As far as Bill James is concerned, the less people that people say about him in his new position as Steinert High School athletic director, the better he is doing at the job.
“When you watch a game and you have that good official, you say, ‘That official was good, who was it?’” James noted. “Well, you didn’t notice him because he ran the game well. I feel with an athletic director, you may know who the athletic director is, but they shouldn’t be the center of attention. It’s about the kids and about the teams.”
Which is the approach James has taken in more than 34 years of high school coaching, with the last 29 being at Steinert. The long-time township resident was officially hired July 20 to replace Nate Webber, who left for Notre Dame. James worked with Webber for a week and began flying solo Aug. 1.
It is a job that he has spent an entire career grooming himself for. Ask football coach Dan Caruso, who was never happier to lose a defensive coordinator.
“Bill has been heavily invested in Steinert for 30 years,” Caruso said. “He has put two kids (Will and Brendan) through the school and its athletic programs, and he has another son (Colin) who will graduate this year. Bill has coached multiple sports in the school and been involved with many athletic programs in a variety of roles. He cares about the success of the school and its athletic programs.
Caruso says James has a working relationship with all the coaches. “As a coach, having the support of your athletic director is so important for success and I have been blessed to have some great ADs. I am confident Bill will continue this tradition and I very much look forward to seeing him in the role,” he said.
James was hired by new principal Bryan Rogers, who played baseball and basketball at Steinert in the 1990s and was the girls basketball coach (with great success) late in the 2000s and early in the 2010s. Rogers experienced James both as a student and a teaching colleague, and always liked what he saw. He echoed Caruso’s thoughts.
“Bill is extremely hard working and organized, which is essential when you are handling the schedules and events for all of the athletic teams,” Rogers said. “But most importantly, Bill is invested in Steinert and motivated to see our student-athletes and athletic programs succeed.”
James was born in Philadelphia, but moved to Hamilton at a young age, when his father was transferred to a job in New York City. He played football and ice hockey at Notre Dame before graduating in 1984, and was a member of the Irish’s 11-0 state championship team.
After a year on the football team at the University of New Hampshire, James transferred to Mercer County Community College, and then to Trenton State (now The College of New Jersey).
James suffered a season-ending injury in football his first year at TSC and became a volunteer assistant coach at Notre Dame. Upon graduation in 1989, he returned to ND full time as a history teacher, and his coaching career began in earnest.
With AD Vince Ardery providing the stamp of approval, James was an assistant coach in ice hockey and football. He coached under the legendary Chappy Moore in football, and Frank “The Godfather” Gatto was part of the staff.
James and Gatto both landed jobs at Steinert in the same year — 1994. It was ironic because The Godfather went on to be the Spartans head football coach and James his defensive coordinator. And now with James stepping down as Caruso’s DC, the head coach has hired Gatto to take James’ place.
Along with teaching history and coaching football, James was also a Spartans ice hockey assistant. He was head hockey coach from 1998-2011, and at one point was working three sports as he coached a bunch of his football lineman in the throws for the track and field team.
After taking a few years off from football to gain his masters in administration and watch Will and Brendan play sports at Steinert — both did football and baseball — James returned to the football team and became defensive coordinator again when Bob Ziegler left for Hun in 2013.
As he continued to build his coaching resume, James grew eager to put his administration degree to work. He applied for several jobs in the district to no avail. But when Rogers became principal, Webber left, and his kids all but one year away from being graduated, James felt it was the perfect time to make a move.
“I always thought if I had the chance to be athletic director at Steinert that I would love the opportunity,” he said. “They have great people, great teachers, great coaches, great kids. I knew a lot of kids through working sports, I’d always be at a lot of games. I figured what’s the best way to touch a lot of athletes at the same time than by being the athletic director.
“I applied and I was fortunate enough to get the position. I just want to thank Bryan Rogers, (Superintendent) Scott Rocco and the board of education for the opportunity.”
Rogers pointed out that during his time at Steinert, he got to see “a lot of great athletic directors” in action, including Rich Giallella, Brian Smith, John Costantino and, when he was a student, Paul Tessein. The new principal realizes a good AD must direct traffic in the athletic department and be a steady presence at athletic events of all levels.
James checked the boxes.
“It is important he maintains open lines of communication with all of the stakeholders,” the principal said. “Developing relationships with our coaches, students, and community is essential. Flexibility is also key because of the many changes that occur with schedules and even facilities. Being proactive to prevent issues that may occur and staying composed when things do not go as planned is very important.
“I witnessed all the qualities that are necessary to be successful when I played and coached here. I was confident, with the members on the interview committee, that we would find the best person to lead Steinert’s athletic department. I believe Bill possesses all those qualities and am very confident that Bill will be very successful as athletic director.”
James also feels Rogers will be a standout principal at the school, and feels fortunate to be working under someone who has an athletic background.
“Our philosophy is very similar in that every sport matters,” James said. “No matter what the sport, when an athlete plays that sport it’s the most important sport to them and they deserve to have the best opportunity they can. It’s always about the kids. I don’t care what event, what sport — it’s important to them. We need that for our students and the whole idea of co-curricular activities.
“Bryan and I are on the same page with a lot of things we discussed through the whole interview process. I look forward to working with him. I think it’s gonna be a good relationship.”
As Rogers mentioned, one of the biggest keys to being a good athletic director is organization. If the AD doesn’t have every detail in order — including a Plan B depending on weather, late buses, or any number of things — they will get buried.
James possesses just such a knack.
“Having coached with Bill and taught in the same department as him for 20 years I can say he is one of, if not the most organized guys I have ever been around,” Caruso said. “He was prepared for everything that came his way on the football field and in the classroom and this will translate well to AD. As a coach, Bill would have scouting reports and plays diagrammed from years ago for a team we were playing the upcoming week.”
Always willing to learn, James took a little bit from each of his mentors over the years. He mentioned Ardery, Moore and John Simone at Notre Dame; along with Tessein, Giallella, Gatto, Gazdek and Webber at Steinert.
“What do you say about Paul Tessein?” James wondered. “Just watching him and the things he did. It was just tremendous. And then coaching with Frank Gatto and being under all those other guys, they’ve all taught me things by just observing them.”
He was also thankful to fellow township ADs John Costantino at Hamilton and Jon Adams at Nottingham for reaching out to offer any assistance he needed. And he is truly grateful to be able to watch Colin play his final year with Steinert’s football and baseball teams, while oldest son Will coaches the Spartans freshman football team with Joe Panfili.
After beating a health scare last fall, James considers himself blessed to not only be back and enjoying a productive life, but to be able to remain in the same building for 30 years while still starting on a new adventure.
“I’m looking forward to this opportunity to be with all the student-athletes across the board,” James said. “I know a lot of the athletes through teaching but now I’ll get to see and associate even more. I want to be able to bring my years of experience to help them and help the coaches. The majority are experienced coaches. They don’t really need much from me, just the assistance to run their programs as best as they can.”
And one of those coaches, respected in his sport throughout Mercer County, is certain that the right man is leading them and the student-athletes.
“Bill is the type of guy that throws his heart and soul into every task he takes on,” Caruso said. “He is invested in the Steinert community and truly cares about the school and all the athletic programs. We are losing a great coach and teacher for sure, but gaining a great administrator.”