Frank Campo freely admits he’s not the most famous person to ever come out of Penns Grove.
That honor probably goes to Hollywood actor Bruce Willis.
Campo, however, has done OK. This month, he began his 43rd — and final — year as an Atlantic City High School teacher, coach and athletic director. Campo, 65, will retire at the end of the school year.
“It’s my love of high school sports,” Campo said about why he chose his career and has stayed at Atlantic City all these years. “You see how important athletics are to inner-city youth. I recognize that and all the values they get from sports. I always hoped that I would contribute to that.”
Campo has been an instrumental part of the Atlantic City sports scene. He can often be spotted kneeling along the baseline, a walkie-talkie in his hand in the final seconds of another intense Vikings boys basketball game.
Atlantic City boys basketball is one of the state’s premier programs, and it’s not easy to be the head coach. The team is treated almost like a college or professional team. Wins are expected.
Atlantic City coach Gene Allen said Campo has helped him grow.
“He’s allowed me some autonomy, but at the same time he’s steered me through some very difficult times,” Allen said of Campo. “He’s so organized and ahead of the game. He loves Atlantic City sports as much as anybody.”
Under Campo’s leadership, few schools have done as much to bolster local high school sports as Atlantic City. The Vikings have hosted Cape-Atlantic League and South Jersey basketball title games. They’ve hosted the Cape-Atlantic League swimming and track and field championships.
Campo is easy to overlook. He usually doesn’t wear a tie. He shuffles from spot to spot.
“He reminds me of Columbo,” said Mike Gatley, Mainland Regional’s athletic director and president of the Cape-Atlantic League. “This guy knows the NJSIAA (New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association) rules. He knows our rules. I would say he’s the most respected guy in our league. Frank brings up things, and after he does you say, ‘Wow, I really didn’t think about that.’”
Life at Atlantic City is anything but routine. The school has a diverse population and high-profile teams and programs.
“One of my favorite sayings is that 26 years of experience can be one year repeated 26 times,” Campo said. “That’s not the case at Atlantic City. Every year is unique. Every year, you learn something new.”
Campo is valued in the local sports community for his opinions on high school sports issues and problems. There isn’t much he hasn’t seen or experienced at Atlantic City.
While growing up in Penns Grove, Campo worked picking peaches or catching muskrats. He sometimes saw Willis, now 58, at neighborhood parties.
“Everybody knew the Willis family,” Campo said. “I saw (Bruce Willis) once in a while at my friend’s house in Carneys Point. Nobody knew he was going to become a big actor.”
Although Campo lived in Salem County, his family always had ties to Atlantic City. His father, Frank Sr., graduated from Atlantic City High School in 1935 and was class president. Campo’s uncle, Fred, also graduated from Atlantic City and stayed in the area.
Those connections helped Campo get the Atlantic City job. His uncle knew longtime Atlantic City Superintendent Jack Eisenstein, who died in 2008.
Campo coached football and track and field when he first arrived at Atlantic City. He entertained students by doing triceps dips between desks.
He became the athletic director in 1986. He rarely sits still during Atlantic City sporting events. He checks with ticket sellers and security and occasionally watches the game. He gets up early in the morning and is often one of the earliest arrivals at the school.
“People can call me whatever they want, but I don’t think anybody is going to say I’m lazy,” he said.
The biggest challenges he faces are dealing with parents and their unrealistic expectations for their children’s athletic careers. He — like all athletic directors — must keep up with new laws and regulations. In the past five years alone, there have been new rules on how to deal with concussions and heat acclimation.
“There’s more and more paperwork,” he said.
For all he’s done, Campo does admit to one mistake. He didn’t think Allen was ready to coach the Vikings boys basketball team when Allen was hired in 2003. All Allen did was win a state title in his second season — the first in the program’s history.
“I just didn’t think he was ready,” Campo said with a laugh. “He proved me wrong. I’m not afraid to admit it.”
Allen laughed when he was told what Campo said.
“We discussed that,” Allen said, “but he’s always been as helpful as possible. I could see some guys having a chip on their shoulder. But that was never the case with him.”
Campo’s cluttered office is located just off the gym. The pictures on the wall tell part of the history of Atlantic City High School sports. There are photos of some of the Vikings’ greatest athletes, including basketball player Lou Roe and swimmer Colleen Callahan.
Campo probably could have gotten jobs at other schools, but he never left Atlantic City. He said the school administration and the Atlantic City Board of Education have always supported sports.
“It’s the support and the people I get to know,” Campo said. “That’s what kept me there. I’ve met some really great people.”
Campo lives in Absecon with his wife, Karin. They have two sons — Michael, 36, and Matthew, 22 — and two grandchildren.
Campo had talked about retiring the past few years. He says now just feels like the right time to step away. He has watched Atlantic City teams win some of the most dramatic games in local high school history.
But he calls that just an added bonus. What means the most to him is meeting successful Atlantic City graduates and athletes.
“I’ve been here so long,” he said. “We’ve had so many student-athletes. You see what they’ve become. They cover myriad of lifestyles and occupations. They go from police officers to lawyers to doctors. I love to win — believe me. But it’s not the overall objective. I appreciate more when I run into (Atlantic City graduates). They’re all over the country right now. That’s what’s important to me.”
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