John Bruno jokes that the 1990s don’t seem so long ago.
The Mass cards of deceased friends and relatives he keeps in his back pocket during every game he coaches say differently.
Bruno, 61, is in his 30th season as the Ocean City High School boys basketball coach. He also teaches AP Psychology at Ocean City.
“Each year when the season ends,” he said, “it’s such a heartbreak. When you have that last game with seniors, that’s what makes you want to come back — to coach that next group.”
High school coaches such as Bruno are getting harder and harder to find. Parental complaints, the pressure to win and administrative duties can age coaches quickly. Most of the coaches Bruno competed against when he first started are retired.
“It’s getting harder for the younger coaches to stay,” Bruno said, “with all the outside noise that sometimes can come along.”
Bruno took over the Red Raiders in the 1989-90 season. He’s coached good teams, mediocre teams and sub-.500 teams.
Ocean City improved to 9-2 after Thursday night’s 67-63 overtime win over Lower Cape May Regional. Bruno’s career record is 400-347.
He coached the Red Raiders to the 1999 South Jersey Group III championship and the 2010 Cape-Atlantic League title.
“Losses are what hurt,” Bruno said. “But that’s what keeps you going back. You want to see if you can fix some of those things. I’m still very happy for the kids when they win. I enjoy the looks on their faces.”
Bruno grew up in West Chester, Pennsylvania. It wasn’t the beach that drew him to Ocean City, but the resort’s outdoor courts that are renowned for their summer pickup games.
His first job in Ocean City?
“I was a trashman,” he said.
Bruno worked his way through the coaching ranks. He was an assistant at Egg Harbor Township High School and coached the boys team at Jordan Road School in Somers Point before getting the Ocean City job.
His family is a big part of what he does. His wife, Karen, still attends just about every game he coaches. Their daughters, Chelsea, 27, and Jillian, 22, have a passion for sports. Chelsea coaches field hockey at West Potomac High School in Alexandria, Virginia.
“To last this long,” Bruno said, “your family has to be in the game with you.”
Another reason Bruno has survived 30 seasons is his love of the sport.
Two days after Christmas, he was in the stands watching games at the Boardwalk Basketball Classic in Wildwood.
The Bruno family finally took a mini vacation last Thanksgiving. They drove to Florida to watch Villanova University play at Walt Disney World.
“I could watch an afternoon of games,” he said, “without even blinking an eye.”
But as the seasons wear on, life has a way of making everyone feel old.
Bruno’s mom, Lillian, passed away Dec. 14, 2017. His brother Ricky died Dec. 2. Two more mass cards for his back pocket.
“We’ve had a lot of family support,” Bruno said. “I miss the fact that they’re not still here to share in it.”
But coaching and sports also have a way of keeping you young. Ask the referees whom Bruno has steady advice for during games if they feel he’s lost any passion.
Bruno plans to keep coaching. In the end, 30 years of relationships are just as important as wins and losses, probably more so.
“I’ve won my share of games. I’ve lost my share of games,” Bruno said. “Over the years, I think it’s the friendships that I’ve had that make it well worth it.”
Michael McGarry’s Must Win column appears Fridays in The Press.