Fellow coaches speak of Fracassa, as legend runs Catholic League gauntlet for final time
Published September 25, 2013
BIRMINGHAM — On a Saturday night in September, the end officially began.
Some 54 years after it all started, Al Fracassa took to the field to kick off play in the Catholic League for the final time.
In mere weeks, the legendary symbol, the winningest coach in MHSAA history, will step aside and hand the reigns of the Brother Rice football program off to his successor.
But not before one final, treacherous journey through the Central Division — a division Fracassa labeled “the toughest in the entire state.”
“I’ve had an appreciation for this league since my first game,” Fracassa said a few days before Rice took on Warren De La Salle in a Sept. 21 game, played after press time. “From the time I coached at (Royal Oak) Shrine until I moved to Brother Rice, I’m so proud of this league, what it offers and the type of football players it’s produced.”
The Central Division is an unforgiving one, evidenced by the past two seasons, when Rice claimed back-to-back Division 2 state championships but failed to place higher than third in the division’s final standings.
“It’s one tough game after another,” he said.
But now, they are numbered.
Including the De La Salle game, Fracassa had four games remaining against the teams, coaches and programs he’s made a career out of facing.
Three of the longest-tendered coaches in the Central shared their thoughts on Fracassa, and what it would mean to take on their rival and friend one final time.
Warren De La Salle coach Paul Verska is the youngster of the four remaining Central Division schools, currently serving in his 12th season with the Pilots.
“To face his teams is always a challenge,” Verska said. “He’s been there so long; he’s got good players he coached years ago sending their kids to play for him now.”
Verska dropped his first seven games against Rice, but had gone 4-3 since then entering this year’s contest.
“It’s going to be different (next year) in the fact that you have to see how the new coach does things,” Verska said. “It’s not going to be easy to replace a man like Al Fracassa. Whoever it is better win four or five state titles in a row to start with.”
George Porritt began coaching at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in 1989, but he didn’t face Fracassa or Rice until the 1998 season, a 34-13 victory.
The teams have met once or more every season since then.
“Coach Fracassa essentially built the Brother Rice program into what it is today,” Porritt said. “That’s exactly the kind of school, and the type of kids, this league stands for.”
Porritt, now is his 25th season in Orchard Lake, has enjoyed relative success against Fracassa and Rice, going 13-9 since 1998.
He’s never lost at home to the Warriors, either.
“Maybe he’ll give me one this year,” Fracassa said of the Oct. 4 game.
“The competiveness of the league and coaching against guys like him is what you enjoy so much,” Porritt said. “At this point in our careers, we’re not going to fool too many people, and nobody is going to fool us. Maybe you throw in a wrinkle in here and there, but we all know and understand what each other is doing.”
Maybe that’s why Porritt called it a “bummer” to think of next year, when Fracassa isn’t on the opposing sideline.
“We’re going to miss him and what he did for high school football,” the Eaglets’ coach said.
If there’s one guy who can almost relate to Fracassa’s longevity, it’s Novi Detroit Catholic Central’s Tom Mach.
The fourth-winningest coach in MHSAA history is in his 38th season with Catholic Central and knows a thing or two about Fracassa and facing Rice.
“To play as many times as we have, sometimes twice a year, it’s something pretty special, pretty hard to believe,” Mach said. “We’ve grown pretty close over the years, developed a pretty great friendship and a competitive atmosphere between our programs.”
Both coaches laughed when asked about wins and losses against one another, saying they had to be somewhere in the middle.
Mach is actually 24-19 against Fracassa since taking over Catholic Central, with one meeting remaining at 7 p.m. Sept. 28 in Novi.
“At the present time, it’s hard to even think about him not being there next year,” Mach said. “It’s going to be so different. His influence on the program and on this league is so immense. But he’s got some great assistants and some great young men that will carry on after him, and I’m sure he’ll still be on the sideline. He may not be calling plays, but if I know Al, he’ll be there one way or another.”