The Town Crier is starting a new series, looking back on legendary coaches at both TMHS and Shawsheen Tech. Last week it started with Al and Mark Donovan and this week it’s a look at Tony Romano. This story originally appeared in the October 15, 2014 issue of the Town Crier.
The 17-year-old player hobbled down the hallway of Tewksbury Memorial High School, finally deciding that it might be a good idea to use his crutches. He looked down at his grossly swollen right ankle as he gingerly made his way to the office of varsity basketball coach Tony Romano. When he finally made it to the tiny, cluttered room adjacent to where his teammates were preparing for practice, he got the feeling that his coach was the bearer of bad news. Romano was never good at delivering something that he perceived to be disappointing to someone he genuinely cared about.
“If you can’t practice you can’t show me if you can make the team,” Romano told the boy. The coach was always smiling and ready with a handshake, a hug or a pat on the back. This time he simply waited for a response. There was no smile this time, no hug, just a look back at the player to see if he understood what this tough decision was all about. “OK coach,” the boy hesitated, not really understanding.
Romano knew all too well that the kid, a 12th man at the end of the varsity basketball bench, wasn’t a fit for a team full of veteran talent and younger players with more potential. The player was a senior and it was time to move on. If the kid was hurt by Romano’s decision on that December afternoon in 1972, the coach would be there to help him cope. He would be there again some 40 years later, still helping that kid, now a man, cope with adversity.
Tony Romano, whose legacy was just beginning when he coached a great TMHS varsity basketball team in 1972, passed away last week, and he will be remembered as a teacher, coach, principal, referee and administrator — a friend to so many people and the lover of all things family.
That player Romano cut all those years ago would become friendly with another Tewksbury player and coach who made sure that 12th man cut from that great 1972 team all those years ago knew that his former coach was in a battle for his life.
A True Mentor
Last week the battle ended for Romano, and it was a very tough day for former Tewksbury High School varsity basketball coach Jim Sullivan. He attempted to reach that player that Romano had cut on that day in 1972. He wanted to let him know that his coach was gone. Sullivan would keep trying, wanting to talk about Romano — the man who helped to shape his teaching and coaching career.
“It was an extremely difficult day today, losing a mentor to both my father and I,” offered Sullivan. “Tony Romano was someone I looked up to as long as I can remember as a coach, an educator, a referee, a boss and most importantly a man and a person. Mr. Romano was a supporter of all kids and all things Tewksbury since he came to town in 1964.”
“Mr. Romano was a mentor to my dad (Jim Sullivan, Sr.) in 1966 when he was a senior in Tewksbury and then to me in 1988 when I was a senior. My dad has always been my hero, but Mr. Romano was the next most influential person in my life. From an early age we were friends, and I had the opportunity to hang around the gym a lot when Mr. Romano was coaching at the University of Lowell with my dad and Larry Kelleher as assistants.
“The way that he coached — hard and loud, but fair, kind and caring was a style that I tried to emulate when I began coaching. Mr. Romano recommended me for my first coaching job at Nashoba Tech. He believed in me, as he did with so many students at Tewksbury High School.
“When I got the boys’ varsity basketball coaching job in Tewksbury I would rely on him many times. He was a sounding board for me, someone I could go to for advice, support and help whenever I needed it. He understood what it took to teach and coach student-athletes. He had a great basketball mind. He really understood kids and how to interact with them.
“He loved to just sit down and talk. He was always willing to pay-it-forward, to share his knowledge with you. He just wanted the best for everyone.”
One of the last times that I saw Romano was when he and I began working on a series of articles on those great TMHS teams of the early 1970’s. I walked into the kitchen of his Tewksbury home to find a dining room table covered with photos, stories and notebooks full of memories that Tony had gathered up to help with the first of my series that would appear in this newspaper. He couldn’t stop smiling as he shared the memories of some of his finest Tewksbury teams.
Two of those squads (1972-73 and 1973-74) featured a collection of players that would leave their basketball mark on the school forever. A third team, coached by the late Mickey Sullivan in 1974-75 would complete the circle of success that was jump-started by Romano and the players under his tutelage.
On April 1, 1998 those teams were inducted into the TMHS Hall of Fame. Those teams helped the basketball program to bounce back in a big way after a fire forced the team out of its gymnasium in the winter of 1969.
The Redmen would play their entire 1969-70 schedule on the road. Romano and assistant coach Geno DiSarcina alternated jobs for one year when Tony left to become the industrial arts department head at the high school. Tony was the guy who saw what was on the basketball horizon at the school, and it was obvious that he still had a special place in his heart for his first-ever tournament team in 1969 that featured TMHS Hall of Famers Billy Bulloch, John Hazel and Russell Millett.
“That was a significant basketball accomplishment,” remembered Romano back on that day in 2008. “That was a very special team. The difference between that team and the era (1970’s) that we are talking about is that we became a champion. Jimmy Meuse’ senior year really established us.
“Then the next year we won the championship behind the leadership of Billy Mackey and four juniors starting. And then Mickey Sullivan became the head coach and we won the championship again.”
In his final year of coaching basketball in Tewksbury, Romano would win his 100th game as a high school coach, helped by Mackey and Chris Prince, arguably the greatest pure jump-shooter in the history of the school.
The Glory Days
After leaving high school coaching, Romano would go on to coach the University of Lowell men’s basketball team for seven seasons. He would retire as assistant principal at TMHS in 2002 before spending three years as assistant principal at Lowell Catholic High School.
Romano would go on to assign referees in the Dual County League before a stint as Assistant Director with the MIAA until illness forced him to the sidelines one final time in June of 2013. Many of his former players heard that Tony was sick and rallied their support. One of those players was Barry Sheehan, a former girls’ varsity coach at Tewksbury High School.
“I had the privilege of playing for Tony my sophomore and junior years,” offered Sheehan days after learning of Romano’s passing. “What stood out for me was his fiery courtside demeanor and organizational skills. Tony was the master of organization. After playing for him I became his friend. There was no better place to be than in Tony Romano’s camp of friends.”
Bob Aylward became friends with Romano while also learning something about being an administrator when the two worked side-by-side in the principals’ office at TMHS.
“Tony was a friend and a mentor to me,” said Aylward. He was the consummate professional; bright and thorough, well organized, courageous and caring. Tony was a champion for everything that had the potential to promote positive outcomes for our high school students. He cared about the kids from Tewksbury and spent most of his adult life proving it. He had a great mix of sincerity, credibility, toughness, kindness and humor. He was a very special person.”
A year after we worked on the TMHS Glory Years basketball series I saw Tony again, this time at a reunion of some players from those teams that coach Jim Sullivan and I helped to organize at the old high school. Meuse, years after surviving a serious heart attack, showed up as did Mike Manna, a stalwart forward on that great 1972 team. Romano heard about the night through the TMHS basketball pipeline, which remained solid largely through the former coach’s innate ability to stay connected to his former players.
After the varsity game that included a brief halftime introduction of the former players, we all left for the Sky Box in Tewksbury, where we laughed, enjoyed some adult beverages and talked the way old teammates generally talk. A lot of it was jock-talk ragtime, but it all made sense to us. Tony showed up and flashed that smile and laughed that unmistakable laugh. It was loud and bordered on a cackle. Sometimes you would check the room for breaking glass. It was often followed by a slap on the back and a big hug. Romano found me, and then Manna, at the front of the bar. He wrapped us up in an impromptu group hug, stood in the middle and laughed that laugh. “I’m so glad that you guys are taking care of each other, that you’re still around,” he told us. We both realized how much Romano meant to us over forty years later.
“Do the right thing, you never know who is watching’ — that was Mr. Romano’s mantra as our coach,” remembers Manna. “We had just lost a big game against Bedford during the 1972-73 season. Four starters had fouled out. A few days later before practice, Mr. Romano read us a letter from the father of Bedford’s star player. The kid’s dad was an Army General, and he complimented our team on acting like gentlemen and representing the school well despite some lopsided officiating. The father praised our team, saying that we had maintained our poise and played a great game. ‘You see guys’ — Mr. Romano said, ‘do the right thing — you never know who is watching,’ — that’s a lesson that I would pass on to my daughters years later.”
Romano was always asking about his former students and players, and when he found out that Manna had lung cancer, he was quick to pick up the phone. Romano, forever the teacher and coach, was there again for some timely advice for his former player.
“Five years ago I had lung cancer and was receiving treatment,” offers Manna. “I received phone calls and messages from well-wishers, and then one night the phone rings and it’s Mr. Romano. Forty years later and I still had trouble calling him Tony. He was in full coach-mode. ‘The same attributes that made you an athlete are what is going to get you through this,’ he said. ‘You are tough and strong, and you are going to be okay.’ He was right. I am okay. I received a lot of prayers and phone calls during those tough times, but none meant more to me than the call that I got from Tony Romano.”
Tony was glad that Mike and I had reconnected and that I was excited to be involved with this TMHS basketball reunion. He was even happier to let loose with that laugh of his. I can still hear it today. No one along the Sky Box bar that night was surprised. Romano was in his element, chatting and catching up with former players and teammates. Yes, teammates, because years after graduating, many of his former players found themselves playing with and against Tony in the Tewksbury Adult Basketball League. I remember playing against Romano and Mickey Sullivan. They both were defensive nightmares. Past their basketball primes but still fierce competitors, I never thought either man would ever call it quits. Romano had this funky low-post move where he would dig his backside into you, backing you ever so slightly into the low post before spinning around you for an easy layup. He would make you mad and look silly at the same time before coming back at you and doing it all over again. The best part about the entire experience was that we would get together and laugh about it afterwards.
While Romano could make drive you mad with that low post move, he also had a way of talking to a player or a student and saying just the right thing to calm things down. Things rarely got out of hand if Romano was around to talk things out and help control the situation. John Hurley had a well-earned reputation as a hot-head with a wicked temper early in his career as a power forward at Tewksbury High School. It was Romano who saw the great potential in Hurley if he could learn to channel that temper to help him get positive results.
“Tony was a great man and well respected by everyone,” offered Hurley. “He was a class act and always a joy to talk to. He calmed me down one time and told me that I was too good to be acting that way, that I was looked to as a leader on our team and that I should clean up my act. We talked about my temper many times and how to control it and use it to my advantage — not disadvantage.” Hurley would go on to set scoring and rebounding records at TMHS under the watchful eye of longtime Romano assistant coach Dave Mullen.
Dont Sweat The Small Stuff
Sean Mackey was sitting in an airport in California, waiting out a flight delay home to Las Vegas, when his thoughts turned to Tony Romano.
“I’m sitting here thinking about all of the little things that I let affect my life. One of my favorite people in the world passed away today a man that had patience with all of his students and players — a man who taught all of us about accountability and responsibility — a man who personally taught me about humility. The last time that I saw him was at the Hall of Fame induction in 2001. I told him that I loved him and the impact that he had on my life. I never got to say it to him again. Tell your loved ones that you love them every chance that you get. Don’t sweat the small stuff. See the good in all people. It’s a shame that it takes the passing of a guy like Tony Romano to get you to realize how precious life is. Tony Romano taught me that.”
That 12th man who was cut before the beginning of that 1972-73 season remembers the team making a championship run that ended with a tournament loss to Lexington High School at the old Boston Garden. He watched the game as a spectator with high school friends while still wishing that he was sitting on the TMHS bench next to Ron Magee and Steve Taylor. He will admit to anyone who will listen that he was angry the day that Tony Romano made that cut. Eventually he would talk it over with his former coach and they would laugh about how things worked out. The kid played CYO Basketball for a Saint Williams church team and had a blast. He had played with Manna, Magee and Meuse since the 8th grade, and he thought that he would play with those guys forever. Well, at least through high school. Even if he didn’t play, he could at least sit and watch a championship team. He grew up and remembered what Romano had taught him. He taught him how to deal with disappointment. It turned out to be a small, if valuable lesson. There was nothing small about Tony Romano. He consistently proved that he cared. The kid that he cut knows that it was the right move. That kid — that disappointed 12th man was me.
In the 40-plus years that I knew Tony Romano, as a player, friend and mentor, I never once heard him talk about himself. Whenever I would call him or see him at an event in Tewksbury, the conversation would always revolve around how I was doing. When he knew that I was sick and essentially preparing to die, he found me and we talked. When he heard that I was battling another cancer he called me. He simply cared a lot about people. There was not a pretentious bone in his body.
When I was named sports editor of the Town Crier and stayed here for 22 years, Romano couldn’t have been happier. Like other students in Tewksbury, he knew that I was pursuing my dream, and that’s what made Romano’s day- the happiness of everyone around him. When I fell short of getting into the school’s athletic hall of fame as a contributor, Romano found me at a varsity football game and apologized, even though he had absolutely nothing to do with the final voting tally. We laughed about the whole thing and I remember telling him that it was no big deal that he had prepared me for disappointment a long time ago. Romano was the ultimate teacher and coach. He seemed to always show up at the right moment in my life ready, willing and more than able to talk things out.
I’m glad that I at least got to exchange a brief email with Tony last year. Another Tewksbury connection told me that Romano was ill, and then Barry Sheehan let me know that Tony would like to hear from me, so I sent him an email asking how he was doing. It was just two sentences. Romano told me that he was facing a health challenge and he was hoping for the best. I was praying that whatever it was, that my former coach would beat it and move on with his life. It was something that he taught this ‘kid’ way back in the winter of 1972. You work hard to get better and then you live your life to the best of your ability, reaching out to other people along the way. Then you will know in your heart that you gave it your best shot. You did your best. Thanks Tony for that lesson. You were the best.