SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

October 12, 2012

Turbulent times in Tannertown Peabody finds itself at a critical juncture in the program's proud history

Moving the Chains Phil Stacey
The Salem News

---- — So where, exactly, does the Peabody High football program go from here?

Because if you know the answer, I — and thousands of other people — would love to hear it.

Tonight at Coley Lee Stadium begins Game 1 A.S. — that’s After Scott, as in recently deposed head coach Scott Wlasuk — when the Tanners host Revere in their first NEC/CAL League game.

Officially, Wlasuk resigned three days ago with his team in the midst of an 0-5 season. Reading the tea leaves and having an ear to the gridiron, though, tells us the choice wasn’t Wlasuk’s at all, but that there were others who worked to nudge him out the proverbial door.

So with former assistant Matt O’Brien calling the shots from now until the end of the season, we get a chance to see if the Tanners can turn it around and reverse a trend that’s seen this once-proud football powerhouse outscored by an aggregate score of 224-41 this fall.

I haven’t seen Revere play this season (although I know head coach Lou Ciccatelli always has his team prepared and focused). But I have seen each of the Tanners’ final four opponents — Masconomet, Lynn English, Lynn Classical and Saugus — and quite frankly, I don’t see a “W” emerging from that slate.

Fans, not just in Peabody but across the NEC and North Shore in general, want to see how the Tanners are going to respond from here until Thanksgiving Day. Will they rally around the turmoil that surrounds them, rise above it and exceed expectations over their last five contests? Will they play inspired football, win a few, lose a few and end the season on a solid note? Or will it be more of the same: blowout losses that are often over by halftime?

Let’s not mince words here: The heart of the Peabody High football program was ripped out in 2005 when the decision was made to remove head coach Ed Nizwantowski from the job he had held for 23 years. Say what you want about Niz — and hundreds of both his biggest boosters and most ardent detractors have done so over the years — but the man knew how to coach. More importantly, he knew how to get the absolute most out of a group of young men committed to winning football games. Wearing the Tanner Blue for Nizwantowski was a brotherhood, a kinship that didn’t end when you graduated.

Since then, the program has at times been more disorganized than a kindergarten room when the recess bell sounds; other times, you get the sense that it’s a no-win situation for everyone involved.

Of the three men that followed Nizwantowski, Wlasuk was far and away the most qualified, best person for the job. A member of Nizwantowski’s coaching staff, he wanted so badly to restore pride, tradition and the once-taken-for-granted winning ways to his beloved Tanners that he virtually put his life on hold in an attempt to do so. He worked tirelessly to bring a semblance of focus and commitment, got his players involved in offseason programs such as Gridiron Training, and talked up his team to anyone who would listen.

What impressed me the most was that he was universally respected by his peers. Football coaches, like folks in almost any line of work, can at times snipe and hold grudges against each other, but I didn’t get that sense when it came to Wlasuk. They voted him Coach of the Year last season; those aren’t given out to guys who don’t know what they’re doing.

But now, 41/2 years after he was hired, Wlasuk is gone. O’Brien is in charge for now, and who knows? Perhaps he winds up revitalizing the program and is the right man moving forward. He’ll certainly get his chance to show what he can do over the next six weeks.

But you have to think that the school will put out a gigantic net to see who might be interested in trying to resurrect what once was one of the crown jewels in the North Shore coaching kingdom.

Will they keep it in the Tanner family and hire from within? Or maybe look around locally and see if there’s anyone with head coaching experience interested in the job? Or do the powers that be get really radical and hire someone that’s young and energetic, but who has never run a program?

Perhaps the bigger question is: Who wants to inherit this program? It’s a fair question to ask, given the power keg of emotions currently at play here.

If I’m a coach willing to throw my hat into the ring, I want to know a couple of things beforehand: namely, that I’ll have the complete and utmost backing of the administration, especially when tough times arise, and that I can run things in the way that I feel is best for the program (while complying with the school’s Captain Counsel, other athletic policies, etc.); in other words, not following someone else’s agenda.

It’s a critical time for the Peabody High football program. Both the immediate and long-range future are going to be greatly influenced by the choices made in the weeks and months to come.

The eyes of the North Shore football world will be watching to see what transpires.

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Moving the Chains, a column on North Shore high school football, appears each Friday during the fall sports season in The Salem News. Contact sports editor Phil Stacey at pstacey@salemnews.com, at 978-338-2650, and follow him on Twitter @PhilStacey_SN.

'CRUCIAL CATCH' BREAST CANCER CAMPAIGN TONIGHT AT MASCO The Masconomet Regional football community is urging fans on both sides to wear pink to tonight's Beverly at Masconomet contest at Walt Roberts Field beginning at 7. They are doing so to help support the American Cancer Society's Crucial Catch' campaign in the fight against breast cancer.