PHILADELPHIA –As St. Joseph’s Prep annually continued to dominate the local football landscape, the collective clandestine whispers turned into a public common conversation.
When would head coach Gabe Infante move to the next stage? How much more did he have to prove? When would a university – hopefully of the Division I variety – incorporate one of the area’s top minds and motivators at the collegiate level?
Those inquiries were answered Saturday when Infante officially resigned his position at the Prep to become a defensive assistant coach at Temple University, where he will work under new head coach Manny Diaz.
Longtime assistant head coach Tim Roken, a 2004 Archbishop Ryan graduate and former quarterback at East Stroudsburg University, immediately inherited a powerhouse that has participated in five of the last six PIAA state championships and won four of them.
“I can’t tell you how grateful I am that the school agreed that the program would be in solid hands if Tim took over,” said Infante. “There’s no better person for this position than that young man.”
Infante’s nine-year career at the Prep included a 91-22 overall record, four state titles, and five Catholic League crowns.
Over the past three seasons, the Hawks accrued a 40-1 overall record, this despite a brutally rugged non-league schedule and battles against CL toughies La Salle and Archbishop Wood. The Prep has consistently maintained a high national ranking.
St. Joseph's Prep head coach Gabe Infante accepts position as defensive assistant for Temple University's football program - PSD photo by Brandon Stivers
During his nine years with the Hawks, Infante led the Prep to win four state championships - PSD photo by Brandon Stivers
The significance about the Prep’s football program, however, is more than just gaudy numbers. Hawk players constantly describe each other as brothers; they almost always use the plural “we” rather than the singular “I.”
Outsiders occasionally balk at truly “buying in” to the Prep’s stated ideals.
“When we talk about ‘love’ and ’trust,’ and being humble and giving opponents credit, there’s (outside) skepticism,” said Infante. “We don’t just say things to be politically correct. They’re real.
“Football is about trust and love; it’s the basis of the game. It’s about sacrifice.”
Infante constantly reminds players that when they encounter kind words about their athletic prowess – or any other personal aptitude for that matter – be gracious, and then be generous.
Coach Gabe Infante & senior Cooper Kim share a special moment after winning the 2018 PIAA 6A championship - Photo by John Knebels
The Philadelphia Eagles presented Infante with the Coach of the Year Award this Sunday vs. the Texans - PSD Photo by John Knebels
“Any time you receive praise, deflect it,” said Infante. “At the end of the day, your gifts are not yours. They are given to you by God, and they are given to you so that you can serve others.”
Asked how his life will change, Infante waxed philosophically practical.
“It’s a major blessing to be able to coach so close to home,” said Infante, a resident of Haddonfield, New Jersey. “The Prep program has never been about me, or any ‘one’ person. The task is to help develop people. Whether that is an entire team, or a group of nine position players, the task doesn’t change.”
Players, parents, and alumni support Infante’s sentiments. A few days after winning the state title over Harrisburg, senior standout linebacker Cooper Kim described Infante as a “role model” and someone who has “taught me how to be strong and . . . how to get the best out of myself and others.”
“He isn’t just a coach to me,” said Kim. “He’s like another father, not just to me, but to every player on our team . . . I wouldn’t be who I am without him. Words really can’t describe how much he means to me personally.”
Salina Talley, a Temple University graduate whose sons Myles (senior first-team All-Catholic linebacker) and Julian (sophomore junior varsity defensive back) have played a combined six years in the Prep program, said Infante is an “exceptional” coach and someone her college alma mater “is very fortunate to have on staff.”
“He has created a family of student athletes and brothers,” she said. “Coach Gabe has fostered a program that embodies the Prep mission of developing men ‘for and with others.’ His emotional connection and impact on my sons and the team will be truly missed.”
Joe Frio, a 2015 graduate and Villanova senior who this fall helped the receivers as an assistant coach, extolled his mentor.
“From the top down, the program is built on the motivation you receive through the love and respect for one another,” said Frio. “Coach Infante taught us how to work like men while we were kids.
“My former teammates and I bond all the time over how the work habits we developed playing for Coach Infante have carried us through college and now into the real world. I can’t wait to see where we all end up, especially Coach. He will succeed at the highest level.”
As the new head honcho, Roken fully expects a seamless transition.
“Pressure is self-inflicted,” said Roken, one of Infante’s first hires nine years ago. “Preparation prepares us to not think twice about it. We have always had a ‘next man up’ mentality. We all share the same values as Gabe; it’s become a culture. We’re family. None of that has changed.”
In a statement, Prep athletic director Dennis Hart said he is “incredibly grateful” to Infante. "He ran a program of which we could all be proud, on and off the field, and though I am sorry to see him go, I am happy to see him take this next step professionally."
Senior running back Marques Mason, the Prep’s leading scorer this season with 18 touchdowns, said Temple players are in good hands.
“It think it’s great for him,” said Mason. “I’m happy for him receiving this opportunity and I think he is going to be very successful.”
He’s not alone.
(John Knebels can be reached at Jknebels@gmail.com or on Twitter @johnknebels.)