Remembering Bernie McCracken

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This basketball season has been all about coaching accomplishments.

On Monday night, Feb. 11, St. Augustine Prep defeated Lower Cape May and Paul Rodio became the coach with the most career wins in South Jersey history. Earlier, Wildwood’s Dave Troiano, already the South Jersey girls win leader, notched victory No. 600. And, on Saturday, Feb. 9, Middle Township’s Tom Feraco and Camden Catholic’s Jim Crawford faced off with nearly 1,400 wins between them.

These are the guys who are going to new levels in coaching wins. Along the way they passed some great coaches, including Bernie McCracken of Wildwood, who died last week in Florida. They offered a moment of silence to his memory during the Olympic-Cape Challenge over the weekend.

During two tenures as head coach of the Warriors covering 16 seasons, McCracken’s teams won seven South Jersey championships and two state titles. He was a fiery coach during a game, frequently leaping off the bench with a reaction to an official’s call or a good or bad play by a player. McCracken not only had a knowledge of basketball, he had a passion for the game.

John Pierantozzi, now retired and an officer with the local IAABO board, officiated many Wildwood games.

“Bernie was pretty much the same with officials as he was with his players,” Pierantozzi said. “If you were hustling and in the right spot, he was a little easier on you. But he was as intense as any coach I’ve seen. His teams were always well-coached and respectful on the court. After he retired, he won a few dollars from me on the golf course.”

And Pierantozzi remembers McCracken’s retirement dinner fondly. “They asked me to speak,” he said. “Just before it was my turn I slipped away and put on my referee’s shirt and whistle. I got up to the microphone and said, ‘Coach, I’ve been waiting a long time to do this. You’re outta here.’ I threw him out of his retirement dinner.”     

Jack Boyd, a resident of Northfield and former head coach at Millville and Ocean City, is, like McCracken, a member of the South Jersey Basketball Hall of Fame.

“Bernie was a great coach,” Boyd said, “and a great guy. He knew what to do with the talent he had. I remember Dixie (Howell) telling me that he really made Wildwood tough. We were usually satisfied if we’d split with them. Bernie was a player’s coach and his teams were always ready. I’ve only seen him a few times since he retired and it was always a pleasure talking basketball with him. And about his golf game. When you think of Wildwood basketball, you think of Bernie McCracken.”        

And the final words come from Harry Hayward, one of many great players McCracken coached. He graduated with 1,159 career points, setting new school and county scoring records. He coached high school basketball and taught in Ann Arbor, Mich. until his retirement. He is now an educational consultant and operates many businesses and charitable activities. His memories of McCracken are very clear.

“Coach McCracken came into my life around 1961 when I was in the seventh grade,” Hayward said. “I remember working as a basketball manager for him. I think I was manager for the JV team. The next year in the eighth grade I was elevated to assist as manager for the varsity. It was my excuse to get into the gym each day during the season and shoot the ball at practice. Every so often I had a chance to participate with the JV players when they were short on players. It was a great experience. There was nothing like playing in the tiny sandbox gymnasium with those medal fan-shaped backboards.  

“As I readied for my freshmen year, I realized that the game of basketball had become a great part of my life and I was highly influenced by Coach McCracken – the man, the myth, the legend. During the 1963-64 season, Coach McCracken was elevated to the head coaching job, taking over for Raymond Lynch, and Jay Craven was named JV Coach. We had the best of both worlds, Coach McCracken with the varsity program and Coach Craven with the JV program.

“As a ninth-grader I had an opportunity to start on the JV team and then move up to the varsity to finish out the year going to the state finals and bringing back the gold with a win over Wallington High School in the Atlantic City Convention Hall during March of 1964. State champs 22-3.

“The following year, 1964-65, our expectations were to be a respectable team and work harder than our opponents. I will never forget the wall sign that Coach had in the gym. We will be in better physical shape than any team that we play. That sign stayed on the wall all year-long and nobody even thought about taking it down because they knew who put it up.

“During my sophomore year I had the opportunity to start on the varsity. That was quite a feat. We had some talent on that team – Chuck James, Jimmy Waicus, John VonHagen, Mike Gaines, Mert Campbell, Corey Aspenberg, Bill Callahan and many more. Coach only asked us to work hard. He never used the ‘Win’ word. He knew good things were going to happen if we just followed the program and worked hard.

“Basketball was a game of love for many of us. It was just a given to play basketball. Under the direction and guidance of Coach McCracken we were able to have another great season. We entered the state finals with a 21-1 record. Unfortunately, we were not able to overcome New Providence High School.

“I finished out my career with two decent seasons as a junior and senior. Good things were being developed by the General….Bernie’s Army had arrived, let the battle begin. The Warriors never back down from anyone. We took on all comers and then made them goers.

“As I reflect back on my association with Coach McCracken I can truly say that he was by far the best teacher, coach and person that I knew in the early formative stages of my life. He is solely responsible for me being where I am in my life to this day. I have often thought about this legend – I had developed my teaching style after him, and I developed my basketball coaching style after him. Later in life I just developed my lifestyle after him.

“He provided so many excellent takeaways for all of us to put in our toolbox for life. If you ever need to model yourself after a strong and committed human being, you can never ask for anyone better than Coach McCracken. Coach Craven would come very close behind. And we were blessed to have both of them in our presence.  

Coach McCracken has graciously stepped away from us to give us a chance to reflect on life. As we can see, nothing is guaranteed and life’s time could elapse at any moment. Thanks to the McCracken family for sharing him with us.

“The Wildwood Warrior Nation is heartbroken about the loss of their greatest Warrior leader. The man, the myth, the legend. He may be imitated, never to be duplicated. He was one of a kind in his own special way.”

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