Anyone who knew Howie Vogts understands this wasn’t the way the iconic football coach was supposed to pass on. Not in a hospital bed with an IV tube, heart monitor and respirator hooked up to him, as he did on Saturday at the age of 80 at Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Centre.
No, after 56 years and a New York state-record 364 wins – all at Bethpage High School – it would have only been fitting if the giant of Long Island high school football expired during a game on the sideline. That’s how he would have wanted it, anyway.
I spent enough time with him over the years to know that much. He was a man who could have long ago taken his pension and retired to Florida with his longtime partner, Marilyn Murphy. And he did.
But each August Murph and Howie would drive up I-95 in the comfort of their Lincoln Town Car and return to their Bethpage house in time for the start of football practice. Because Howie Vogts’ real home was the sideline next to his boys.
“It’s the most fruitful thing working and helping young people,” Vogts once told me. “And each year you have a new group to work with.”
Vogts never had children. Yet after 56 years of coaching football in this working-class Nassau town, an entire community looked at the coach with fatherly respect.
A former Golden Eagles player, Erwin Dill, has served as the associate head coach to take the load off Vogts. Dill has manned the sideline for more than a decade while Vogts, in declining health, sat on the bench. It might have made for an awkward relationship if not for the selflessness of the staff.
It was an arrangement an entire town embraced. People get pushed aside in life. You probably know someone who was shown the door before they were ready to leave, at work or elsewhere. People get old. They become expendable.
Not Vogts. He was treasured – and rightly so.
“It’s Coach’s team,” Rich Solliday, a Bethpage resident whose son was an All-Long Island player in the 1990s, once told me. “Howie started the program and he should stay here to the day he dies.”
Thank goodness, he did.
Vogts, a Sewanhaka and Adelphi graduate, started with a freshman team in 1952 and then christened the varsity one year later. He spent one season as an assistant coach at Michigan State in 1966, but returned to the Bethpage sideline next fall. That’s where he’s been ever since.
This was a Grumman town. The Lunar lander was built in Bethpage. Aerospace was the life blood of the community. But the jobs left long ago. The other source of town pride? Football, of course.
Bethpage won 35 regular-season league or conference crowns, 16 playoff titles and five Long Island championships. Vogts was the mastermind behind them all. Even in his later years, he would spend much of his weekdays sequestered in the film room breaking down the opposition. He had a keen football mind to the end.
The death certificate will note Vogts died of congestive heart failure. But anyone who knows him will tell you no one had a bigger heart. How else do you explain a lifetime of devotion to one town and his boys?
Note: Visiting Tuesday and Wednesday 2-5 and 7-9:30 p.m. at the Arthur F. White Funeral Home, 234 Broadway, Bethpage, NY 11714. A Memorial gathering will take place Thursday 11 a.m. at the Howard C. Vogts Football Field at Bethpage High School. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Bethpage Football Dad’s Club. Bethpage High School, Stewart Avene, Bethpage, NY, 11714, in Care of the Bethpage Dad’s Club.