Shock and sadness were the feelings coursing through the Western New York scholastic sports community Saturday night upon word that iconic Sweet Home coach and Greater Buffalo Sports Hall-of-Famer John Faller had died.
Faller’s longtime assistant football coach and friend of more than 33 years, Mike Faulks, along with Section VI Football Chairman Ken Stoldt, confirmed Faller's death Saturday evening. Faller was 70.
Cause of death is unknown at this time, according to Faulks.
Faller, who grew up in suburban Rochester and graduated from the University at Buffalo, is perhaps best known for leading the Panthers to back-to-back state championships and unbeaten seasons in football in 2008 and 2009. Under his tutelage, the football and boys lacrosse teams at Sweet Home personified excellence as he guided them to a combined 14 Section VI titles and 590 wins.
Faulks learned of Faller’s death earlier Saturday when he stopped by the latter’s house to visit, only to see paramedics on the scene. It was at that moment when Faulks learned about Faller’s death from the family.
“I was totally shocked,” said Faulks, who had talked with Faller two days earlier about the possibility of attending the Kensington Lions All-Star Football Classic later this month. “He was a great teacher, a great man, a good friend, a good family man.”
“It’s a very, very sad day today,” said retired Sweet Home Athletic Director Chris DeMarco. “He was an icon. He was a tremendous man of character, great character. That’s what John was all about, and that character transcended everything he accomplished. … We’re going to miss him.”
In addition to making Sweet Home one of the area’s signature football programs during his 32 seasons, Faller also built from scratch the school’s lacrosse program – even though he never had played the sport. He guided the Panthers to six Section VI championships during his 39-season run, amassing 373 lacrosse victories – second in Western New York history to retired Orchard Park coach Gene Tundo (543).
Faller was a recipient of the Ed Van Tine Award for his contributions to the growth of lacrosse as a sport in Western New York. A former Section VI coordinator for boys lacrosse, improving the playing experiences for all involved in the sport at the scholastic level was his goal, according to friend and current lacrosse chairman Ed Greenway.
In football, Faller guided the Panthers to 16 division titles, including a run of 11 straight from 2004-14, and eight Section VI championships. At one point, Sweet Home won 69 straight games against Western New York teams, a run ended by Williamsville North in the 2013 sectional final. Faller amassed a 217-84-1 record as varsity football coach.
The only coaches in Western New York to compile more football victories than Faller are Curt Fischer, Johnny Barnes, Gene Masters and Dick Diminuco.
“In high school, what's the highest achievement you can make?” Faller told The News prior to being inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame last year. “It's being a state champion, especially in a team sport where you're taking 40 guys of different backgrounds and different beliefs and trying to put them all together to be one team. ... To be the best team in New York State, or any state you're in, it's like winning the Super Bowl.”
News of Faller’s passing spread quickly throughout the sports community, with the most common reaction being one of shock, followed by incredulousness that a man who had just retired from coaching in 2017 didn’t get more time to enjoy retirement with his family.
“Sweet Home is a very, very close family,” DeMarco said. “His death has had a traumatic effect on everybody. It’s a tough day. A very sad day. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife and family, children and grandchildren.”
Current Williamsville East football coach Mike Torrillo graduated from Sweet Home and was a longtime assistant to Faller, including during the state championship seasons. Torrillo’s three sons all served as ball boys and eventually quarterbacks for Faller.
“It’s awful, awful,” said Torrillo. “He was my teacher. He was my mentor. He taught me a lot of good things. … He was one of the first guys to put in the shotgun formation, going with the spread look. John was always at top of the game. He was an innovator. … He taught the importance of discipline and being good to people.”
“He was an amazing individual,” said fellow GBSHOF member and longtime area high school sports guru Dick Gallagher. “He was just an outstanding coach, person, class act. This is devastating for not just his family but all the coaches and players and kids he mentored over the years. His legacy is one of the best ever for anyone in Western New York high school sports.”
“He was a person who ran his programs the right way,” Greenway said. “He was accountable to every single player. He wanted every single player to enjoy the experience.”
Faller is survived by his wife, Barb, three daughters, one son and several grandchildren, according to Faulks.
Faller’s death is the second significant one to hit the Western New York scholastic football community this year. Milt Dickerson, one of the founders of the annual Kensington Lions All-Star Classic, died in April.
“It’s been a tough offseason,” Stoldt said. “We’ve lost a lot of great people.”