Tom Flatley, who exhibited quiet greatness as one of Long Island’s iconic high school coaches for more than 50 years, died Tuesday after a long battle with pancreatic cancer.
Flatley, of Garden City, was 80 years old.
You could make the case that he was the finest high school football coach of all time. His Garden City football teams made a record 14 appearances in the Long Island Championships, winning five crowns.
“He’s one of Long Island’s greatest coaches of all time,” said Pat Pizzarelli, the executive director of Section VIII, the governing body of Nassau’s high school athletics. “He was a disciplinarian, who demanded excellence. He was all about great sportsmanship and lifting his players to the highest standard. Long Island has lost an icon.”
Flatley was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Garden City. He graduated from Garden City in 1959 and went on to Lehigh University, where he earned his degree in business.
“He realized his love for coaching and went to Hofstra University to get his degree in Education,” said his daughter Christine Bellocco of East Meadow. “My Dad wanted to coach.”
Flatley landed his first job teaching history and economics and coaching boys lacrosse at Sewanhaka. When he left Sewanhaka to coach at Garden City, he moved to Elmont High School to teach until his retirement in 1995.
He would meet Helen Shanley of East Rockaway and get married in 1964. They enjoyed a 47-year love affair before Helen died of pancreatic cancer in 2011.
“He’s a one in a million guy,” said longtime friend and Garden City lacrosse coach Steve Finnell. “He’s had an impact on Long Island for more than 50 years. Some guys can connect with kids 15 or 20 years. He connected with them for more than 50. He was demanding and wanted kids to commit to the team and the program whether they were a superstar or not.”
During his coaching tenure at Garden City from 1985-2014, Flatley earned 18 Nassau conference crowns and reached the playoffs in 29 of 30 years. His teams won four Rutgers Cups, presented to the best team in Nassau. He also holds the highest winning percentage (.879) of any football coach in Long Island history with more than 50 games coached.
Finnell, who played JV lacrosse and varsity football for Flatley, graduated in 1991, and has fond memories of his mentor.
“Our teams were always so well prepared on the football field because he was so meticulous in his game day preparation,” Finnell said. “We always knew what the other team was doing. He made us look good.”
Finnell also had the opportunity to coach alongside Flatley for the past three decades.
“I got to see his work ethic and followed his lead,” Finnell said. “There are computer systems you can dump all the information into and find tendencies for your opponents. It took the computer industry 30 years to catch up to what Tom Flatley was doing in his own mind.”
Flatley, nicknamed Flats, was presented the United States Lacrosse Lifetime Achievement Award in 2019. He is also a member of the New York State Public High Schools Athletic Association Hall of Fame and the Nassau County High School Athletic Hall of Fame.
For all his accomplishments, Flatley was a man without ego. He produced greatness in his players and a winning culture in Garden City where he guided them to 264 wins and seven undefeated seasons. He also coached Team USA U19 to a gold medal at the World Lacrosse Championships in 1982.
“He was an amazing person, who cared about the entire Garden City community,” said Garden City football coach Dave Ettinger. “He trusted his coaches to do their jobs and taught our kids it wasn’t just X's and O's. He was about life lessons and how to treat people. And he believed if you do the work, you’ll get the results you want. He showed us the blueprint for success and always had a plan and it was a smart plan. What our kids learned on the field they took with them into their lives to be successful.”
“If you were a parent on Long Island and looking to play for a great coach, teacher and mentor and someone who treated the kids well, that would embody Flatley,” said Mike Candel, a former Nassau CC lacrosse coach and a veteran sports reporter at Newsday for 25 years. “We may never see the likes of him again.”
Flatley, who owned a few thoroughbred horses and loved hunting and fishing was a man who lived a full life. He even handpicked his pallbearers.
“My Dad said about his pallbearers, ‘These were the people who carried me through life, and I want them to carry me home,’” his daughter Christine said. "Dad was like an onion and as you peeled away the layers and got to his heart, you found an amazing man. He was never comfortable talking about himself, a truly selfless individual, who liked to spread the accolades to his coaches and players.”
He is also survived by his son Michael Flatley of East Hampton, Connecticut, a captain in the U.S. Navy, daughter Jennifer Bauman of Houston and his partner Diane Anda of Chestertown, N.Y. He also has nine grandchildren.
The family will hold a private funeral followed by a burial on Friday at the Holy Rood Cemetery in Westbury.
Garden City Football
.879 Winning percentage
30 Years as head coach (1985-2014)
29 Playoff appearances
18 Nassau Conference titles
14 Appearances in the LIC, a record
5 Long Island championships
.863 Winning percentage
1 Nassau title (1981)
7 Years as head coach (1976-1982)