Here’s my story from Saturday’s Journal News about Ramapo’s new football coach:
Duff Pannell had grown frustrated, but not disillusioned. He knew the teachers and coaches at Ramapo High School were over-stressed, a direct reflection on the stormy culture in one of the area’s most tumultuous school districts.
Instead of continuing to press for more from them, Pannell decided to assume a more active role in finding a solution, at least to what ailed an athletic department felled by defections from top athletes and crippling budget cuts.
This spring, Pannell stepped down as Ramapo’s athletic coordinator and interviewed to become its next football coach. The district hired the Harlem native in that very role in the wake of East Ramapo passing its school budget last month.
“These kids deserve better,” Pannell said, “and they deserved it yesterday.”
Pannell spent the last few months doing more than issuing one-liners. He lived them. Along with assistant coaches Kevin Bullock and Will Pettiford and athletic trainer Mark Smith, Pannell opened the weight room and hosted agility training for returning and aspiring players this spring after the district fired football coach Dan Zotter.
There was no guarantee any of the coaches would be back — and no guarantee Ramapo would have football — but the workouts were necessary to the survival of the program.
“He’s working hard already,” said Spring Valley athletic director Bill Pilla, who oversees sports for the entire district. “He could be a consistent face for the football program. He is a good role model for our kids.”
Pannell — a full-time social studies teacher at the school — coached football at Spring Valley and Ramapo, including a stint when he installed the spread offense as the Gryphons offensive coordinator. He will coach the offense again while Bullock — another Ramapo teacher and the former Spring Valley head coach — will remain the team’s defensive coordinator after he and Pannell made a pact during the interview process that they would coach together.
Pannell may still share athletic coordinator duties with boys basketball coach Austin Goldberg and baseball coach R.J. Mackenzie. He also has begun to pursue another goal of moving home football games back to Ramapo High School — something that would require refurbished facilities for a district strapped for resources.
The school currently plays varsity games at the Torne Valley complex in Hillburn. Playing off-campus limits attendance from the student body, Pannell said.
“Whatever’s necessary to inject some pride back into Ramapo,” said Pannell, who attended high school at Brooklyn Tech and played basketball collegiately at Albany. “The kids in the district deserve it.”
Pannell’s ambition was evident last school year when the athletic program was stripped mid-year and further budgetary cuts became a possibility. His enthusiasm was a key part of his candidacy, according to the interview committee, which made Pannell a unanimous choice.
“Not only did he do well in the interviews, but for what he did for Ramapo this year and the excitement that he brought back to the athletic department,” Pilla said. “I feel like Ramapo football is ready to go and it’s well-staffed for the next 20 years.”
Pannell believes this is a chance to prove he can make more of an impact on the sideline rather than in an office.
“I can understand a lot of teachers are beaten up by what’s going on with the district,” he said. “So I thought I could do better by the kids if I had a whistle around my neck.”