By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
When David Nankivell resigned at the end of yet another disappointing football season at Harrison High School, finishing with the same 0-9 mark the Blue Tide posted in 2011 as well, the school had to look in a different direction to find a head coach.
Enter Matt Gallo. He’s a 24-year-old native of Hoboken, who spent three years as an assistant coach at Hoboken High School and another year at St. Anthony of Jersey City. He started his coaching career while still attending New Jersey City University.
Gallo didn’t know if he was old enough to become a head coach, but when the position opened at Harrison, he was willing to give it a try.
“At the risk of sounding cocky, I thought I had a shot,” said Gallo, who was officially appointed as the new head football coach at the Board of Education meeting last week. “I have devoted my life to football.”
Even though he’s just six years removed from high school, Gallo does not think his age will be a deterrent. He immediately becomes one of the youngest head coaches in New Jersey high school football.
“I don’t think age is an issue at all,” Gallo said. “I’ve watched Harrison for a while and I think it’s a program of great potential. I saw the potential and the facility and I was impressed. The facilities actually shocked me. I was looking for the right opportunity for me, gave it a shot and got the job.”
Gallo now has the challenge of trying to turn around a Harrison program that has lost 18 straight games, has posted a 17-71 record over the last nine seasons since its last winning season, a 5-5 squad in 2003.
“It’s a challenge that I accept with everything I have,” Gallo said. “And if there’s any early indication, we’re already moving in the right direction.”
When Gallo met the prospective Harrison football players last week, there were 50 kids in attendance. It doesn’t mean that there will be 50 football players come August, when training camp opens, but the interest is a good start.
“I think these kids are starving for relevancy,” Gallo said. “They’ve been down too long. Having 50 kids at the first meeting is a great start. From that regard, I think we’re all looking for a new head start.”
Gallo knows that he’s not going to win championships overnight.
“The goal for now is to achieve noticeable improvement,” Gallo said. “There has to be improvement.”
He’s right in that respect. It can’t get much worse for the Blue Tide grid program.
Gallo also realizes that football isn’t king in Harrison. Soccer reigns supreme, now and forever.
“It’s certainly a battle, but I’m coming from a school where basketball was the sport,” said Gallo, referring to St. Anthony and its basketball powerhouse. “The only way you can get people excited is through success. Once we start winning again, we’ll start to get excitement in the program.”
Gallo said that he will try to follow the formula that his idol, Ed Stinson, used at Hoboken. Stinson was also the former coach at Queen of Peace.
“I had the chance to watch Coach Stinson, standing on the sidelines at Hoboken and I want to have the same kind of program he had at Hoboken,” Gallo said of the current Bergen Catholic defensive coordinator. “I want to bring that to Harrison, the 11-month a year program. That was the formula for success and it’s what I hope to accomplish in Harrison. We’re going to run the Delaware Wing-T like he ran and I need to have people who understand the system as assistant coaches.”
That’s why former Parsippany and St. Joseph of the Palisades head coach Guy Bertola will be one of Gallo’s assistants, as will former Hoboken standout Juan Valdes. Both coaches were approved by the Harrison Board of Education as well at the last minute.
“They’re going to be a tremendous help,” Gallo said. “Having those two as an extension of me can help me teach.”
Harrison athletic director Kim Huaranga applauded the hiring of Gallo.
“He hopes to change the tide of the program,” Huaranga said of Gallo. “We interviewed a lot of candidates and felt that Matt’s the best fit for the program. Matt presented himself as a very mature person, so I don’t think his age will be a problem. He has a solid football background and we’re happy to have him aboard.”
Gallo was still coming to grips with the idea that he is now a head football coach. “When I was there for the first time with the kids, I felt like I was in a dream,” Gallo said. “It’s what I’ve always wanted. They’re taking a chance in me and there’s no way I’m going to let them down. This is the chance of a lifetime and I’m going in with a full head of steam.”
If the Blue Tide can have the same intensity and enthusiasm as the new head coach, then the hiring of Gallo was definitely a step in the right direction.