Joe Grasso, who guided the Bishop Maginn varsity football program during its entire varsity existence, died Sunday of a heart attack. He was 66.
Bishop Maginn did not field a varsity team this fall. Grasso, a 1968 graduate of Cardinal McCloskey, joined the Christian Brothers Academy staff as an assistant. He was on the sidelines Friday with the Brothers during their 44-8 victory over Niskayuna.
Troy coach Bobby Burns, who works with Grasso's son Mike, who is Troy's offensive coordinator, said Joe Grasso did not attend Sunday's CBA coaches meeting in the morning.
CBA football coach Joe Burke, who played for Grasso at Bishop Maginn and is his nephew, tried to contact his uncle. According to Burns, Grasso's daughter went to his home and found him in bed.
"He was a guy that, even when you played against him, you respected immensely," Burns said. "Joe was just a stand-up guy."
"This is a loss for the Section II coaching fraternity, and Section II athletics as a whole," Albany second-year football coachJoey DiPiazza said.
Burke said his family is devastated.
"Joe was a leader in Catholic education in the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese, specifically at Bishop Maginn High School, for 40 years," Burke said. "As a teacher, administrator, athletic director and coach, he touched the lives of thousands of students, athletes and their families. He also molded hundreds of young teachers and coaches as they began their careers."
Grasso was the only coach Bishop Maginn varsity football ever had, leading the Golden Griffins from the school's inception in 1977 through 2015. Prior to that, he coached Vincentian Institute in its final two years in 1975 and 1976.
Grasso was one of the five coaches inducted into the inaugural class of the Capital Region Football Hall of Fame in 2010. The others were Brent Steuerwald (Shenendehowa), Blase Iuliano (Saratoga), Ken Baker (Hoosick Falls/Cambridge) and Bud Kenyon (Hoosick Falls/Greenwich/Guilderland).
When informed of the news of Grasso's death Sunday evening, Steuerwald was stunned.
"He was a very, very fine person and we went back a long ways," Steuerwald said. "I have nothing but high regard for everything he had done. He served on my (Section II football) committee for many, many years. He sat in my dining room with other coaches talking about all the issues with football and what we could do to make it better."
"This is awful," said Nick Fitzgerald, president of the Capital District Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame. "This is such a sad day for Section II."
Fitzgerald served on the Class A football committee with Grasso. When he decided to create the Capital Region Football Hall of Fame, Grasso was someone he realized had to be part of the selection committee.
"We definitely wanted him, not only for his experience, but his knowledge and love for Section II football," Fitzgerald said. "What was so great about Joe is he had such a pulse of the section. He always knew what different programs were doing and what was good for Section II football."
Grasso led Bishop Maginn to a 10-0 record and the Section II Class A title in 1978 — the first year of playoffs in the area when only one playoff game was held in each class. The Golden Griffins beat Bethlehem 28-0 at Bleecker Stadium. Steuerwald served as a color commentator on TV that day, and then led Shenendehowa to titles in 1979 and 1980.
Grasso became the third area coach to reach 200 career wins in 2014. He led Bishop Maginn to a record of 204 wins, 169 losses and six ties.
A few days after Bishop Maginn beat Mohonasen for his 200th career win, Grasso said, "Given the numbers in our school and in our program, we have sort worn the badge of courage of being the underdog — a small school playing in the big leagues. We've done well over the years. We've had our ups and downs."
The last Bishop Maginn team to advance to the Super Bowl came in 2008. The Golden Griffins lost 19-0 against Burnt Hills.
Even though Bishop Maginn's enrollment dwindled and fewer players came out for football, Grasso kept the Golden Griffins viable as a program well into his fourth decade at the school.
"He faced some strong serious challenges and always seemed to find a way to work through them and turn a challenge into a positive. That was a characteristic of his life," Steuerwald said. "If I had something I wanted to talk to him privately about, I could do so with great confidence. Joe would give me his opinion and advice. ... We all had great respect for him. I am shocked by his death. It is truly a shame."
"If you asked something of Joe, he always gave you a straightforward answer," Fitzgerald said. "You knew what he said was authentic. Joe Grasso left his mark every place he went."
"He was a tremendous asset to the CBA football program and specifically to our kids and to our staff," Burke said. "Like all else he did, he immersed himself right in the thick of things. Like many of us who knew Joe well, the young men at CBA, who have only known Coach Grasso for a few months, will struggle with his passing."
Burns echoed a sentiment from the people that knew Grasso well.
"My team and our coaches will be at his service. I can guarantee you that," Burns said. "Joe loved Section II football so much. This is a horrible day."