By BRIAN CUNNIFF
When Frank Riggitano first became the head football coach at Middle Township High School, his son, Matt, and daughter, Julianna, weren’t yet born.
Today, the siblings are 30 and 26 years old, respectively.
“My son is 30 and my daughter is 26 and time is flying by. That’s all I know,” Riggitano said with a laugh.
The length of time from Riggitano’s appointment as head coach to now is a bit deceiving. He’s had two different stints as head coach, with a 12-year gap in between.
But you get the idea. He’s been at this for a long time.
And now, the veteran coach is on the brink of a rather significant milestone.
Riggitano is just one win shy of 100 for his career as his Panthers get set to take on Gateway in Woodbury Heights Friday evening. In his 21st season overall, Riggitano takes a career record of 99-105 into the contest. In addition to being one win away from 100, he’s also two wins away from tying Ocean City’s Gary Degenhardt for the most victories by a high school head football coach in Cape May County history. Degenhardt went 101-55 in 15 seasons from 1991 through 2005.
A former standout player at Lower Cape May, Riggitano first came to Middle Township in the late 1980s as a schoolteacher and assistant football coach under Bill Moll, before taking over the top job in 1990.
“I tried to take some of the things I learned from Bill Moll and Bill Garrison (his coach at Lower Cape May) and transition them into what I was trying to do,” Riggitano said.
Riggitano led Middle to its first-ever playoff appearance in 1994. He eventually stepped down in 2000.
“I always wanted to continue to coach but I also wanted to coach my own kids because I felt that was very important,” Riggitano said. “You spend so much time with everyone else’s children, I really wanted to spend time with my own.”
Riggitano went to become athletic director and later principal at Middle while also coaching his children’s basketball, baseball, softball and football teams. Then, another opportunity to coach football at Middle arose. He began his second stint while still an administrator in the high school. He’s now retired from his education career and helps run the recreation department in Dennis Township, where he resides.
“It was always something in the back of my mind when I left that I wanted to continue to do it somehow, and I was fortunate to be at a place I really enjoyed when that opportunity came up again,” he said. “The idea when I came back in 2012 was to do it for a year or two, and yet here I am still at it.”
Middle’s football tradition is deep within its community, even if the on-field success has been inconsistent. Under Riggitano, the Panthers have always been prepared, even if they were short on talent in some seasons.
Riggitano has led Middle to four state playoff appearances during his two stints as head coach. Last season, he guided the program to a division championship for the first time in his career. Middle finished 8-2 last fall, with one of those losses coming to eventual sectional champion Haddonfield in the opening round of the South Jersey Group II playoffs.
“The thing I like the most about when I came back is that I thought I was going to have to make drastic changes in my coaching philosophy but I really didn’t,” Riggitano said. “Football is still about blocking and tackling.
“Kids are way different than they were the first time, and even the parents are, too, so I had to make some different adjustments there. But I think I’ve gotten more tolerant about some things. Like, for example, a kid not having black socks on at practice would’ve bothered me a while back. Now, I understand that that kid might not own black socks. Maybe the socks he’s wearing are the only ones he has. The football part really is no different, though.”
Riggitano experienced his first taste of coaching at the high school level through his father, Ralph. He was the head baseball coach at Wildwood Catholic when Riggitano was young.
“I learned at an early age that you’re going to have some outstanding supportive parents and some who are not so supportive,” he said, sheepishly. “People don’t understand the commitment that comes with coaching, and that’s not just at the high school level. It’s every level. There are so many other things that transpire outside of games and practices.”
This year’s Middle team got off to a slow start, losing home games to Oakcrest and Glassboro. But the Panthers bounced back with a wild 30-26 win at Clayton last Friday, getting the winning score on an 87-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Remi Rodriguez with 18 seconds remaining, moments after giving up a go-ahead score.
Riggitano has worked with dozens of assistant coaches over the years. He said all of them impacted him and the program greatly. But he made special mention of some of the men who assisted him when he got his start as a head coach back in the early ‘90s.
“Bobby Wunder Joe Trombetta, John Richardson, Paul Yerk – that whole first crew – it’s not possible without them. Not only their help as coaches but their guidance in everything, especially for a young head coach just starting out,” he said.
Like any longtime high school coach, Riggitano wouldn’t still be a head football coach for more than two decades without support from home.
“The 100 wins, whenever it comes, is really nice for my family,” he said. “My wife (Jeannette) and kids have had to put up with a lot of my nonsense when it comes to me being a football coach. So it’ll be something I’ll be really proud of for my wife and kids. You can’t do something like this, especially for this long, without that support from home.
“Our football history has been up and down, to say the least. But there’s no other place I’d rather coach. Whenever this 100 wins thing comes, I’m going to enjoy it with my own family and with all our coaches and players.
“More than anything, this has been an opportunity to work with multiple kids over a 21-year period,” Riggitano added. “There is no more enjoyment for me when it comes to coaching when a kid comes back after 15 or 20 years and says hello and thanks us for some of the things we did. And for some of them, I maybe wasn’t their favorite at the time. But it’s great when you can see someone take the lessons we tried to give them. It’s great to see them mature and understand as they get older.”