Charlie Comerford noticed something different when he returned to his alma mater to coach football in 2011. Bishop Timon-St. Jude has looked the same since it opened in 1946 and became the spiritual and geographical heart of South Buffalo. The kids were basically the same, too.
But it didn’t feel quite the same.
You know what changed? The times.
Look across the region. An arms race has been unfolding among Catholic high schools for the past few years. Many are improving their facilities with the idea they can draw more students, and better players, into their schools. Some are throwing big money behind programs in an effort to become a superpower.
St. Francis is undergoing a $4 million project that includes a new artificial playing surface already in place and a gorgeous multipurpose building overlooking the field that’s under construction. When the project is completed, it will look like St. Francis stole facilities from St. John Fisher.
Canisius for years struggled in sports, particularly football, before dumping more money into athletics, drawing top talent from Canada, and becoming a beast in the Monsignor Martin Association. St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute’s turf spreads halfway across Kenmore. Other schools are trying to keep up.
“It’s reality,” Comerford said. “There has to be a selling point. When I was around, it wasn’t really like that. I’m 33 but I feel older than that sometimes because I’m outdated. It is crazy. The days of great athletes in football, basketball, baseball, hockey and lacrosse showing up at your doorstep the first day of ninth grade are gone.”
You know how the trickle-down effect works. Better athletes means better teams, which leads to more success, more renown and more students. Larger enrollments allow schools to put more money back into all programs. It’s how success breeds success and the rich get richer.
In all cases, the goal is to become a destination. Every school is looking for a niche, preferably in a high-profile sport.
For generations, Timon prided itself on being a small school that didn’t need the latest and greatest to succeed. It was a destination for kids who wanted to play football for Paul Fitzpatrick or basketball for Mel Palano. They drew enough athletes to feed other sports and keep strong programs humming along.
Timon once viewed kids from Canisius, Frannies and Joe’s as pampered rich boys. They embraced the idea that they had to overcome more to win. In the 15 years since Comerford graduated, the landscape changed. Parents are forking over $10,000 a year at some schools and expect more from their money.
It became a battle for extras.
“Every single coach knows about every single good kid in the area,” he said. “Every single coach is going after every good eighth-grade kid in the area. You have to have something different. We’re all good schools. We all send our kids to good schools. We all have good coaches. It’s become, ‘What can you provide my son differently?’ ”
Timon, which has about 65 students graduating this year, lost enough good athletes that it teetered on the verge of irrelevance in football and basketball. Its biggest problem is a lack of space. It’s building a new-age, 4,000-square-foot weight room, but it can’t knock down houses on McKinley Parkway for a new football field.
Comerford started thinking outside the box to offer something other schools could not. He scheduled games with national football powerhouses in Georgia and Texas, including the school on which “Friday Night Lights” was based, with the idea he can get his team more exposure. Matt Myers, a 6-foot-4 sophomore with a cannon arm, landed on the radar of several Division I schools last season.
So why not take a shot?
“The stuff that we might lack facility-wise, with being landlocked, we have to compensate in other areas,” Comerford said. “It’s a unique way to offer something no one else could right now. It’s a huge factor into why we’re doing it. … We don’t have illusions of going there and winning by three touchdowns.”
Alarms sounded last year when lacrosse coach Mike Burke, who had built one of the top programs in the area, left for St. Francis. Some even wondered if his departure signaled the beginning of the end for Timon. Comerford replaced him with former Bucknell captain Brian McNulty, getting the Tigers back on track.
His latest move was replacing hockey coach Gene Overdorf after six seasons. Overdorf did nothing in particular that called for his immediate dismissal. He was committed to winning and to his players. But he also didn’t have the same resume and name recognition of the man who replaced him, Matt English. English is known in hockey circles after coaching at the highest amateur levels in the region. He’s a no-nonsense guy and a good coach who steered many of the best young players in our area toward the Division I ranks and beyond. His name carries weight. And he’s a Timon guy.
If adding him attracts better players, and more of them, it helps the athletic program and the school in a constant push to boost enrollment. Hockey players tend to lean toward lacrosse in the spring, so adding him could help two programs. Connor Fields, for example, is a top college lacrosse player, but he also was a terrific hockey player.
Comerford hopes the changes have the desired impact, but there’s no way of knowing until they take hold. One coach can make a difference. If he needs a reminder, Tim Delaney is right around the corner. South Park football was laughable before he took over eight years ago. Last year, it won a state championship.
“You don’t want to sit back and say, ‘I didn’t try this’ or ‘I didn’t try that.’ I’d rather take a shot,” Comerford said. “I think we transformed the program with like-minded people who know our mission, who know our goal.
“Just because our enrollment is a lot lower than the other three all-boys schools, we’re not going to use that as an excuse. I wasn’t taking the job to be the plucky underdog. We’re trying to win. That’s the goal. If we don’t, I haven’t been successful.”