Fran St. John thinks back to when he was a head basketball coach at Wildwood Catholic High School.
“I live on Madison Avenue (in Cape May) and there were times I got so wrapped up in thinking about the game when I was driving home that I’d go past my house and not realize it until I got the promenade (along the Cape May beachfront) and I’d have to turn around and go back,” St. John said with a laugh. “Now that I’m an assistant, I never miss my house anymore. I’m able to let (the game) go and go right home.”
St. John has experienced that drive home from the school’s North Wildwood campus to Cape May hundreds of the times. One of the most iconic figures in the history of Wildwood Catholic, St. John is currently in his 50th season of basketball at the school. He now assists Steve DiPatri with the Crusader girls team after two long and successful tenures as the head boys and girls basketball coach at the school and a productive high school playing career back in the 1950s.
“The professionalism he brings every day, his presence – he’s almost like a larger than life figure at Wildwood Catholic in some regards,” said Pat McCabe, who played for St. John and scored 1,371 career points in the early 1990s and later coached for 16 seasons at Wildwood Catholic, alongside St. John during his first season. He also taught with St. John at Margaret Mace Elementary School in North Wildwood. “He’s been a constant. You always know what you’re going to get. He represents a lot of what Wildwood Catholic stands for – the family values, the loyalty and the commitment to community.”
St. John began coaching at Wildwood Catholic in the early 1960s as an assistant with the boys basketball program under Frank McAlarnen. That came after a fruitful playing career at the school that resulted in a South Jersey Parochial C championship as a senior in 1956. St. John and the Crusaders went on to lose to Union Catholic in the state championship game.
“I remember it snowed like crazy and we had to go all the way up to Rutgers,” St. John recalled of the state title game. “Union Catholic was only about 30 minutes away but they had problems getting there. I remember we had to wait and wait and wait for them to get there. And then we ended up losing.”
After a handful of seasons under McAlarnen – who was officially inducted posthumously into the South Jersey Basketball Hall of Fame last weekend – St. John took over the program at Wildwood Catholic for the 1968-69 season. He did so because McAlarnen – whom to this day St. John still refers as “Mr. McAlarnen” – was forced to step aside due to health issues.
St. John coached at Catholic while a teacher and later a guidance counselor at Margaret Mace. He landed at Margaret Mace – where he, remarkably, spent 47 years – after two years of teaching at Bridgeton Junior High School.
St. John attended Mt. St. Mary’s College in Maryland, where he once tried out for the basketball team. He took himself out of contention for a roster spot after only one day.
“I remember the tryouts,” St. John said, smiling. “I went the first day and I thought I did pretty well. But then I got a 54 on a history test so I knew I probably shouldn’t be playing basketball. If I had to go back to Cape May having failed out of school … that would have been awful.”
St. John coached the Crusader boys team for a total of 23 seasons over two different stints. He posted a 306-283 career record and led the team to the 1988 South Jersey Non-Public B championship and a handful of division titles.
He stepped down when his son, Jeff, entered high school, because he said he didn’t feel right being the head coach with his son in the program. He didn’t stay away long, becoming an assistant coach under Champ McGaffney. He was part of the coaching staff when Jeff, a 1999 graduate, finished his career with 1,071 career points. Jeff went on to graduate from Georgetown University and Harvard Law School and is now an attorney in South Carolina.
Soon thereafter, St. John returned as head coach, switching to the girls program. He went 143-128 over 11 seasons.
Only three head coaches have won more basketball games in Cape-Atlantic League history than St. John’s combined 449 – current boys coaches Paul Rodio of St. Augustine and Tom Feraco of Middle Township and former Pleasantville coach Ken Leary. St. John was the first person in CAL basketball history to win at least 100 games as a boys coach and as a girls coach.
After stepping down as girls head coach, he didn’t stay away long again, returning as an assistant first under Vicki Dilmore. He remained on staff when DiPatri took over three years ago.
“When I left I found out I really missed it so I got right back in it when I got the opportunity,” St. John said. “It’s really been great working with Steve and (fellow assistant) Colleen (McNulty) and Vicki before them. After all the practices and all the games, the thing I love the most about coaching is that you’ll always see something you never saw before and you’ll always have a chance to learn more about the game.
“It’s different being an assistant but I like it. Sometimes I see things and I’ll tell Steve and he might take it or he might not. As an assistant you try to see things that maybe no one else is looking for. The girls game is a little slower than the boys but it’s still a fast game and the more eyes you have on the game the better.”
In DiPatri and St. John, Wildwood Catholic has a pair of coaches on its bench with more than 850 combined high school head coaching victories.
“I first met ‘Saint’ when I started coaching at Sacred Heart in 1998 and we hit it off right away,” DiPatri said. “I always had the utmost respect for him because he knows so much about the game. I was more than thrilled and excited to get the opportunity to coach with him. He’s made me a better coach and has greatly helped the girls achieve success both on and off the court.”
St. John, 77, stopped making plans about his coaching future a long time ago.
“I just keep going,” he said. “I always wait until after the season’s over to decide what to do for the next year so I can take the emotion out of it. But I would never say I’m going to do this one more year or two more years or however long. I decide after each year.”
But he certainly doesn’t sound like a man who’s ready to walk away.
“It’s still fun,” he said. “If it wasn’t I wouldn’t still be doing it. I still enjoy coming to practice. I enjoy the games a lot more. The yellow bus rides (to away games), they get long. But I think a lot of coaches who’ve done it for a while would say the same thing.
“As you get older, the more you keep moving, the better off you are,” he added with a smile. “If I wasn’t here, what would I be doing?”
Those who experienced or know of St. John’s coaching style from long ago all say he has softened with age.
“He’s mellowed a lot,” McCabe said with a laugh. “When we played for him we were terrified of him. I thought he was one of the craziest people in the world because he demanded so much from us. He wanted us to be perfect in our execution and to perform at a high level all the time.
“But I think for a lot of us we were more afraid to let him down more than anything else because he was like a father figure to us. When I got to teach with him at Margaret Mace, it blew my mind to see all these little kids running up and wrapping their arms around him and hugging him. I was amazed at that. After all these years I was afraid of the guy and these little kids just loved him.”
During St. John’s early stints as boys coach at Catholic, he was famous for his marathon weekend practices that tested the physical and mental abilities of all of his players. These days, he’s better known as the coach who buys the players small gifts or hands out gum prior to games.
“My freshman year, he bought all the freshmen on the team teddy bears with our numbers on them,” said Katie Fiore, a senior forward on this year’s Crusader team. “He’s really, really nice and he’s very motivational and he’s really funny. He coached my dad (Fran in the mid to late 1980s) and my dad was terrified of him. When I go home and talk about him, my dad jokes all the time, ‘Is this the same man we’re talking about?’”
There are two basic reasons St. John has been involved in basketball at Wildwood Catholic in some capacity for 50 years – he loves the game and he loves the school.
“The one thing I really like about Wildwood Catholic is attitude,” he said. “Our players all come from good families and they’ve instilled good attitudes and respect in their kids. It’s always been that way here. That’s what I cherish the most. I love the attitude and the respect these kids at Wildwood Catholic show, not just to the coaches but to each other.”