Czar Wiley knows that it’s never easy trying to replace a legend.
Gene Bartow wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire when he took over as basketball coach at UCLA for John Wooden. We all know how well Ray Handley did as coach of the Giants after Bill Parcells left. Face facts, Curly Joe and Shemp were never capable replacements for Curly with the Three Stooges after Curly died.
So as the 32-year-old Wiley takes over as the head football coach at his alma mater North Bergen, replacing the legendary Vince Ascolese, he knows that the odds are already stacked against him.
You can’t replace the 300-plus victories, including eight NJSIAA state championships that Ascolese won as the head coach of the Bruins, although the final state title captured last December was vacated by the NJSIAA for alleged recruiting violations.
Plain and simple, Ascolese was North Bergen football for almost four full decades, from 1973 through last year.
Wiley should know that first hand. After all, Wiley was the star tailback on the Bruins’ last undefeated NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV state championship team in 1997. He was the main cog that helped the Bruins roll to 12 straight wins without a loss. Wiley was a three-sport standout during his days at North Bergen and was the recipient of the Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Year for the 1996-97 scholastic sports year.
“Replacing a legend is as tough as it gets,” said Wiley, who was only appointed as head coach after the guy initially tabbed to replace Ascolese, a former Texas high school coach named Jimmy Crane, was removed of his duties just two months after getting the job. “You never want to be the one to replace Coach Ascolese. He was the one who coached me, who helped to make me who I am. I learned about Bruin pride from him and learned about having toughness. I just transferred that to my life.”
Wiley doesn’t want to focus on how he got the head coaching position.
“I try not to look at the negatives,” said Wiley, who previously served as an assistant under Ascolese and at Memorial before spending the last few seasons as an assistant at Englewood. “I kept saying that my time would come. I was born and raised here. I am a Bruin. It was always a dream of mine to be a head coach and for me to come back here and coach here, it’s a real honor and privilege to take over this program. I’m going to do things to the best of my ability.
Added Wiley, “When the smoke cleared, the right guy got the job. It’s all worked out fine. I got the job. I’m excited about the chance and I’m determined to bring the Bruin pride back.”
Wiley knows that he takes the job under a cloud of controversy. The NJSIAA has vowed to monitor the North Bergen program for the coming years because of the recruiting allegations that led to the association stripping the Bruins of the state title.
“I’m not concerned about that,” Wiley said. “These kids proved during the first week of December last year that they won the state championship on the field and it was taken away in a courtroom. It’s over. We’ll never look back. I’ve received nothing but support from everyone. It’s a family now. We’re all looking out for each other and that makes things easier. All we want is to see the winning continue in North Bergen like we’ve always had.”
Wiley takes over a North Bergen program that is filled with youth.
“We have a very young team,” Wiley said. “We have only three or four varsity players returning. We’re very inexperienced, with so many kids making their varsity debuts. The backfield is all new. It’s a challenge.”
It’s also been a challenge installing a new offensive set. Wiley, who played college football at the University of New Hampshire, is taking a page from his college offensive coordinator, Chip Kelly, the innovative head coach now at the University of Oregon.
The Bruins will try to utilize the fast-pace, change-on-the-fly spread-option offense that Kelly uses with the Ducks.
“We’re putting in some new wrinkles to turn the tempo up a little bit,” Wiley said.
Junior Dominick Trautz (6-2, 190) will be the one organizing that fast-paced attack. Trautz has taken to the new offense and has done well so far.
“He throws the ball well,” Wiley said. “We just have to get him a little more polished. We’ve been hammering him in the film room with all the sets and he’s done well.”
Junior Brandonlee Diaz (5-10, 180) is one of the Bruins’ running backs.
“He’s a natural runner with good cut back speed,” Wiley said. “He’s a typical North Bergen football player, a throwback kind. He plays bigger than his size.”
Sophomore Daniel Hackley (5-8, 160), a transfer from Paramus Catholic, has shown a ton of promise in the backfield.
Junior German Rodriguez (5-9, 175) will also get in the mix and get his share of carries, as will junior Justin DeLorenzo (6-0, 185). With the hectic pace, the Bruins will need to keep their running backs fresh.
Senior Debray Tavarez (5-11, 190) has returned, much to the delight of all North Bergen followers. It was Tavarez who caught the game-winning touchdown pass on the game’s final play last December, giving the Bruins the 14-13 upset win over Montclair in the state title game.
The other wide receiver is a familiar name. Senior Danny Melian (6-5, 190) was the Bruins’ starting quarterback to begin last season, but he’s now been moved to receiver, where he poses a threat as a tall target.
“He is excellent there and it’s fit him perfectly,” Wiley said. “He’s excited about being a receiver.”
Senior Alex Rodriguez (6-2, 225 and no relation to German) is the starter at tight end.
The tackles are junior Steven Gomez (6-0, 215), who started last year at guard, and junior Kevin Beltre (6-3, 230). Seniors Wilnar Morreal (5-8, 225) and Bryan Heredia (5-10, 205) are the guards. Heredia played there last year. Senior Christian Ponce De Leon (5-10, 220) is the center. De Leon also played there last season.
The Bruins will utilize a 4-3 defensive set with a set of new faces. Again, the fast-paced offense forces Wiley to try to go two-platoon.
Junior Kevin Herrera (6-0, 195) and sophomore Brandon Medrano (5-11, 210) are the defensive ends, with sophomores Justin Gomez (6-0, 230 and no relation to Steve) and David Medina (5-9, 185) at the defensive tackles.
Steven Gomes, Heredia and Alex Rodriguez are at the linebacker slots, with Diaz and German Rodriguez at cornerback. Senior Ryan Velchez (6-2, 180) and sophomore Luis Tajardo (6-0, 175) are the safeties.
Wiley is confident that the winning ways continue. After all, North Bergen has only failed to make the state playoffs once in the last 23 years.
“That’s our goal,” Wiley said. “A lot of the kids have bought into what we’re trying to do. There has been a lot of competition and that’s been good. We’re installing a brand new offense. We’re making sure we have discipline. We’re going to make sure they have Bruin pride.”
Much like Wiley does.
The Bruins open the season ironically against Montclair, the team that the Bruins defeated in MetLife Stadium for the state title last December and the school that initiated the appeal that led to the Bruins having the state title stripped. It’s an interesting matchup indeed.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.