It’s the end of an era at Bensalem’s Holy Ghost Prep as Tony Chapman retires from coaching basketball after an impressive 45 years.
“I just thought it was time,” Chapman told The Times. “Forty-five years is a long time to do anything. I thought it was time for someone with a little more energy, a little bit younger probably — not probably, definitely — to take over.”
Chapman, a 1971 graduate of Holy Ghost Prep, played basketball, as well as baseball, during his own years at the all-boys Catholic high school. While he was able to continue with the latter at La Salle College on scholarship, he always maintained an affinity for basketball.
After earning his teaching degree, Chapman struggled at first to land a position. Unlike the teacher shortage seen today, such jobs were difficult to come by in the late ‘70s. However, the late Father Francis Hanley, headmaster of Holy Ghost Prep, created a position for the former pupil. Chapman not only had two English and three history classes on his plate, but he was appointed freshman basketball coach for the 1976-77 season.
The next year, he moved up to JV basketball coach before taking over for Tom Kaczor — Chapman’s varsity coach when he was a student. This position was offered to a 24-year-old Chapman by athletic director Ted Grabowski, a huge inspiration in his life.
“I’ll always be indebted to him,” Chapman said of Grabowski. “The reason I went into education, why I wanted to become a teacher, is primarily because of Ted Grabowski. He was such an influence on me in high school.”
Though Chapman was naturally apprehensive going into his first varsity season, he didn’t need to worry. The Firebirds finished 23-7 and defeated Bristol for the league championship.
“Coming in my first year, to win the league was pretty gratifying and I think relaxed me a bit going into the years after that,” said Chapman.
The four-plus decades that followed saw Chapman and the Firebirds achieve much success. During his tenure, the team won 23 Bicentennial Athletic League titles, nine District One titles and two Eastern state titles.
Additionally, Chapman is one of six high school basketball coaches in Pennsylvania history to have surpassed 900 wins. His record is 928-351.
Still, Chapman doesn’t want to be remembered for these statistics. Rather, he hopes each Firebird he had the pleasure of coaching remembers the lessons he instilled … especially in recent seasons. Three years ago, the team left the Bicentennial Athletic League and began to play against larger schools.
“As I told our kids this year, I said, ‘You don’t take a backseat to anyone.’ Our level of talent and our ability to play has remained consistent. The team this year, 14-13, possibly could’ve won 20 games six, seven, eight years ago depending on the situation. But it is what it is, and you do what you can.”
Tom Heston, Holy Ghost Prep graduate of 2012, chemistry teacher and assistant basketball coach, is one who fondly remembers his time playing under the tutelage of, and later working alongside, Chapman: “Truly blessed to have been coached by and with Coach Chapman. His legacy on and off the court will never be forgotten at Holy Ghost.”
For Chapman, several things have kept him on the court for the past 45 years: his passion for the game, support from Holy Ghost Prep administration, an excellent roster of students and assistant coaches, and an extremely understanding family.
He thanked his wife Jane; children, Chris, Brian, Matthew and Katie; assistant coach Bruce Simon; and former athletic director Jim Stewart for sticking with him for so many years.
While Chapman will stay on at Holy Ghost Prep as the dean of students, a position he has held since around 1990, he intends to spend his newfound free time with family — something he couldn’t always do because of his hectic schedule.
“My wife and children have given up a lot, so I’ll try to figure out more things to do with them. I have two granddaughters and one more on the way, so that’ll be a good part of it,” he said.
His free time will also be filled with (you guessed it) basketball, though not in the same capacity.
“I want to, during the basketball season, try and actually see a lot of teams that I never had the chance to see. On Tuesday night, when Holy Ghost is playing Bristol or Neshaminy, I might wanna go to the Pennsbury-Council Rock North game, but I haven’t been able to do that for 45 years,” he said. “I may wind up being at nearly as many games as I was as a coach, but it’s going to be different. I’m going to be a fan.”
Chapman is also more than willing to lend a hand to the new Firebirds head coach (the search will begin soon), but only if it’s wanted and needed. He doesn’t want to step on any toes or make anyone feel intimidated or awkward.
“I’m sure I’ll go to a couple games, but my plan is, especially the first year, to not be on top of whoever [becomes coach] by any means. I want to help in whatever way I can, but I don’t want anybody to feel pressured,” he said. “And the good thing is, so many of the games are streamed now, so I can watch them.”
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org