Pascack Valley Regional High School in northern New Jersey is one of those curious phenomena of sprawling suburbia—the high school without a town. Four communities have a hand in Pascack Valley—Hillsdale, Woodcliff Lake, Montvale and Rivervale; they banded together in 1955 to build a high school of their own. This produced some problems of divided loyalties, but most of all, says Superintendent James McNeil, it produced "a pursuit of excellence."
"We were starting a completely new high school," McNeil said the other day, "so we had no tradition of mediocrity, no outdated mores to uphold. The parents wanted excellence, and they were willing to pay for it."
One of the teachers they paid for was Joe Talamo (above), a graying, forthright football coach who has pursued excellence with astonishing results. Now in his fourth full season as Pascack coach, Talamo has won 31 games, lost one, tied two. The single loss came on Thanksgiving Day 1958, when one star back left the game with injuries, and another was banished for fighting. In track, which he coaches in the nonfootball season, Talamo has a record of 43 won, 3 lost, including 27 straight dual-meet victories. Before coming to Pascack, he coached freshman and junior varsity teams at Memorial High School, West New York, N.J. His lifetime football record ("this is gonna shock you"): 146 wins, 3 losses, 2 ties.
McNeil and Talamo toss around words like excellence and character as if they were the special property of Pascack Valley Regional. According to McNeil, "The spirit of excellence permeates the whole school. A winning football team? Certainly, we're proud of it, but no more than we're proud of our math courses and our science program. Our students can get into any college. Why, last year we had a boy turn down Princeton to go to Stanford. Our goal is to do everything to the very best of our ability. That is our constant pursuit of excellence.
"In athletics, as in everything else, we aim for participation," said McNeil. "Our track team last year had 125 boys. They called us the Green Wave and said we were trying to overwhelm them with numbers. But it's important for a boy to play his role as a male, to put on his track suit as a member of a team. That's his status symbol, you know."
On the way to the coach's office, I glanced around the halls, furtively searching for someone who was doing something other than pursuing excellence. The students seemed caught up in routine school tasks—opening lockers, talking and laughing, fidgeting in class as teacher talked.
Coach Talamo leaned on the edge of his desk and said: "Plays don't win this game. I don't do anything different—no laterals, no tricky stuff, just dives and off-tackle plays. You know we didn't even complete a pass in our first four games? That's right. You've just got to live this game. You've got to have real teamwork, not just play together. It's a matter of character. That's what we've got—no more talent, no more plays, no more coaching ability than anyone else. Just more character."
The development of character at Pascack is not left to chance. Each position on the team (left end, left tackle, etc.) has a senior "big brother." He is actually assistant coach, player and wet nurse rolled into one. "The big brother helps his guys with their plays, their homework and even gets them dates," Talamo explained. The coach lets his senior lettermen write the squad's training rules: " 'You make 'em, you abide by 'em,' I tell my kids, and the rules come out twice as strict as I would've made 'em. And now the parents don't complain that we're being too strict."
The rules for 1960 list five "purposes." The first two are to "develop an outstanding team," and "to develop tremendous team morale and cooperation." All told, there are 14 rules, including:
Off the streets and in your home at 9:30 p.m. and in bed at 10:30 p.m.