After an amazing 27 years as head coach of the College of Staten Island men’s basketball program, Staten Island Sports Hall of Famer and decorated head coach Tony Petosa is calling it a career. Petosa announced his resignation to staffers this week, parting ways with the program after setting school and conference records of 459 career wins, complete with a recent undefeated conference run and tournament championship in 2017. A Monsignor Farrell alum, Petosa, was a former four year standout with the College from 1982-86 and was also an assistant coach for three years before taking over head coaching duties in 1989-90. The search for an interim replacement will begin immediately.
“This has been a decision six years in the making for me,” Petosa said. “My leaving is fifty percent personal and fifty percent basketball. I love the College of Staten Island and many of the great people here, but I have found that I am doing less and less of the things I love, like teaching the game and being associated with what we do on the court. I’ve found that an increasing part of my job has been spent trying to get kids in, get them situated in classes, tested, and eligible to play within the CUNY system and admittedly, it has come with some frustrations. These hurdles have sometimes had a much bigger impact on our team than they should. This has been one of the most difficult decisions of my life, but I’ve been here many years and I feel this was the best time to say goodbye. I’ve enjoyed so many great experiences here, and it’s just the right time.”
CSI’s most successful coach spanning every sports program, Petosa has seen his teams win six CUNYAC Championships, receive seven NCAA Tournament bids and 10 ECAC tournament appearances, including a pair of ECAC Championships. He led the Dolphins to 27 consecutive CUNYAC postseason tournaments, and his 14 consecutive seasons from 1994-08 with a .500 or better overall record is the best mark ever among all conference schools. In 2011-12, he led the Dolphins deep into the NCAA National Championship, advancing to the Division III Sweet 16, a run that electrified the campus and sent the team to its first of five 20+ win seasons in the last six years. His 459 career victories rank 64th all-time in NCAA Division III history, while his winning percentage of .618 ranks 43rd in NCAA Division III history among all coaches who have registered 450+ wins.
No matter the magnitude, the numbers seem lost on Petosa.
“I’m not one to look back on what we have accomplished, maybe because most of the time I feel like I was simply along for the ride,” he said. “I’ve always felt that I’ve owed it to the kids in our program to look towards the future because I’ve always asked them to take ownership of the program and to challenge themselves to improve on and off of the court as players and people. It doesn’t allow you to rest on what you’ve achieved.”
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Petosa embraced the role of leader in 1982, as a freshman on the CSI basketball squad under then head coach Evan Pickman. Petosa and his counterparts tallied a 91-25 (.784) mark over his four years as a player, won three CUNYAC Championships, and made a combined four appearances in NCAA and ECAC postseason play. By the time his personal career was over, Petosa became CSI’s all-time leading rebounder (982), and his 1,684 points stood as a CSI career scoring record for 16 years. Upon graduation from his playing career, Petosa stayed on as an assistant coach for three seasons, the first under former coach Tom Keenan and the last two under Howie Ruppert. CSI posted a 63-26 record those three seasons, and Petosa was not only getting the hang of the coaching system at CSI, but he was also donating more time to his players, becoming increasingly invested in their futures after basketball.
Getting ready for his fourth-year as an assistant coach, Ruppert stepped down from the head coaching position at CSI, and Petosa was nominated for the job. The irony lies in the secret that Petosa declined the offer, as he was pursuing his Master’s Degree and already had a full-time job in addition to assisting with the Dolphins, but the gym called him back, and with the position still vacant he reconsidered and accepted the job a few weeks later. Not much has changed since. Petosa is still managing a full-time gig, this time as a public school teacher at South Richmond High School, and these days he and wife Dalia are chasing around their four-old daughter, Alexa. Every off-season Petosa has thought about the load, and thinks back to his decision in 1989.
“At the end of the day I just knew I wanted to stay involved with the program,” he explained. “I just love the sport. I think it’s an amazing thing of beauty, and I just appreciate it way too much. More than anything else, I knew I would miss it if I left.”
Petosa also took the position knowing that his dear friend and mentor, Matty White, also an assistant coach at the time, supported his move. “It was really the only condition I had; having Matty with me. Knowing he wanted this for me and that I had his support meant a great deal to me, and I wouldn’t have taken it any other way.”
With Coach White by his side, the 1990’s then became Petosa’s era of CSI Basketball. Not only was he juggling his academic studies and his new career, but the rich, winning tradition of CSI Basketball left little room for failure. Under the rigorous demands, Petosa suffered through three-straight losing seasons. It was then that the coach realized he needed to adopt new formulas to help his teams be successful. It was either that, or coaching was no longer going to be a fit for him. He made the decision to stay the course. “I look back on those years and I realize that I wasn’t a very good coach,” he recollects in an interview he did years ago. “I needed to learn. I’m still learning, but I think I’ve gotten better.”
1n 1992-93, CSI put up its first winning campaign under Petosa. Two years later, the team won 20 games. Systemizing the team according to his personal coaching style was the key to Petosa’s success. For once, Petosa was operating under a new formula: his own.
“The first thing I learned without question is that you need to surround yourself with the best people you can find, meaning assistants and kids that have character,” Petosa remarked as to the rubric to a winning program. “I have been very fortunate that our success lies in our ability to develop kids. We’ve had very, very, few student-athletes walk into our program as studs. In my 27 years, I’ve never had a Division I transfer and I’ve only had one Division II transfer who went on to play out his career for me. We take kids who have a desire to play and get better, who want to be a part of something bigger than themselves. We will take chances on kids we aren’t sure about going in, but the number one priority for me is to get those type of kids in the building.”
He admits that it hasn’t always been easy, even after 459 career coaching wins, championships aplenty, and Coach of the Year laurels from the CUNYAC, Eastern College Athletic Conference, Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association and National Association of Basketball Coaches. The brand of athlete has changed over time and society has along with it. Gone are the days of humble gym-rats looking to invest 20+ hours a week on the game, and impersonal text messages have taken the place of handshakes and sit-downs. For Petosa, these challenges have taken away from the game, but have also kept him coming back, investing in the small handfuls of young athletes who yearn for instruction and a chance to capture the thrill of organized sport for a few months a year, sometimes for the last time in their lives.
“Four years is a long time to spend with anyone, and to invest that amount of time in each other takes a lot of trust and effort,” Petosa said. “I’m grateful to have had kids, and their extended families and parents, be supportive of what we do. If they play for me they have to aspire to be good students and be willing to be critiqued and criticized and that’s not always easy, especially nowadays. When you find those kids and make those relationships, it becomes special, and it’s hard to let go.”
The more Petosa coached, the more gratifying the individual relationships became after basketball. This became evident, and resonated profoundly with Petosa on September 11, 2001, when three former CSI student-athletes, former teammate to Petosa, Tom Hannafin, and former pupils under Petosa, Scott Davidson and Terrance Aiken, lost their lives during the terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center. It inspired Petosa to adopt the yearly Tournament of Heroes in their honor, an event that recently celebrated its 15th year. The annual celebration brings back family, alumni, recruits and a return to the family-values approach to basketball that still rings true to Petosa. It’s a labor of love that he enjoys seeing through each year and earned him a Joe Ryan Memorial Award in 2011. It’s gained plenty of traction nationally, bringing in some of the nation’s best teams each year. In 2016 tournament champion Middlebury College advanced to the NCAA’s Elite Eight this past March.
“I am so thrilled that it’s continuing with the support of the families, especially the Davidson’s and Hannafin’s,” he said. “The Tournament goes beyond me and basketball. Friends like to be around friends, and it’s nice to be able to do that each year and to have our current kids see and appreciate that. Sometimes it’s not until after they graduate that the student-athletes realize how important these relationships are.”
Shortly after the 2001-02 season, Petosa took his first and only break from CSI basketball, and left the team for a year’s sabbatical to, not surprisingly, coach more basketball. An opportunity to assist at Providence College in Rhode Island in the Big East was a sobering opportunity that brought with it an invigorated call to duty at CSI upon his return, and the Dolphins posted a 19-9 season when he took over for former assistant coach Brian Gasper the following year in 2003-04.
At the close of the 2004-05 season, Petosa said goodbye to White, who retired as Petosa’s top assistant after 18 years, 15 with Petosa as the head man. Remaining fast friends, Petosa first contemplated resignation from the sport when White later passed away in 2010. “I began to think about it,” he admits. “You begin to see how much is involved, how much time we invest in the day to day, and it makes you think about it, for sure.”
Petosa suppressed the idea of moving on, and instead helped spearhead the Matty White Memorial Alumni Game each January in his memory beginning in 2011, a reunion that brings together faces old and new and is now seven years strong, fortifying the relationships that have come to define CSI Basketball. Seeing the alumni pour in each year keeps Petosa grounded as to why he’s chosen to do what he’s done till now.
“I think especially because I find it so hard between my full-time job and basketball to stay connected with friends as much as I would like, this event has been very special to me,” he said. “When you’re a coach there needs to be that level, especially when I was younger, between a coach and a student-athlete that prevents you from truly establishing a friendship. But to utilize that day to reconnect and sit down with our athletes and hear about their stories and what the impact of basketball was on them is really special. We have guys who come back from the 70’s who I never knew and it shows you how much people take away from their time here. And to do it all in (Matty’s) memory is overwhelming. It speaks to how we have developed as a program.”
And in concert with the development have come the wins. Petosa’s unit hit a snag during a 6-20 campaign in 2008-09, but that year brought in a nucleus of recruits that would, three years later, land the Dolphins into the third round of the nation’s greatest college basketball showcase. For Petosa, the 2011-12 Sweet 16 run was as magical as the storybooks often describe, right down to the thunderous cheers that rattled the Sports & Recreation Center bleachers when CSI upset Rhode Island in the Round of 32 in mid-March, sounds that continue to reverb through Petosa’s veins.
“The thing I will remember most is that we brought in a young man named Jordan Young (in 08-09) and we added Dale Taranto and it was such a tough year. Everything that could go wrong, went wrong. To have those guys believe in what we were doing and then to see them and the one or two others we added in the years that followed come together and just explode that year was beyond rewarding. You see their faces after a win on your home floor and it reflects how we were all a part of something that did not come easy. Between that night and when we won the CUNYAC Championship on our home floor in 1999, I’ve never heard it as loud. It was amazing. Those two events I will remember forever.”
The Dolphins haven’t looked back since. CSI is 109-33 (.767) since the Sweet 16 season, far and away the best record of any CUNYAC school and up there with the region’s and nation’s best teams spanning all NCAA Divisions. CSI is 68-12 in CUNYAC play during that same stretch. Winning has become commonplace and lofty expectations have become standard fare. For Petosa, the work behind the scenes is often the best kept secret. Many of his colleagues hear about his part-time status and walk away dumbfounded. They see him at recruiting showcases and scouting circles, pick-up games in local parks and in the corner of sold-out gyms in obscure towns, late nights and early mornings, on weekends and holidays. These are the scenes that have come standard with an unparalleled work ethic and a passion that developed far beyond the standard call of duty. For Petosa, these have become the necessities to running a top-tier program in one of the nation’s most competitive basketball regions, but it won’t be what he will miss most. In fact, the wins and trophies aren’t either.
“I will miss the practices,” he said without hesitation. “Theres nothing more satisfying than seeing a kid come in, have them see what you’re trying to get them to do, and then seeing them pick it up and see that development on the practice floor every day. Kids like David Paul who went from a sixth man in high school to being one of the region’s most dominating players and Jordan (Young) with incredible intelligence sucking everything up and taking it to levels you didn’t think he could. It’s thrilling.”
With that same breath, Petosa admits his decision to leave CSI did not come easy. Now 54, Petosa has been a part of Dolphins basketball for the last 35 years. The campus and its constituents have served as a backdrop to his entire adult life. Laughs and tears, triumphs and tragedies, frustrations and elation, the College of Staten Island has formed a landscape to a life story that he will treasure.
“There’s no question this is very difficult,” he admitted. “This has been my second home. I go up to the school every day after my first job, in the summer, maybe three of four hours a day. I look at CSI like a home and a family. There are things that are incredibly rewarding, and you walk in some days and feel incredibly overwhelmed. There are highs and lows with everything you do, and I’ve done it for a long time here. I’ll always have a special bond with CSI and the athletics program.”
A mainstream and special education math teacher with the New York City Board of Education for the past 31 years, Petosa has had stops at Nazareth High School in Brooklyn, then New Dorp High School. He was then transferred to Lafayette High School in Brooklyn for 18 years prior to moving across the Verrazano and back to Staten Island to teach at Tottenville High School for 10 years and now recently, South Richmond. He has not ruled out coaching in the future, although he is eagerly looking forward to spending more time with his family, traveling, and taking in the sport he loves from a unique perspective – as a fan, although it will be admittedly tough to do it at the Sports & Recreation Center watching his favorite team play.
“It won’t be easy to stay away and it probably will be tougher to come around,” he said, noting that he will definitely choose to stay involved with the Tournament of Heroes and the annual Matty White Alumni Game. “What I will miss most is working with many of the student-athletes we brought in, but I’m one-hundred percent confident I will be taking an interest in them and how they progress. I think the only thing that will help me move past CSI is if I can coach somewhere else someday, but it’s not something I will pursue at this point. I’m not sure what I’ll do, but I’m looking forward to this chapter.”
Wherever Petosa lands and no matter his travels post-coaching, he will always have a place at CSI, according to Athletic Director Charles Gomes. “Tony is a legend at the College of Staten Island,” Gomes said. “He started as a student-athlete and made his mark as a Hall of Fame caliber basketball player. His greatest legacy, however, will be his 30 year coaching tenure during which he impacted the lives of a countless number of student-athletes. Tony Petosa is the fabric of not just CSI basketball, but the entire athletic department, finding his replacement will be a monumental task and we will need to begin our search immediately.”
The Dolphins are coming off a 21-7 campaign that included a CUNYAC Tournament Championship and NCAA Division III National Championship Tournament appearance. The team graduated two outstanding seniors but have a majority of players returning, another feather in the cap of Petosa, who is leaving the program on capable footing.
“I don’t think about legacy,” he said after a long pause. “I simply showed up every day and I wanted the program to be the best it could possibly be. I wanted our program to be one of the best in the country, doing it the right way. I’ve always wanted us to be better and better and for that reason maybe I can’t appreciate what we’ve been able to do. Some day I will, but I think it’s tough at this point in time because I think I know how much I will miss it.”
The College will honor Petosa’s accomplishments at some point during the 2017-18 season. For more information, be sure to consult with the CSI Athletics website at www.csidolphins.com.