Last Friday, the Providence Football community was able to honor Coach Gene Sartini (Hon. ’93) one final time in a special on-field ceremony before his funeral. Former players and staff from each of his four decades lined the field and helped escort his casket in a touching tribute. The following is a reprint of an article that appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of the Vision magazine, following what was to be his final season at Providence.
By Jon Reiter ’93
Aside from the thousands of young men he’s seen through the ranks, the improvements to the football facilities and dozens of big wins he’s been a part of during his 40 years at the helm of the Providence program, perhaps Gene Sartini’s lasting legacy will have been on the style of football that’s being played in Southern Indiana.
If there has been one criticism of Sartini’s style over the years, it’s that it’s too archaic. That the longtime coach clings stubbornly to playing one style of football, and that he refuses to adapt to the times. But each year, you can always spot a Southern Indiana tailback among the state’s leading rushers – suggesting instead that it’s Sartini who is being modeled, at least in this part of the state.
Sartini’s offensive philosophy is run-first, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t surprisingly intricate. In the early 1990s, Sartini installed a Wing T offense, which can allow two halfbacks, a fullback or the quarterback the ability to run the ball following the snap — done correctly, as the Pioneers have over the years — it completely confuses the opposing defense.
“In the last 10-12 years, the offense Coach uses has morphed into the Wing T, but there is still the same smash-mouth style of offense,” said Matt Theobald ’92, who played for Providence and is now head coach at Hanover College. “It is sprint to the line, snap the ball, and get on your guys and let the running back wear you down and control the clock.”
But on both sides of the football, in practice and off the field, Sartini and the rest of the Providence coaching staff – including long-time assistants Gary Rosenberger ’59 and Ed Jackson – are looking for a certain set of intangibles in a Providence football player. Is the kid coachable? Does he try hard? Is he willing to learn?
“When Coach looks at you, he looks at you as a football player, more than just a position,” said Joe Nichols ’90, who also played for Sartini and was head coach at Dupont Manual High School in Louisville. “If you’re used to playing in one spot, and he thinks going somewhere else on the field is going to benefit the team, he’ll figure that out too.”
Instinct, passion key to success
But Sartini hasn’t just relied on his instincts over the years to craft his football squads, which include five sectional champions and two state runners-up. Former players and opposing coaches say that preparation has been just as much of a key for the Pioneers over the years.
“He has modeled, with a relentless passion, leadership, loyalty, work ethic and a competitive spirit on his many players,” said former Jeffersonville coach Bill Ware (1981 to 1999). “I always knew that Gene’s teams would be well-prepared, physical, and very well-coached.”
Discipline, on and off the field, is another component of the Providence football player. Kids are treated as students first, and if they’re not making the grades, they’re spectators, not players. Every Saturday morning, Sartini hosts the “Blue Crew,” which is an organized study time for players who might be struggling with their classwork. Sartini admits that the program isn’t always popular with the players, who grumble about having to come back to the school on a Saturday morning — but it’s the price they have to pay to participate on Friday nights.
“The type of player Coach’s system produces will be tough both physically and mentally,” Theobald said. “They will know what it means to be in shape and understand the fundamentals of the game. Providence kids at the college level or in real life are well-prepared for the field and in the classroom. I know when I was a player, and still today, Coach stresses the importance of both.”
Sartini’s successor will have some large shoes to fill, not just at Providence, but throughout the Southern Indiana football community as well. Sartini, who won 268 games while at Providence, was elected to the Indiana High School Hall of Fame in 2004.
“He’s a great coach and has enjoyed an amazing career,” Ware said. “His influence will impact the community for many years to come. He’s brought honor, pride, and distinction to Providence High School, and is deserving of all the recognition he gets.”
Click here for a collection of videos from the special on-field tribute to Coach Sartini.