Howie Vogts holds up one of the 35 county/league championship...

Howie Vogts holds up one of the 35 county/league championship trophies he won during his 56 years as head coach of Bethpage's football team. (Sept. 13, 1995) Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

There will be an empty seat on the Bethpage sideline this season. It is the seat Howie Vogts occupied for 56 years.

Mr. Bethpage is gone. The legendary football coach died late last night at Mercy Hospital, succumbing to congestive heart failure at the age of 80.

Vogts leaves a legacy unmatched by any other coach on Long Island or in New York State. During his state-record 56-year coaching career, Vogts became an icon. He was so beloved in the village of Bethpage that the football field was named in his honor in 1989 - more than 20 years before his career ended.

Vogts, the only head coach the Golden Eagles have had, led the team to a state-record 364 wins, including 35 regular-season league or conference titles, 16 playoff championships and five Long Island titles.

But as great as those numbers were, they were just numbers. Vogts' impact on his community and his players went well beyond what happened on the field.

"He was a difference-maker in the lives of hundreds of people," said Richie Millet, Vogts' assistant for more than 20 years. "He was always there to help someone and he was always there to guide them. He was more than a football coach. He was like a father figure to many."

Such was the love and esteem with which he was held. In the later years of his career, when physical ailments limited him to analyzing film for hours and hours, his assistants did most of the on-field coaching but always gave Vogts the credit.

"He was a master of breaking down the opposition on film," said his first team captain, Joe Cramer, who is 72. "He put it all right in front of us and asked us to execute his game plans. He was brilliant."

The lack of blue-chippers didn't prevent Vogts from building one of Long Island's great football dynasties. His teams were classic examples of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. There was nothing fancy about a Vogts team. They were always gritty, well-prepared and willing to grind it out for four quarters.

"He stood in that locker room and energized people before the game and at halftime," said former player Mike Caulfield, who graduated in 1991. "His motivational tactics were outrageous."

Irwin Dill, his close friend and longtime associate head coach, was unavailable for comment.

"He's just too emotional at this point to even talk about the man that he loved like a brother," Caulfield said. "This is a major loss in our community."

Former players and coaches gathered at Vogts' house last night. Football touched every room in the split-level ranch. Trophies, plaques, photos and montages adorned walls in almost every room.

A letter from former U.S. President Bill Clinton hung from a wall, congratulating him for setting the state record for wins. It recognized Vogts as a leader of young men, someone who encouraged them to realize their full potential and the values of discipline, perseverance and hard work.

The Father of Bethpage Football will be missed.

"Football was his life," said his nephew, Bob Burton. "He was the master motivator. Before a Garden City game, he made the bus driver go up and down the streets of Garden City and told all the players that their parents worked for the people who owned those expensive homes. They came off the bus ready to rip people apart. He was priceless."

Vogts' death marks the end of an era - not just in Bethpage but throughout Long Island.

He had been the link to Long Island's football past and present, and now he is gone. There will never be another like him.