Darkness set in on the Southern Regional High School practice field, making a chilly and wet Tuesday afternoon even colder.

Football coach Chuck Donohue asked an assistant how much time was left in practice. Five minutes, he was told.

Donohue wasn’t looking to wrap things up, though. On the contrary, he barked out plays until the last second.

Donohue and many coaches around the area will take the field today for Thanksgiving Day rivalry games, and while it’s not even their “day job,” they live for this.

“Other than family and friends, this is the most important thing in my life,” the 63-year-old Donohue said after a recent practice, sitting in his office next to the school gym where he teaches physical education during the day.

High school football coaches are paid a yearly stipend — ranging from $5,000 to $15,000 in New Jersey, Donohue said. Even if they have anything left after all the out-of-pocket expenses associated with doing the job well, it doesn’t come close to compensating them for the hours that they work year-round.

Still, the job has appeal. A large portion of the 20-plus people who expressed interest in St. Augustine Prep’s open coaching job last offseason were NCAA Division I college assistants, athletic director Dennis Foreman said. Foreman eventually hired Villanova University defensive coordinator Mark Reardon.

“There’s not one coach out there who’s doing it for the money if they have any desire to be excellent,” Foreman said.

Tale of the tape

Donohue’s week starts with a 9 a.m. tape-study session on the 55-inch TV in his basement in Stafford Township on Sunday. He spends at least eight hours that first day studying game tape of his opponents — most of whom he has seen in person already on scouting trips whenever his own team isn’t playing.

Like in any other high school sport, football coaches are paid for practices and games. When they go on scouting trips, study tape in their free time, run offseason conditioning programs and attend coaching clinics, their only reward is the satisfaction of doing the job well.

But there are advantages over college and professional coaching positions, namely job stability and far less travel.

Reardon took the St. Augustine job to be closer to his home in Margate after spending seven years at Villanova. His full-time job now is working as a college counselor, but Foreman said the coach often can be found watching tape at 5 a.m.

More so than perhaps any other high school sport, football requires a coach who is more than just a teacher looking for money on the side. The position requires more work, and it’s also high-profile.

Many area high school coaches could be at the collegiate level if they wanted to. Donohue nearly accepted a position at the University of Cincinnati in the 1970s and has had several other opportunities throughout the years.

Absegami coach Dennis Scuderi Jr. was Rutgers University’s director of recruiting operations before returning to the high school ranks, where he previously had coached Middle Township. Scuderi, 34, almost left again last year to be Kent State’s recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach. But the father of 3-year-old twins changed his mind and decided high school — and his home in Brigantine — was where he wanted to be.

“I know that might sound crazy to some people, and I know coaches at this level that will work their entire lives just to have a chance (at a big-time college program),” Scuderi said. “But at the end of the day, for my goals and who I am, I like the high school level much better.”

Attention to detail

On Mondays, Donohue has his players study tape, lift weights and walk through the plays they plan to run in the next game. They implement the game plan in mid-week practices.

The day before the game, the Rams have a shorter practice in their stadium. Donohue barks at a quarterback for waiting one second too long to throw. He praises a receiver for leaving enough space on his route for a catch to the outside.

That attention to detail often is the mark of a great coach.

“He does everything you need to do as a coach,” Southern quarterback Dan Higgins said. “When we get on the field, he doesn’t let one second go (to waste). He’s always pushing us to be our best.”

Donohue is 224-149-4 in his head-coaching career, which started in 1974 at St. Joseph in Hammonton. He also has coached at Buena Regional and Haddon Heights, becoming the first coach in state history to lead four programs to the state playoffs and sectional championship games.

But Donohue said he’s not in it for the wins.

“There’s got to be a purpose in high school football more than winning, because it’s really hard to win,” Donohue said. “Some of the fondest memories I have are the kids that weren’t that good.”

Staying humble

On game day, there’s not much left to do except wait — which Donohue says can be torture for night games.

The coach locks up the equipment room and heads up to the stadium about an hour before game time, shaking hands and acknowledging well-wishers on the way.

High school football coaches often are revered in their communities.

When St. Joseph coach Paul Sacco was going to lose his job as a physical education teacher due to budget cuts in 1991, about 200 students protested by walking out of classes. Sacco eventually kept his job and has won 14 state titles since then.

“I guess at that point I realized that I meant a lot to those kids and those families and that program. I’m very humbled by it,” said Sacco, who has turned down several college jobs.

But Donohue never acted like a big shot with his children — sons Chuck Jr. and Jim, and daughter Alon. Chuck Jr., 41, said he never realized his father’s importance to South Jersey football until he started working with him at Southern.

“He never made us feel like he was this big-time person,” said Donohue Jr., Southern’s athletic director. “We just knew him as dad.”

Sacco, 55, is similarly humble. He said he doesn’t consider himself the face of St. Joseph, but he feels a sense of responsibility to the community. Last year, he appeared in a television commercial to promote safe driving shortly after the car accident that took the lives of four Mainland Regional players.

“As a head coach, you have to play so many roles,” Sacco said. “When I first started, I said, ‘You know, I’m just the coach and I’m a weightlifting instructor.’ … But I found out real quick that besides a coach you’ve got to be a father figure, you have to be a disciplinarian, you’ve got to be a shoulder to cry on, you’ve got to be a lawyer, you’ve got to be a teacher. There are so many things to it.”

Contact Jason Mazda:

609-272-7193