Walt Sheridan wasn't the longest-tenured or winningest coach in Salem High football history. But he was certainly one of its most important.
Sheridan, who restored the Witches to their winning ways during a seven-year stint as head coach from 1957-63, died Wednesday at his Newburyport home at the age of 85.
A member of the Massachusetts State Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame, Sheridan coached the Witches to an undefeated 7-0-2 record in 1959. He also coached one of the best teams in Salem High history: the 1963 club that finished 8-1 and were named Class A state champions.
A social studies teacher while at Salem High, Sheridan had an aggregate record of 37-17-8 with the Witches. He also coached previously at Newburyport High and, later, at Saugus High.
"Salem had had five coaches in the previous eight years before Walter came in, so he really brought a sense of stability and pride to the city and the football program," said Al Giardi, who was the quarterback and a captain of that 1963 championship team.
The '63 team, which also featured star running backs Don Sadoski and Alex Mavrakos, averaged 29 points per game and shut out five of their nine opponents. Losing only to Gloucester (26-19), the Witches gained the best revenge possible on Thanksgiving Day by blanking Beverly, 42-0 — a team that had beaten them by a combined 94-0 score the previous two seasons.
"He had a brilliant mind," said Giardi. "We ran a very wide open offense under Walt. We were running things in the '60s that were the forerunner of the passing game you see in the pros and college today. We were running a lot of multiple sets, shifting, motion ... stuff like that.
"He was tough, for sure. But he was a great coach. He probably should have coached in college."
Sheridan's 1959 squad is one of 11 Salem High teams to go unbeaten for an entire season, with the only blemishes being ties against Lowell (12-12) and Haverhill (6-6). The Witches shaded Beverly, 2-0, on Thanksgiving before travelling to Florida to play a postseason game against powerful Miami Edison, the Sunshine State champions, at the Orange Bowl.
A star running back in his own right at Holy Cross in the late 1940s, he was also the first freshman to win the prestigious Eddie O'Melia Memorial Trophy given to the most valuable player in the annual Holy Cross vs. Boston College football game in 1946.
Sheridan also coached the Salem High baseball team for four years (1961-64).
A U.S. Navy veteran who served in World War II, Sheridan is a member of the Salem High, Newburyport High and Melrose High (his alma mater) Athletic Halls of Fame.
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Family and friends are invited to calling hours today from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Twomey, LeBlanc and Conte Funeral Home, 193 High St., Newburyport. A funeral Mass will be celebrated tomorrow at 10:30 a.m. in Immaculate Conception Parish, 42 Green St., Newburyport. In lieu of flowers donations may be made to "Restore Our Stadium," P.O. Box 222, Newburyport, MA 01950.