But that day, we had each other laughing. You should have heard us. It was 100 percent good. That's how I'll remember our time together."

The news of Gamble's death caught former Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski off guard.

"I remember when coach [Dick] Vermeil brought Harry in from Penn [as a volunteer assistant, in 1981]," Jaws said by telephone, sounding shaken. "He did everything. Came to meetings, sat with the players, cleaned the erasers. I mean everything.

"He was a great asset to the organization, a man of great compassion. He paid his dues and worked his way up to president. He was a brilliant man with incredible people skills.

"I still have this vision of seeing him down at the end of the locker room on one knee talking to our offensive linemen. He was always interacting with the players, because he was sympathetic to what it took for us to do our jobs. This is very, very sad."

Besides his son, Tom, Gamble is survived by his wife, Joan, son Harry Jr. and three grandchildren. The funeral will be private. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Brooks-Irvine Memorial Football Scholarship Fund, P.O. Box 205, Collingswood, NJ 08108.

"Most people around the city of Philadelphia remember Harry's tenure with the Eagles," said Steve Bilsky, Penn's athletic director. "But he had a solid decade as head coach of the Penn football program before he made the move to the pros. He impacted a lot of young lives here, and we know many of our alums who played for him are in mourning today."

After high school stops coaching at Clayton and Audubon in South Jersey, Gamble coached at Lafayette from 1967-70, before coming back to West Philly, where he'd been an assistant from 1962-66.

Gary Vura chairs Penn's football board. He came to West Philly from South Florida in 1979 to play for the Quakers. Four seasons later, a lot of the players Gamble recruited were a big part of the Quakers' first Ivy League football title since 1959, playing for coach Jerry Berndt.

"I don't think he gets enough credit for that," Vura said. "His legacy is the lives he touched. That's probably lost because of the record, but it really doesn't support the love and reverence all who played for him felt."

Gamble, who grew up in Pitman and was a longtime resident of Haddonfield, also worked for the NFL. He earned his master's and doctorate degrees at Temple. A member of the Gloucester County Sports Hall of Fame and the South Jersey Coaches Hall of Fame, he also was a Bert Bell Award recipient. And in 1994, the Philadelphia CYO named him Man of the Year.

"Harry is a legendary football figure in the city of Philadelphia and South Jersey," Eagles chairman Jeffrey Lurie said in a statement. "He was an excellent football coach, executive and philanthropist, but he will be remembered most for his warm personality, strong character and his love for his family. He will be sorely missed."

First and foremost, Gamble was simply a good man. And that is always irreplaceable. But never forgotten.

"When I came in for my official visit, we were picked up at the airport and brought to Franklin Field," Vura recalled. "We were dropped off near the South Street Bridge corner and entered through the tunnel. Walking across the field in his signature gait, coach Gamble met us at the split 'P' at midfield. He said, 'Gentlemen, welcome to Franklin Field.' He had me dreaming of playing for the title in front of a full house. He's the reason I came. He had this great, deep voice. He looked you in the eyes and shook your hand. He just made you feel comfortable.

"I last saw and spoke to him last November, at homecoming. He was slow, and obviously getting older. But his personality was as gregarious as ever. He still had a big, hearty handshake. It was great to see him. He was a presence. You just wanted to jump in a foxhole with him.

"He carried himself with class and dignity."

HARRY GAMBLE

Born: Dec. 26, 1930.

Died: Jan. 28, 2014.

Reared: Born and raised in Pitman, N.J.

Schooling: Undergraduate degree from Rider (where he played offensive line) and master’s and doctorate degrees from Temple. Served in the Army, and was a player/coach at Fort Meade (Md.) in 1953.

Coaching resume: Teacher, coach from 1954-61 at Clayton and Audubon high schools in South Jersey ... assistant coach at Penn from 1962-66 ... head coach at Lafayette, 1967-70 ... head coach at Penn from 1971-80.

With the Eagles: Joined team in 1981 as a volunteer assistant ... He became a full-time assistant the following year, coaching special teams and tight ends ... He was named director of football operations in 1984, general manager in 1985 and team president in 1986 ... He joined NFL offices in 1995.

Best move: Acquiring Reggie White and building the NFL’s best defenses in the late 1980s, early 1990s.

Odd fact: The Eagles won their last NFL championship on Gamble’s 30th birthday.

Survivors: Wife, Joan; sons, Harry and Tom; three grandchildren. Tom is the Eagles’ vice president of player personnel.

Arrangements: Private. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the Brooks-Irvine Memorial Football Club Scholarship Fund, P.O. Box 205, Collingswood, NJ 08108.

Daily News staff writer Ed Barkowitz contributed to this report.

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