Joe S. Del Gais was always teaching. It didn’t much matter where he was. He could be in a classroom, passing down the finer points of history to his students. Or, he could be in his living room, teaching his children about baseball or classic movies. Or, he could be on the football field, teaching players to excel at the game he loved.
Del Gais, who never had much interest in retirement, coached high school and middle school football for 54 years, serving as head coach at Baldwin in the early 1970s, West Hempstead in the early 1990s, and Jericho and Wantagh Middle School in the 2000s.
"Playing for him was a great experience," said Richard Carroll, who played on some of Del Gais’ first teams at Baldwin. "I liken him to my own father. He was just that kind of guy that was tough. He made you accountable for things. Looking back, I appreciate everything he did for us. He made us respect things."
Del Gais, a father of three and longtime Wantagh resident, died Dec. 3 of heart failure at Plainview Hospital, his family said. He was 83.
In between head coaching gigs, Del Gais was an assistant at Freeport, Lawrence, and Oceanside. He coached until 2017.
"People have told me he was a cross between [former Ohio State coach] Woody Hayes and [former Michigan coach] Bo Schembechler," said son Joe L. Del Gais, 56 of Wantagh. "But, he had a love and compassion for his players, where he truly cared about the kids that he coached. Not so much if they could help him win a game, just about them as people, which is what I think his players remember."
Said Rich Mollo, former Lawrence coach who had Del Gais on his staff: "He always had a smile on his face and a joke to crack. He would really bring out the best in people that he dealt with. It wasn’t always the best teams, but he did a great job developing kids and helping them get to college."
Baldwin won the 1970 South Shore Athletic League II championship in Del Gais’ first season running the varsity squad.
"Because he coached [junior varsity], he knew exactly what type of offense we needed to run," said Tom Calder, who played on that team and later was the athletic director at Johns Hopkins University. "We went to a single-wing…We would have reverses, double reverses. It was a lot of fun. The offense was great."
While Del Gais was a major proponent of developing a game planning philosophy and sticking with it, he was always flexible enough to make sure he had the talent to make it work.
"He wasn’t going to fit his personnel to his philosophy," said Steve Carroll, a former player and the current coach at Baldwin. "He saw what he had and worked that way with it…. Coach Del Gais seemed to always get the best out of his players."
Born Sept. 23, 1937 at Meadowbrook Hospital in East Meadow, Joe S. Del Gais grew up one of six children in a small house in Inwood. He played football and baseball at Chaminade and Lawrence, where he spent his senior year, and Elon University in North Carolina, where he graduated with a degree in education.
Del Gais graduated Elon in May of 1960 and, one month later, was drafted into the Army, serving in the intelligence unit.
When he returned home in 1962, he tried out for the Mets. A 26-year-old catcher, he attempted to convince the organization he was five years younger, but the Mets were suspicious and told him he was too old.
Del Gais then turned to teaching, a vocation that became a love. He taught for 55 years, first as a social studies and driver’s education teacher in the Baldwin district for 33 years, and then, after a short attempt at retirement, a permanent substitute at Wantagh High and middle school for another 22. He retired in the spring of 2018 at the age of 80.
Del Gais possessed a wealth of knowledge about a variety of subjects and kept his mind sharp by doing crossword puzzles, his son said.
In addition to his son, Joe S. Del Gais is survived by his wife of 57-years, Marie of Wantagh, daughters Katherine Butler of Seaford and Jennifer Cacciabaudo of Garden City, sister Maria Capone of North Carolina, brothers Patrick of Woodmere and Dennis of North Carolina, and eight grandchildren. A funeral was held Monday at St. William the Abbot Church in Seaford. He was buried at Greenfield Cemetery in Uniondale, his son said.