Mike Papero watches as Hamilton West runs through a running play during preseason practice. Photo by Rich Fisher.
By Rich Fisher
Aug. 26: The roads that Hamilton Township’s newest high school football coaches took to reach their current status could not have been more different.
The one important similarity was a fierce passion for the game.
Mike Papero grew up a mile from Hamilton West and knew he wanted to coach the Hornets before he even knew how to shave. He attended Division III Rowan but did not play because he actually wanted to start learning about coaching. Milo McGuire was raised some 450 miles away from Nottingham High and went through several jobs and locations before taking over the Northstars. He played Division I-A football at Wake Forest.
But here they are, scant miles apart from each other running their own programs for the first time and being endorsed by those who count the most – administrators, parents, assistant coaches and players. Their initial meeting as head honchos will be Oct. 19 at Nottingham.
Papero takes over after playing for Hamilton and serving as an assistant for Tom Hoglen, who stepped down after 17 years. He used to carry wires for Keith Hartbauer’s staff as a little kid, which is when he realized he wanted to be Hartbauer someday.
“He has the passion to do those little things that are gonna make him successful,” Athletic Director John Costantino said. “He was around here when we went to the state championships, when we did all those things under Hartbauer and in the early 2000s. He’s seen both parts of it.”
Hornets defensive coordinator Tom Dolina played next to Papero on the offensive line in the early 2000s and knew back then where the Meatball Master was destined.
“There were definitely other viable candidates but he’s the guy that had it in his heart and I think everyone who hired him knew that,” Dolina said. “We talk to the kids about when you go out there you gotta want it more, and he wanted this job more than anybody and he got it.
“A lot of guys have passion for things but he’s a fanatic about Hamilton football. He loves it. You can’t do something like this if you don’t absolutely love it. Plus football-wise he’s a tactician. He coached the offensive line and we consistently had guys who were maybe not national football players but he got them ready. He loves the game and he’s a student of the game. He brings the passion for it but also brings the technical side of it; the little things that make a difference.”
Papero also brings his own personal marketing department with him. Once he took over the program, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram had non-stop postings about Hamilton West football as the new man looks to publicize his beloved program.
“Not only is he selling that brand, he’s living it,” Dolina said. “He’s backing it up with what he’s doing. When he’s out there on social media, re-branding our logo for the football helmet, we’re starting a new day. We’re starting a new tradition here. Winning begets winning and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
“People are excited,” Papero said. “Sometimes it’s just something new or something different that kind of elicits a little excitement, whether it’s selling new merchandise, changing the logo on the helmet, getting the kids new equipment, everybody seems pretty excited. That’s good to see because this community does want to follow this football team.”
Papero inherits a group that has some talent and has been buying in to what the staff has been selling. He credits the coaches who came before him, who he coached and played under, as major influences. But it will still be Papero’s stamp on the new era.
“As a young assistant coach, you start to see other
guys put together things that work and don’t work. That kind of formulates what
you’re gonna be as a coach or things you’re gonna try as a coach. Whether they
work or not for you is a different story. I think that’s the exciting part is
you bring a new energy to the program.”
And then there is McGuire, who grew up with the entire state of Pennsylvania in between his hometown and Hamilton Township. Milo was raised in the football-crazed burg of Massillon, Ohio and went to Massillon High School. He shares the same alma mater as Paul Brown, who coached the Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals but started by coaching Massillon. McGwire played in Paul Brown Stadium for a program that has amassed 880 wins and 22 state titles. Massillon played before sold-out crowds of nearly 17,000.
Safe to say, it’s a little different in Mercer County.
“It was hard core at Massillon,” McGuire said. “It was like Friday Night Lights every day. It shows you the whole (football) world. Then you come here and it’s not quite like that. You want to strive to get there to make it like that.”
Can the adrenaline still flow in this environment?
“Even more,” McGuire said. “I have a point to prove that I’m supposed to be here, and we’re supposed to win. If my blood’s not pumping, I’m in the wrong business.”
It took a while for him to find the right business, as McGuire’s professional career wandered a bit after college. While still in Ohio he worked at Enron, sold cars and worked at a Boys & Girls Club. He came to New Jersey and became a youth worker at a detention center in Newark and finally got into teaching at Bogota in 2003 After assistant coaching jobs in North Jersey, he came to Reynolds Middle School, began coaching various sports at Nottingham and became a valuable member of Jon Adams’ staff.
When Adams was laid up last year he made McGuire the “active” head coach, and when the Big Dawg stepped down after 29 years to become athletic director, he and most everyone else wanted Milo to have the job. There were other potential candidates, but none would be in the building, which is key.
“I’ve seen Milo over the years have potential as a head coach because of his leadership abilities,” Adams said. “He’s very organized in how he ran the defenses and things on his side of the ball (as defensive coordinator). Last year I empowered him. When I got certified (to be AD) I just saw Milo as the best candidate. He was always the guy. A young guy, a good man who has the right values in what he’s trying to instill in our football team.”
One of the Northstars long-time assistants, Bob Harris, a former head coach at McCorristin (now Trenton Catholic), feels McGuire brings nothing but good qualities to the position.
“He has high energy, high intelligence for the game, a compassion,” Harris said. “Not only a compassion but a compassion for the kids he coached. There’s kids you’re gonna scream and yell at and also he’ll coddle them up too. That’s a plus either way. You gotta set a young man straight and like all good coaches you can yell and blow somebody’s head up in terms of screaming and hollering at them, but by the end of the day, you’re hugging that kid and telling him why they did it. And they learn something. He invests something into these kids every day. They learn a little bit every day, you put it all together as a life lesson.”
McGuire and Papero both learned their lessons well on their way to head coach status. They were just taught on different roads.