By Richard L. Gaw
When he takes over the varsity football program at Avon Grove High School this autumn, Harry O'Neill said that Red Devil fans can expect a few new things.
He's starting with the color of the team's football helmets. They've been jet black for the last few seasons, during which the team has recorded a woeful 2-19 overall record. Beginning with the 2014 season, the team's helmets will go back to the traditional school colors of maroon and Vegas gold.
O'Neill was officially named to his position at an Avon Grove School District meeting on March 27.
Replacing former head coach Doug Langley, O'Neill, 53, brings 27 years of coaching experience to his new position, including the eight seasons as the defensive coordinator for the varsity team at Unionville under head coach Pat Clark. While O'Neill was running the defense, the Indians compiled several ten-win seasons and won the Ches-Mont American division three times.
“This area is hungry for a competitive program that displays a consistency of effort,” O'Neill said. “It was not easy to leave Unionville. Pat is one of the best coaches I've ever worked with, but I thought this was the right time for me to take a head coaching job. Avon Grove has always been special to me.”
After beginning his coaching career at St. John Newman High School in Philadelphia in 1987, O'Neill came to West Grove, where he coached the Avon Grove Wildcats for several years, beginning in 2003. His oldest child is a graduate of Avon Grove, and he has another child currently attending the high school.
O'Neill is not coming to Avon Grove alone. He's bringing two of his defensive coaches from Unionville with him, as well as a former offensive coordinator from Unionville – a total of 40 years of football coaching experience. As he prepares fro the upcoming season – which starts with four successive home games – O'Neill is continuing to actively recruit new players. The 2014 edition of the Red Devils will have nine returning seniors and 44 total players coming back, and a roster that he said currently stands at 97 players.
O'Neill's key mission is not just to improve the win-loss record for his new team, but “heal the culture” of Avon Grove's football program. For the past several years, he has stood on the opposite side of the field of the Red Devils, and seen skill players with good talent go under-utilized and an undisciplined game plan, which O'Neill feels has subsequently led to a lackadaisical fan base.
“When you're 2-19 over two seasons, the game becomes an afterthought, and the football program becomes irrelevant,” O'Neill said. “Every time we would look at Avon Grove game film, we'd wonder, 'There is talent there. How do these guys not win many games?' In the time I've been at Avon Grove, I've already seen that the guys here are much better than what I've seen on the field. The talent level is there to be successful.”
Rather than look at what he has inherited as the equivalent of a gridiron conundrum, O'Neill prefers to approach his new coaching role as the acquisition of a clean slate, one whose measure of success will not just be measured with Xs and Os, but through what he said will “maximize the players' potential.”
“I don't live in the past but I'll pull from my 20-plus years of experience in coaching to help turn the program around,” he said. “Were going to compete on every down. We'll go hard. We'll play the right way, and I will not be afraid to call them on the carpet if I don't see that.
“I want to get us more competitive on defense and our offense to compete whistle to whistle. If we can be competitive and fundamentally sound, I am pretty sure were not going to be 2-19 over the next two years.”