Mike Teel confronted some of the fiercest opponents in North Jersey in his last two years as Don Bosco Prep's quarterback, yet led the 2002 and '03 Ironmen to undefeated seasons
He then accepted the enormous challenge of resurrecting a Rutgers University program that largely dwelled at or near the basement of the Big East Conference and had suffered 10 straight losing seasons by the time Teel stepped in at QB in 2005.
The Scarlet Knights, under his watch, went 32-7, finished second in the Big East twice, third one other time and they won three college bowl games in four appearances.
Rough, fortitude-testing circumstances along that path for Teel.
Now, though, comes the really hard part.
Because Teel now is pressed with the colossal task of replacing coaching legend Greg Toal, who suddenly announced his retirement Wednesday evening after guiding the Ironmen to nine NJSIAA state titles and two mythical national championships in 18 seasons, and who was a coaching icon even before he arrived in Ramsey for the 1999 season.
Teel was introduced as the school's 11th head coach Thursday afternoon at a press conference at the school that had been hastily arranged that morning. The 2004 DBP grad was the offensive coordinator at his alma mater the last two seasons following brief coaching stints at Rutgers, Kean University and Wager College as either quarterback or wide receiver (Rutgers 2014) coach.
Teel's widely heralded predecessor amassed 178 victories in 18 seasons at Don Bosco and owns an overall record of 305-55-2 at four schools. He groomed scores of young men like Teel for the college ranks, and he led the Ironmen to the ninth Group 4 championship under his stewardship just two seasons ago.
Don Bosco also has a number of standouts returning in 2017 from a 6-5 club that reached the Non-Public, Group 4 semifinals, including All-State defensive end Marcellus Earlington, four-star offensive lineman Tyler Friday and veteran safety Kevin Brennan. But out of seemingly nowhere, Toal informed the school's brass that he would not be returning next season.
Adding to the strangeness of that timing was the fact that Toal was not present for the announcement Thursday morning at the school auditorium. So, no final-season, march-into-the-sunset sendoff, no apparent team meeting to bid farewell, and no chance at all to draw a parting comment from the 63-year-old Toal.
"This is a day in which it's bittersweet," said Robert Fazio, the school's assistant principal of academics. "He (Toal) gets to savor the moment of being such an iconic figure in the sports world, not just in Bergen County, but in the state of New Jersey and all over the country."
Toal was an iconic figure in Bergen County well before he got to Bosco, both as a player at Hasbrouck Heights in the early 1970s (then Virginia Tech) and as a coach at Saddle Brook, River Dell and Hackensack. He won two sectional titles at River Dell (1985 and '87) and five straight at Hackensack from '92 through '96.
The reputation quickly broadened when he arrived at Don Bosco, turned a middling football program into a state powerhouse and then campaigning long and hard to unleash his tough-guy Ironmen upon the rest of America.
That all began rather discreetly with games in 2004 and '05 against St. Anthony of Long Island, but soon was bumped into the national limelight with battles (and victories) against the likes of St. Xavier (Oh.), St. Joseph Prep (Pa.), Pratteville (Ala.) and DeLaSalle (Cal.). Among the multitude of accomplishments under Toal were undefeated seasons in 2002, '03, '06, '07, '09, -'10 and '11.
"I've always looked at the body of work this man did and the success that he had," Fazio said. "He's a man of dignity and honor. He's a man that led from the front. He's a man that pushed athletes to the next level. I wish Coach Toal the best. We honor Coach Toal for all he's done for us at Don Bosco."
Teel received that push from Toal, as well as from current Bergen Catholic head coach Nunzio Campanile, who was Don Bosco's offensive coordinator when Teel was an Ironman.
"He was a great player, really smart guy, a student of the game," Campanile said of Teel. "He was always very coachable as a player. It was important to him to get it right."
Teel was an All-State performer at Don Bosco Prep--known for both his strong arm and an exceptional understanding of his role and its nuances, even as a high schooler. He was so well established, in fact, that many wondered why he would subject himself to the steep challenges that stood before him at Rutgers in 2004, instead of opting for something a bit more glamorous.
But, of course, Teel did not know of glamour as a strong-armed, but also hard-nosed quarterback under the gruff and forthright Toal.
Teel may have been a highly skilled scholastic athlete, but the reputation of his program--before, during and after the QB's rich career--was always tied to the Bergen County-bred head coach with the deep, vowel-dragging voice and the penchant for keeping things strategically uncomplicated and sweat-stained. He gave stirring pre-game speeches, wildly anticipated post-game victory chants, and he endorsed toughness almost as a form of religion.
"He was a believer in competition, and he hired really competitive guys to fill out his staff," Campanile said. "We learned so much from each other, getting pushed and pushing back in practice so we could get better, so we could get it right.
"If you did a good job for him, he trusted you and allowed you freedom to coach," Campanile said. "You always felt like you had an obligation to do your best, because that's what he was doing. He gave me an unbelievable opportunity when I was 22-years old. My stars aligned and I was the offensive coordinator for a program that set a very high standard.
"He changed my life."
Teel has similar feelings, though his indoctrination to Tough Guy Tech came at the age of 14 or 15, not 22.
"When I stepped on the campus of Don Bosco Prep as a freshman in 2000, I had no idea the impact it would have on my life," Teel said. "I came here as a young boy not knowing where I was going to go or what I wanted to do, and I left here as a young man prepared for college, prepared for the real world."
Following his outstanding career at Rutgers and brief NFL stints with Seattle, New England and Chicago, Teel launched a lucrative career on Wall Street. He was making money, dressing sharp, earning respect and also missing the absolute heck out of his old life in sweats and low-profile caps.
"As a player, I was lucky to be around some of the best coaches in the game," Teel said. "Sat in a meeting with Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll, I fought through adversity in college with Greg Schiano, and I learned how to be a man and play high school football from Greg Toal.
"When my playing career was finished, I knew very shortly after that I wanted to be a football coach," he said. "I wanted to have that impact on kids the way Coach impacted on me throughout my career. He's had an influence over kids for decades that few have. I've been lucky enough to call him coach, lucky enough to work for him."