By: John Knebels
WYNDMOOR, PA – There’s confusion about a new rule change . . . Four of the six teams at the bottom of the standings are virtually deadlocked and the playoffs are coming up soon, and no one seems to fully understand the tie-breaking procedure.
Or maybe it’s as simple as verifying the time and venue of an upcoming regular-season game.
When it comes to all matters Philadelphia Catholic League, whether it’s as simple as furnishing a definitive clarification, or perhaps as complex as listening to someone vent his or her frustration about fill-in-the-blank in an attempt to avoid a festering ulcer, the person on most people’s speed dial has been the same one.
“Hello, Joe . . . got a second?”
Media members and PCL administrators will no longer be seeking answers from La Salle College High School athletic director Joe Parisi. Make that, former athletic director. On July 1, Parisi began penning a much different chapter than what he has done for the past nine years – or 20 years when you include his first stint. Instead of heading the athletic administration, Parisi will be teaching three classes a day and working in the Mission and Ministry Office.
Along with still helping with Kairos retreats, Parisi will be coordinating senior summer service projects, which involves about 175 rising seniors providing service in nine different states and possibly four different countries.
“I’ll be ramping it down a little bit,” said Parisi. “Playing the back nine, so to speak, hoping they aren’t going to be as challenging as the front nine . . . maybe spending a little less time doing my job and a little more time with family and friends and so on.”
Two weeks ago from the confines of his almost-empty office, Parisi reflected on his two stints as La Salle’s AD – the first from 1991 through 2002, and the second from 2012 through 2021. Subjects included the ever-expanding challenges of being an athletic director, the still-relevant pandemic that rocked the globe 16 months ago, perceived pressure in the eyes of scholastic athletes, his long career as one of the country’s most successful baseball coaches, the irony of his final AD assignment, and the media’s role in high school sports.
“Doing this over a couple of different time periods has been helpful,” said Parisi. “My own personal belief in a job like this at a school like this is that it’s a job you can do for probably about 10 years.”
Long-time La Salle College HS Athletic Director, Joe Parisi, will step down and pursue a new role at the school - PSD Photo by John Knebels
Parisi could literally write a book about what he’s experienced over his two decades in charge of one of the state’s most successful athletic program. Through times of celebrations and challenges, Parisi focused less on athletic success and more on community and student development.
No one worked more closely with Parisi than Mike O’Toole, who stepped down as La Salle’s principal this year after nine years at the helm.
“Joe and I met formally once a week and informally spoke just about every day –in my office, in his office, on the sidelines,” said O’Toole. “Joe is one of the most student-centered administrators – in any position – that I have ever worked with. He knows athletics across the board, but even more importantly, he is conscious of the challenges that young men face on the field, on the court, and beyond. It’s no accident that he is also a well-respected teacher of psychology.
“Our successes in athletics at La Salle have come with his steady guidance, thoughtful interventions, daily diligence, and his commitment to helping our students and our coaches thrive.”
During Parisi’s tenure, La Salle captured Catholic League championships in 18 different sports. In the past decade alone, the Explorers have won 17 PIAA state crowns in six different sports.
When Parisi coached varsity baseball for 28 years before stepping down at the conclusion of the 2014 campaign, his teams won 453 games, made the playoffs on 26 occasions, captured four PCL titles in nine league finals, and seized state championships in 2012 and 2014.
Ironically, Parisi’s final administrative act as athletic director was joining the 2021 baseball team that won this year’s Class 6A title – on the same Penn State University field where his 2014 squad celebrated being the state’s top dog.
“I thought it was poetic justice,” said Parisi. “I thought it was really cool that my last official event as a baseball coach was on that field and my last official event as an athletic administrator at La Salle was on that field. I couldn’t have been any happier for those kids. I really connected with them during the course of the year, just talking with them and watching what they were doing.
“Actually, I got a little emotional because I felt that it was a perfect ending, even though it was never about me; but for me personally, it felt really good going out there.”
Giving up baseball after six years as junior varsity coach and 28 as varsity coach was among Parisi’s most difficult challenges.
“It’s definitely in my blood,” said Parisi. “I missed it a lot . . . I don’t miss arguing with umpires. I don’t miss telling kids, ‘You’re pretty good, but we are going in a different direction and you’re not going to be a part of the team.’ . . . I missed the interaction with the kids, the building of relationships with them. Over the course of 28 years, some of those relationships have lasted.”
One of Parisi’s former players, Tony Cossetti, graduated from La Salle in 1989 and was a member of Parisi’s first Catholic League championship in 1988. More than a decade later, Cossetti asked Parisi to be godfather to his fraternal twin sons Anthony and Andrew. In 2018, the Cossetti boys celebrated a La Salle Catholic League championship.
Now college seniors, Andrew moved on to play at St. Joseph’s University while Anthony joined the Naval Academy, from where he ultimately plans to attend medical school in exchange for more years of service after graduation.
“He has obviously left his mark on the program and in the region as a baseball coach and mentor and as an athletic director,” said Andrew. “His success is something that everyone gets to see, and even though I didn’t play for him, hearing stories about my dad’s tenure with him and from a teammate I played with at SJU – Dom Cuoci– I have realized that the effect he has had on them is more than just within baseball.
“He has a way of connecting with people and touching kids’ hearts and becoming a father figure for so many. He will surely be missed in athletics in the area and especially at La Salle. However, I know he is excited for his new opportunity to connect with students in different ways like he did with my father, my teammate Dom Cuoci, and my brother and me. La Salle will grow in new ways with him as a different type of mentor for their students, and I’m excited to see how it goes for him.”
Anthony offered similar sentiments.
“He loved the AD position and had a unique way of getting to know all of his athletes personally while still maintaining a position of authority and leadership that I have only recently grown to understand,” he said. “He was an amazing athletic director, but now he’s excited to take on his new position in volunteer service.”
When Kyle Werman inherited the reins as Parisi’s successor beginning in 2015, his task could be accurately described as daunting.
Although Parisi stressed to Werman that he apply his own stamp on the program without looking over his shoulders or be concerned about how things had been done for the previous three decades, the reality was that Werman was replacing an icon.
“Taking over for someone who just won two state championships in three years could be tough, but Joe made sure it wasn’t,” said Werman, who led the Explorers to a third consecutive PCL championship this spring before running the table for a state title and a school-record 25-game winning streak. “He had a ton of success. They were big shoes to fill. You never want to follow a legend, but it never felt like that.
“The biggest thing I respect is that he wanted me to run the program without him casting any shadow. I really respected that. I couldn’t ask for anything better. He lives and bleeds La Salle. He cares for his players and every student. He connects with each student – it doesn’t have to be athlete. He connects with them as a person and values personal relationships.”
Werman marveled at Parisi’s aplomb as the head of athletics.
“He’s fair,” said Parisi. “He will do the right thing for the game and the league ahead of his own needs and the needs of La Salle.
“An athletic director has to empower the coach to run the program the right way and instill the values as a department as a whole, and get the right people to follow that. There are a lot of strong personalities, and they have to recognize that. Everybody works a little bit different. They need to enforce the rules fairly and equally and manage people, creating a direction for the athletics of the school while being an effective communicator. Joe did all of that.”
The potential perils of being the head of an athletic department the size of La Salle – and with the consistent success of most if not all programs – could be overwhelming if not for maintaining proper perspective.
Because you’re dealing with families who have invested significant trust and resources in your tutelage, and working with oft-stubborn experienced coaches, it’s almost impossible not to make some enemies here and there.
“To be realistic, you have to understand that parents are going to be upset if their kids are not playing,” said Parisi. “I had a general rule with our parents that you can call me at any time if you feel as tough your son is being physically or emotionally abused in any way, shape, or form, but don’t call me about playing time because you’re gonna hear me say we are not discussing it. I don’t coach the team. Your son needs to start with the coach.
“You do get a decent amount of complaints and you don’t get a whole lot of thank you’s. You are literally like the complaint department for athletics and you’re going to deal with complaints from a variety of different constituents. Coaches are going to feel certain rules are not fair. Some players are not going to appreciate what coaches do and some parents are not going to appreciate what coaches do. You just have to find a way of mediating them or just say, ‘Look, I understand, but I don’t see it the way you do, and nothing is gong to change.’”
Parisi said the job of an athletic director became markedly different when the Catholic League became associated with the PIAA in 2008. Before that, every season ended as soon as the league finals had been completed.
Now, however, not winning a league title is no longer the end of the journey. If a team qualifies for district play, it will have an opportunity to venture into the state playoffs. With up to six different classes – mostly depending on student enrollment – a variety of Catholic League teams may experience what amounts to a second season.
In 2019, for instance, Devon Prep finished 3-10 in the PCL baseball standings. In the Class 2A playoffs, however, the Tide dispatched every opponent and snared a state title.
“There’s a lot more paperwork involved, a lot more rules to enforce, and seasons are extended,” said Parisi. “At a school like this, where we have a lot of success, a lot of our teams are in the PIAA district and state playoffs, and it makes the job a little more challenging time wise. I think that’s across the board for any athletic director in the Catholic League.”
Of course, no stretch was more overwhelming than the coronavirus-affected late winter and spring of 2020, and most of the 2021 season.
“The most challenging part was to try to get as many things as close to normal as you could for the kids,” said Parisi. “The first part was hoping to have a season for each of the student-athletes. The second part was trying to get it as close to normal as possible in very, very trying times.”
Coaches and student-athletes needed to dig deep into reserves they might have never known they possessed. It wasn’t enough to organize and engage in meaningful practices and focus on game-day strategies.
Instead, much of the time was spent making sure mandated social distancing was being honored and masks were being worn correctly and consistently.
For student-athletes, especially those who represent the top programs, pressure is nothing new. Self-expectations are enormous, and one can only speculate what student-athletes deal with at home or among peers.
But, says Parisi, student-athletes would benefit from taking a step or two back and reassessing the landscape.
“As a psychology teacher and as a coach, I always told my players and students that the definition of pressure is basically a person’s perception of their inability to do in a particular situation,” said Parisi. “Emphasize to be positive and being a part of a team rather than individual performances. I give our parents credit. They see the value of it and take a hands-off approach and trust what we are doing.”
Long-time La Salle golf coach Marty Jackson cited Parisi as a “proponent of the kids and a terrific advocate for the kids and a leader in PCL athletics.” Former Archbishop Wood basketball coach and athletic director Joe Sette labeled Parisi a “true professional and outstanding person. The PCL will miss his significant contributions.”
Explorers soccer coach since 2015 and a 2001 La Salle alum, Tom McCaffery credited much of his professional success to Parisi’s belief in his abilities.
“Joe gave me a chance as a head coach and I am very grateful for the faith he showed in me and for his support through the years,” said McCaffery. “Even as a student and a student-athlete during my time at La Salle, he was always a huge help and was there to talk to.
“I couldn't be happier for Joe to make the transition to his new position while still being in the community to support our students and our athletic department. Joe is a great friend and mentor, and his stamp on athletics at La Salle is amazing.”
Retired Philadelphia Daily News sportswriter Ted Silary, whose marvelous four-decade career left him as the unquestioned king of high school sports reporters, placed Parisi on an exceptionally high perch.
“Few people – very few – have been as dedicated to a school or a league,” said Silary. “Call for a vote and he would be an upper lottery pick. He has shaped so many lives.”
As for the media that deals with high school coverage, Parisi offered a request.
“Report positively,” he said. “Anything you write that promotes the good things that kids are doing, I think, is wonderful. This shouldn’t be the sports talk radio for high school sports. Keep the controversy out.”
And if you need some clarification, maybe give Joe Parisi a call.
Oops. Maybe not.
Sorry. Force of habit.
(Contact John Knebels at Jknebels@gmail.com or on Twitter @johnknebels.)