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South River roots have stayed close to Bucknell coach
Bucknell University head football coach Joe Susan gives instructions to his team. Bucknell University head football coach Joe Susan gives instructions to his team. You can take Joe Susan out of New Jersey, but you can never take the Jersey out of him.
A former football star for South River High School in the mid-70s, the 55-year-old completed his first season as head coach at Bucknell University, the 17th winningest Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) program. The Bisons suffered through a 1-10 record in Susan’s initial campaign, but an incoming class of 29 recruits, Susan’s first, includes nine New Jersey products and has returned optimism to the Patriot League team.
“I love recruiting and I work hard at it,” says the University of Delaware graduate, who arrived at Bucknell after 10 seasons (2000-10) as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for Rutgers University under Bison alumnus Greg Schiano. It is not a coincidence that Rutgers’ resurgence occurred while Susan was there. The 2009 class brought in under his watch was ranked among the top 25 in the country. His main areas of recruiting focused on, of course, central New Jersey and included Western Pennsylvania, Eastern Florida, Delaware and Canada. Susan is credited with bringing in a number of players who not only helped the Scarlet Knights improve their record, but became stars, includingAll Big East selection Clark Harris, a 2007 seventh-round draft choice of the Green Bay Packers.
“The thing about recruiting I love best,” he says, “is that you are able to get to know the best and brightest student-athletes, their support systems and families.”
Bucknell is not Susan’s first head coaching venture. His arrival at Rutgers was preceded by a year as Davidson College’s head coach in 2000, when the Wildcats finished 10-0. Before that, he served as an assistant at Princeton (1991-99) and at his current school from 1981 to 1989. Susan was also an assistant at Delaware (1977-78 and 1980) and at Gettysburg (1979).
While Susan wasn’t able to coach Bucknell to its first winning season since 2006, he remains steadfast about a deep-rooted philosophy culled by years of learning from his coaches, many from South River.
“Being a head coach brings with it a responsibility for the young men on your team,” he believes. “Beyond that, you are responsible to your staff, their families and the support people in the program. I believe organization is crucial to success, and love the challenge of planning and putting those ideas on the field.”
Susan grew up in tradition-rich South River idolizing former Ram stars such as Joe Theismann and Drew Pearson. He recalls watching them play when he, like most grade-school youngsters, spent fall Saturday afternoons at William Denny Field. What impressed Susan most was the passion displayed by players such as Dave Quinlan and Joel Barkalow.
“I am fortunate to have been born and raised in South River,” Susan says. ”I was coached by men who became strong role models to me and taught me as much about life as about sports. My first coach was Joe Brzozowski in Shorty League baseball. Walt Koziatek coached me in seventh and eighth grade basketball and throughout my high school career.”
Susan reflects on how much other South River coaches impacted his life, such as his high school line coach, Bill Csatari, who later became head coach. He rattles off other names like Bill Takacs, his Little League coach, and other high school coaches— Ken Smutko, Dominic Salerno, Hugh Walsh and Joe Bellisimo — as people who had a profound impact on him.
“They are all good people and men who loved their jobs,” he says.
Perhaps the greatest lesson Susan learned growing up in South River was the value of tradition.
“The people of South River have a strong feel for tradition,” Susan says, “and have never taken it for granted. I experienced it, and my brothers Jeff and Doug played on some of the better South River teams in the late ’70s.”
Following graduation, Susan went to the University of Delaware, where he played for the Blue Hens and graduated in 1977 with a degree in psychology. Susan’s first venture into coaching was as a volunteer assistant while he pursed his master’s degree there in physical education.
At Bucknell, Susan understands that the goals are different from those at Rutgers.
“The difference between FCS and FBS [teams who play for berths in the major bowls] is obvious. Our goal is to compete for and win the Patriot League title, which makes us eligible to play in the national championship playoffs. However, the preparation for the season and weekly prep for game day is the same.”
Susan says the challenge as a coach isn’t just producing a winner, but being committed to serving as the role model for the young men he coaches.
“That’s true in both the physical and moral sense,” he contends. “Our players need to be challenged, which is why they’ve come here in the first place. But I will not ask them to do anything that will bring harm to themselves. I push them to the limits they can’t achieve on their own.
“The most rewarding aspect of this job is having the ability to impact young men as they progress through one of the most critical stages of their lives,” Susan added. “I consider that a privilege and unique responsibility which I’ll never take for granted.”
BY JIMMY ALLINDER, Brunswick Sentinel