Too often we measure coaches by the bottom line. If they win, we admire them. If they lose, we condemn them. Yet there is much more to this profession than wins and losses.
Here comes this man into your life. This old, goofy-looking man wearing plaid pants, a polka dot bowtie and a championship ring for each finger. This man with two bad eyes, two bad ears and a heart as big as a football field.
He's 79 years old now, but he's still going a mile a minute. Maybe it's his energy that won you over, because the first time you saw him, you surely must have chuckled at his corny posters and clich‚d chants.
If you're a football player, you've seen him every day that you've been at Penn, inspiring you to do better than your best. If you're not, you've almost assuredly seen him stalking the campus with a golf cart and bullhorn each Friday before a home football game, spouting out cheesy one-liners and urging the student body to come out to Franklin Field and show their support.
His name is Dan Staffieri, but everyone calls him "Coach Lake." Players and coaches had trouble pronouncing his name a while back, so he made it easier by saying, "Staffieri, like Lake Erie." And that's how "Lake" was born.
Officially, he is an assistant football coach and Penn's Game-Day Coordinator. Unofficially, he's a campus legend.
He's been here for the past 25 years, and some say that he's as much a part of the school's lore as its founder.
"Him not being here would be like Penn without Ben Franklin," says Athletic Operation Manager Tony Overend, who works out of a back office in Franklin Field. "He's the best thing since sliced bread. If I get to be half as nice as him, I'll be fine."
Lake looks at this man softly, eyes falling, face blushing. Overend is just one of the many lives he's touched. "Thanks for the kind words," Lake says, in a voice as hoarse as you'd expect from 25 years of shouting through that darn bullhorn.
Certain coaches, like certain teachers, we never forget. It might be a fifth grade English teacher, a high school football coach, a college pitching coach -- someone who left a mark on our lives. Someone who made the difference.
Is this how legends are born?
It's Friday. Coach Lake wakes up at the crack of dawn, hops on a train -- ever since he had surgery on both corneas last November, he's been unable to drive -- and arrives at Franklin Field before any of the other players and coaches.
He makes sure his posters haven't been damaged by the cold and the wind, adding extra tape all across the tunnel wall that connects the home locker room to the field.
This week, Penn is playing Brown for homecoming, so his theme is "Brown is a terrible color: Mop it up!" Lake sports a piece of tape on his forehead, which says "MOP" in giant red letters. "They won't know what it means," he says, mischievously.
Each opponent has a different, derogatory slogan in their honor, created by Lake. "You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can't tell him too much" and "High above Cayuga Waters, there's a terrible smell: Cornell" are two of his favorites.
Around noon, a football player enters Franklin Field, and Lake announces his arrival as if he's over a P.A. "Free Safety. Number 30. Kevin Stefanski!" Every player's name, along with his number, is etched into Lake's packed-to-the-brim memory.
Stefanski is Lake's driver. He has taken him up and down Locust Walk each Friday for the past two years. He got the job last season because he redshirted due to injury, and, even though he's now starting, he hasn't abandoned his duties. "He does so much for us," Stefanski says, "it's the least I could do for him."
The relationship between Stefanski and Lake seems more of a grandson-grandfather relationship than a player-coach one. If Lake forgets one of his patented one-liners, Stefanski says it for him. If Lake's voice gets hoarser than usual, Stefanski makes sure to get him some water. It's a special rapport that Lake has with all his players, past and present.
Lake and Stefanski wait for Gabe DiCeirico, who serves at the school's mascot during football season, and then they're off -- a free safety, a student dressed in a Quaker suit and a 79-year old man with a bullhorn, driving down the sidewalks in a mini-Jeep.
They start at the south entrance of Franklin Field, travel around the stadium, turn left on Walnut Street, and go up and down Locust Walk, from 34th street to 40th street, making slight detours to stop at the two dining halls.
Lake shouts through the bullhorn, slowly and deliberately: "Tomorrow afternoon. 1:00. The University of Pennsylvania. Ivy League Champions. Play Brown. Show your ID at the gate. Brown is a terrible color. We need your support to mop it up."
When he sees someone walking, he yells, "How you doooing?" and then responds himself with "Oh, very well." If he asks someone if they're coming to the game tomorrow and they say that they are, Lake replies, "Thanks for the warning."
Some people are shocked, stunned, appalled -- but most are just excited. See, Lake has been making this same route for the past 25 years with the same energy the whole time, so people have gotten to know him. If he wasn't there, then there would be a problem.
A food truck operator shouts, "The man is back! Here we go, Quakers, here we go!" A construction worker gets in front of the Jeep, assumes a mock football stance, and reminisces for a second, "I was a wide receiver in high school." A mailman hollers, "LAKE! LAKE!" The receptionists at 1920 Commons and Hill House smile when they see Lake walk through the doors and begin chants themselves.
It's priceless, really. Practically every member of this campus community knows -- and loves -- that crazy old man with a bullhorn.
The truly good coaches care about people, as well as victories. One of the great attributes of a coach is being able to get the most out of a player and at the same time maintaining a relationship that indicates he cares about the player.
Lake started playing football as a little kid on the Chestnut Hill Mohawks, and he hasn't left the gridiron since.
He played on the 1941 Germantown High School championship team and the 1952 University of Maryland National Championship team, spending five years in between serving in the Marines during World War II.
As a guard and linebacker on the Terrapins, Lake helped his team to an upset of No. 1 Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl to stake claim as college football's best team.
"It was awesome," Lake says, remembering the game 50 years ago as if it were yesterday. "Fantastic. Super. I really don't know how to describe it."
After graduating from Maryland, Lake wanted to stay in football.
He returned to Philadelphia, and took a job as an assistant football coach and social studies teacher at St. Joe's Prep.
It was then when Lake contacted legendary Penn coach George Munger, asking career advice from one of the best in the business.
"He told me two very important things, which I've lived by for 50 years," Lake says, holding up two fingers with gigantic Ivy League champion rings on each. "He said, 'Be a teacher' and 'Show the players you care.' That's been my philosophy ever since."
He is someone like a brother and father to the players. He was someone who would keep you out and make you smile. He is my kind of coach -- a man who never got mad and yet had the ability to teach to get his point across.
After 25 years of coaching at the high school level, Lake was hired by then-Penn coach Harry Gamble in 1977.
Since that time, approximately 95 assistant coaches and four head coaches have come and gone. Lake, of course, has remained.
In the last decade or so, most of his actual coaching duties have tapered off. He used to be an important assistant for the freshman football team, but the Ivy League has since abolished that program.
"Through the '80's, that was his baby," says defensive coordinator Ray Priore, who's been here 16 years, longer than any other Penn coach besides Lake. "When we lost that, he lost a part of himself."
Now Lake's main job is to boost morale, creating catchy slogans and loud, colorful signs. On gameday, Lake paces the Penn sideline, cheering into his bullhorn to try and motivate the crowd.
At the end of each Friday practice, the players emerge from the tunnel, slap five with Lake, and then converge in the middle of the field.
They bellow, "LAAAAKE," in a deep grumble and the old man, with a gray sweatshirt tucked comically into gray sweatpants, enters the huddle and begins his "es prit de corps," a dialogue with the players.
He starts by saying, "Penn Pride," three times and the players respond, "Best" each time. Then, it's "I-V-Y" followed by "Champs." And finally, it's "Do Better than Your," followed by "Best."
"They love that," Lake says. "It's what they live by."
I can't define heart and soul. But it's something inside you that says, 'I can, I must, I will get the job done. Regardless of the odds, we will get the job done.
He was high above Franklin Field in a helicopter last year, when he did something that shocked the paramedics who were taking him to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. "Go get 'em down there," he hollered to his boys down below.
Heck, even a heart attack couldn't stop him from trying to do the same thing he had been doing since 1977.
Luckily for the Quakers, Lake made a speedy recovery and returned to the sidelines like he was never gone.
"It was strange being around here and not seeing him out there -- not seeing signs up, not getting letters in the mail," senior long snapper John Westhoff says. "Once he came back back, we were all so glad to see him back and healthy."
Did that near-death experience make Lake contemplate retiring? Of course not.
"He wouldn't know what to do on a Fall Saturday," Priore says. "That would be a major void that he would not be able to fill with anything."
"He's been around forever," adds quarterback Mike Mitchell. "It's hard to imagine Penn football without him."
Our philosophy is to "Do Better Than Your Best!" Be the BEST! Begin Early, SUCCEED TOMORROW! Morale is a very important part of reaching the players... Penn Pride Best! I-V-Y Champs. Red and Blue In '02! Go, Go, Go...
The end of Coach Lake's manuscript, a two-page handwritten memo which summarizes his fundamental coaching tenets, trails off. Like his football career, it has no end.
You have to wonder, though, if he wrote it as motivation for himself -- to get that sick, aging body out of bed each morning and parade around campus like a lunatic -- or if he really is doing it all for the players.
Jim Walden, assistant Hill House director and former Penn football trainer, knows the answer.
"He's the best. It don't get much better than Coach Lake here," says Walden, who's known Lake as long as anyone. He pauses. "And he does it all for the kids."
Lake smiles. "That's the most important part," he says, as he takes a sip of water to ease the pain in his lungs. "What he said about the kids."Comments powered by Disqus
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