Dan Russo is crazy.
I mean that in the best and nicest possible way.
The Vineland High School football coach almost certainly had his sanity questioned when he took over the struggling Fighting Clan in 2013.
Five years later, the program has been transformed.
Vineland won its first playoff game in school history with a 33-0 victory over Toms River North in a South Jersey Group V quarterfinal last Friday. It’s the biggest win in the program’s history in more than 50 years.
Fourth-seeded Vineland plays at top-seeded Williamstown (10-0) in a semifinal 7 p.m. Friday.
“All we’ve been trying to build here is a successful football program,” Russo said. “We’ve laid a good foundation, and we’re still building. We’re starting to peak at the right time.”
Russo deserves a lot of credit for Vineland’s revival.
The Fighting Clan had just two winning seasons from 1991-2013. Vineland was coming off a 2-8 record in 2012.
There wasn’t just one thing wrong with the program when he took over.
“It was everything,” Russo said.
Russo, a 1993 Vineland graduate, played football and basketball for the Fighting Clan. You would be hard-pressed to find someone more enthusiastic about Vineland sports — at all levels — than Russo.
Sometimes, that’s what a floundering program needs. Sometimes, it takes someone who grew up in a town — who understands its residents — to rebuild an athletic program.
“In addition to that,” Russo said, “you have to roll your sleeves up and work. We demand that out of our players. But being from Vineland helped. Could I bring this passion to another town and another high school football program? Probably not. It’s just how you feel about where you grew up and where you played.”
Russo was not an immediate success. Vineland was 8-22 in his first three seasons. Russo slowly began to convince Vineland’s most talented athletes — most notably quarterback and now Rutgers University freshman running back Isaih Pacheco — to stay in Vineland and not play for a parochial or choice school.
Russo did this by attending countless Vineland youth football games.
“We have two feeder programs,” he said. “It’s becoming a football town. I think we have more people playing football than ever.”
Vineland finished 8-2 in 2016 and 2017, making the playoffs both seasons but losing in the first round.
That success made 2018 a pivotal season. A 1-8 or 2-7 record this season would have set the program back.
Instead, Vineland is 4-5 against a tougher schedule this year. Seven of their eight regular-season opponents made the playoffs.
And then there’s the playoff win.
Long-time Vineland fans can talk all they want about victories over Thanksgiving rival Millville, but without the step forward of a postseason victory, South Jersey football fans could have easily discounted the winning records of 2016 and 2017.
Now Vineland has a state-of-the-art weight room, an artificial grass field at its historic Gittone Stadium and a playoff win. The Fighting Clan is a legitimate Group V program.
“We’re always going to be competitive,” Russo said. “That’s what the people in town wanted. They aren’t asking for championships. They just want to go out and support a team that is competitive. I can assure you this — nobody is going to circle us anymore on the schedule as an easy win.”
Want more proof that Russo is a little nuts for Vineland? This winter he will coach the Fighting Clan’s boys basketball team. Russo spent this past summer working 8 a.m. to noon with the football team and 12:30-3 p.m. with the basketball team Monday through Thursday.
The Vineland boys basketball team finished 11-12 last season. The Fighting Clan hasn’t had a winning season since 2007-08.
“We’re going to make sure (basketball) gets fixed as well,” Russo said. “I have a lot of pride in that program.”
It’s rare these days for someone to be the head coach of a school’s football and basketball team. Both are practically year-round jobs.
It won’t be easy for Russo to do for the basketball program what he did with the football team.
But you’d be crazy to bet against him.
Michael McGarry’s Must Win column appears Fridays in The Press.