By Ted Waddell
LAKE HUNTINGTON February 19, 2008 Upstairs in the hallway above the old gym floor, past exploits of Monticello Central School athletes are on display in the form of trophies and plaques recording triumphs earned over the years.
On one of the wooden cases, a little white heart-shaped doily said it all.
“We’ll miss you Coach O’Neill,” an anonymous author had penned on a corner of the little paper mat.
A few months ago, O’Neill decided he would retire as a coach and teacher at the end of the current academic year.
Before the tipoff of Thursday night’s Orange County Interscholastic Athletic Association (OCIAA) Division III matchup between the Panthers and the visiting Cornwall Green Dragons, the community turned out in force to wish O’Neill a fond farewell during senior recognition night.
O’Neill was presented with a collection of photographs and a No. 21 jersey from his playing days at Chester High School back in 1964.
A bit later in the ceremony, the veteran coach presented personalized basketballs to a couple of his friends in the game: Walt Saunders for 25 years in the game, and Evan Williams in honor of four decades at the scorer’s table.
O’Neill’s coaching career began in 1969 when he worked at a school for troubled kids in Warwick.
After the alternative education experience, O’Neill coached varsity boys’ basketball for five seasons at John S. Burke Catholic High School in Goshen. He has been guiding Monticello varsity hoops squads since the 1985-1986 season.
He posted his 400th career win back on Nov. 30, as his team opened the 2007-08 season by defeating Western Wayne (Pa.) at the 10th annual Hawley (Pa.) Rotary Tip-Off Tournament.
“I’m glad we’ve gotten this Dick O’Neill farewell tour over with,” O’Neill said after Thursday night’s game, which Cornwall won, 76-32.
His reaction to all the hoopla?
“I’m so appreciative of it, I just wish we’d played a little better,” he said.
What’s O’Neill’s philosophy of basketball?
“I think it’s building the trust,” he replied. “If you’re going to be in this business, once they trust you you’ve got it… you have to develop that trust and that bond [with players].”
O’Neill said the highlights of his coaching career were landing the jobs at Burke and Monticello.
“It’s been a good run here, a good profession at the right level,” he said.
“As far as I’m concerned, coaching basketball at the high school level is at the top. This is what I wanted to do with my life.”