By: Greg Tartaglia – Record Sports Department
Tom Mulligan’s high school has always had the initials “EP”. The inconsistency has been with the football program.
From 1958-72, East Paterson enjoyed a .625 winning percentage (80-48-5) and was awarded three NJSIAA sectional titles in the pre-playoff era.
Since the borough and its school became known as Elmwood Park in 1973, the Crusaders have a .357 winning percentage (153-275-5) on the gridiron. And that includes the ’73 North 1, Group 2 championship, which capped a span of four titles in five years.
“I hear that from the alumni a lot: ‘You should’ve stayed East Paterson’,” Mulligan said with a chuckle.
Entering his sixth season, the 2005 Elmwood Park grad is the second-longest tenured coach in program history behind Ken Karl, whose 11 seasons were split into two stints (1961-68, ’73-75).
Mulligan’s first year ended with a 7-3 record. A 2-35 stretch has followed, including 0-9 last fall.
“Everyone always says, ‘It’s tough to change a losing culture’,” he said. “I kind of see that as an excuse – that’s why the [coaching] turnover rate has been so high here. People don’t want to take that job on and make that long haul.
“The one thing I said when I got the job six years ago: ‘I’m not going anywhere.’ I want to change this culture.”
Not every season since the name change has been a struggle. Elmwood Park won league titles in 1974 and 1976 and reached the 1985 North 1, Group 2 final.
“The teams of the ’70s and ’80s, those guys were no joke,” Mulligan said.
The 1993 squad finished 7-2 and infamously missed the playoffs on a power-point technicality. The 2012-14 teams made three straight postseason appearances with eventual Division I quarterback Mike Dare.
Yet the stigma of two double-digit losing streaks this century – 41 games from 2002-06 and 16 more from 2014-16 – remains tough to shake.
Mulligan stresses the importance of the Crusaders taking pride in their play and the program’s tough-as-nails legacy. Again, the “long haul” is the litmus test.
“It’s easy for everyone to be excited in the summer,” he said, “you haven’t hit any of that adversity yet.”
Coaching turnover at the rec level in town has been an issue as well, but Mulligan has spearheaded stability there, too.
“That 7-3 group [in 2014], I coached them when they were little kids in Pop Warner,” he said. “So, they knew what I was all about – that pride, that family aspect, playing for each other.
“Now, at the rec level, it’s pretty consistent with the coaches that are down there, so that message is going straight through.”
For starters, Elmwood Park wants to get back in the win column, and its optimism is legitimate.
The offensive line returns starters Abe and Tyler Kario, Ryan Briggs and TJ Vandervliet. Eddie Alfieri, one of North Jersey’s top five tacklers in 2018, and Joe Lovera are back at linebacker. And the Crusaders have welcomed Pope John transfer Messiah Muckle, a rising junior receiver.
There is also just one direction to go.
“Up,” Mulligan said. “Just get better every day… go to practice, get yourself better, and know that you gave it all on the field. Because all that stuff is going to translate into those wins.”