Longtime running coach recalls his tenure at Bloomfield High School

Photo by Daniel Jackovino
Paul Williams, above, has fond memories of serving as Bloomfield High’s running coach from 1961 to 2002.

BLOOMFIELD, NJ — One afternoon last week, Paul Williams, 85, related his experiences serving as Bloomfield High School’s running coach. He had been head coach for cross-country, indoor track and outdoor track from 1961 to 2002.

Born in Jersey City, he moved with his family to Dearborn, Mich., due to his father’s employment with Ford Motor Co. Time passed and the family moved back to New Jersey in time for Williams to attend Bloomfield South Middle School and BHS, which he graduated from in 1954. In high school, Williams ran on teams he would later coach; he was on a mile relay team that ran in Madison Square Garden. Williams recalled another future BHS coach who was part of that relay: Jim White, who died a few years ago. White coached girls basketball and boys soccer.

Williams attended Northwestern University and majored in mathematics. He graduated in 1958, spent three years in the service, and returned to BHS in 1961.

“I became a math teacher,” he said. “I replaced a pregnant woman in the middle of the year. They used to have a rule that students could not see a pregnant woman. That wouldn’t stand up in court now for five minutes.”

Williams became a BHS math teacher in the middle of the 1960-61 school year, and he said he became the cross-country coach when he got there.

“I got that job right away because they had a ridiculous rule (that) an administrator could not coach, and the cross-country coach, Pete Wilson, was the vice principal,” he said. “He died a couple of years ago. He was 93 or 94, and we were friends.”

Williams also started coaching indoor and outdoor track his first year at BHS. The indoor team practiced on the third floor and still does; but now, in the expanded school, there is room to run hurdles on a straightaway.

“They have a good program,” he said. “The coach, Terry Iavarone, is very good.”

Williams said the biggest change in coaching during his tenure was the addition of girls.

“That came in the late 1970s,” he said. “I asked for a long time for a female assistant. I wasn’t about to go into the girls locker room to break up a fight.”

But as for the difference between coaching girls and coaching boys, Williams said it depended on the dedication of the individual athlete. 

“Sometimes the girls are more dedicated than the boys,” he said. “And then there are girls who come out for the team to get a date to the prom.” 

Williams said he enjoyed coaching the girls, and one, Nancy Deneka, became a state champion in the early ’80s.

“Girls have to be paced differently when coaching them,” he said. “The girls who are dedicated can do the same workout as the boys, but at a slower pace. Some girls are amazing.”

Whether coaching boys or girls, Williams said a coach must be able to estimate what the individual can handle.

He said that students who go out for running sports are different from other student athletes. 

“Overall, they are better students,” he said. “I seldom lost a youngster who became academically ineligible. You can’t have a bad student on an athletic team anymore.”

As for primary competitors against Bloomfield, it was Belleville and Nutley — not Montclair, which Williams said was perennially better in sports than Nutley, Belleville and Bloomfield.

Among the runners, he remembered George Drew, Jeff Hartke and Nick Zungoli, who graduated in 1969 along with Tom Fleming, winner of the first NYC Marathon. Williams noted Joe Konarkowski as another good distance runner.

“Unfortunately, both Joe and Tommy are dead,” he said. “Tommy was the best overall. He was ranked in the world and went further than the rest.”

Williams currently serves as an official at BHS running competitions, but if he had to coach today, he recognizes that youngsters are very different from youngsters of 30 or 40 years ago.

“I’ve seen them say ‘no’ to their coach,” he said. “Not all of them, but some. And they’re backed up by their parents.”

According to Williams, parental interference is far more prevalent in high school sports today.

“Maybe it’s me,” he said. “I’m so set in my ways. Maybe I haven’t evolved as I should have. In my mind, it’s 30 or 40 years ago. The kids have changed; I haven’t.”

Williams will soon have the opportunity to test that, because he has been invited to the 20th reunion of a BHS girls relay team. Williams wonders if he will recognize anyone.

“It’s been 20 years,” he said.