O’Donnell takes coaching reins for Haverford

HAVERFORD — With a daunting playoff challenge looming, business was kept as usual as it could be Wednesday afternoon at Haverford High, even as the Fords prepare for a football game under circumstances that are anything but ordinary.

The Fords went through what was by all indications a normal practice, even if they were forced to do so without head coach Joe Gallagher, who the school district announced Wednesday was taking a leave of absence stemming from a DUI arrest Saturday.

The immediate ramification for the Fords (7-3) will be playing their District One Class AAAA playoff opener Friday night at Coatesville without the 23-year veteran coach on the sidelines.

Gallagher’s longtime assistant Jack O’Donnell will fill in Friday and potentially beyond on an interim basis. Wednesday, the battle for O’Donnell and his staff was to maintain a sense of normalcy without Gallagher’s usually steadying presence.

“It’s not about one person,’ O’Donnell said. “It’s about a program, and Joe’s always made it that way.’

Gallagher was arrested Saturday after allegedly striking a vehicle in Prospect Park and fleeing the scene. He’s facing charges of driving under the influence of alcohol, reckless driving and failure of duty to give information and render aid.

A spokesman from the Haverford School District said Gallagher would continue in his capacity as a physical education teacher while not on the sidelines. His leave of absence will cover this weekend’s trip to Coatesville, but the statement made no mention of who would coach the Fords’ potential Thanksgiving Day date with Upper Darby.

Gallagher’s players were informed of the decision Tuesday in a team meeting that O’Donnell said was all business.

“We talked all football,’ he said. “We told them to play their roles, we’ll play ours and we will go forward as best we can in this situation.’

O’Donnell did not make players available for comment Wednesday.

The Fords went through a normal practice session Wednesday afternoon in an atmosphere that was a little subdued, if only for the purposefulness of the challenge ahead. There was a constant reminder from coaches that the Haverford program has never won a playoff game under District One’s current format and an intense yet jovial air as players shuffled through tackling drills.

Friday’s game for the No. 16 seeded Fords shapes up as a stiff challenge, paying a visit to Coatesville (10-0), the only undefeated team in Class AAAA and one of only two unbeaten teams in District One. Class AAA Springfield is the other.

The degree of difficulty would’ve been pronounced even if not for the dramatic shift in coaching duties just days before the playoff collision. O’Donnell admits that while he’s nominally in charge, the circling of the wagons is a “totally democratic process’ with him and three fellow assistants.

“I just assumed some additional roles because now we’re five guys distilled down to four,’ O’Donnell said. “We’ve all got to assume some responsibility with that.’

Gallagher is one of the most decorated coaches in Delaware County football history. A member of St. James’ 1972 undefeated football team who went on to play at the University of Tennessee, Gallagher was inducted this year into the Delaware County Chapter of the Pennsylvania Hall of Fame. The Fords’ 17-8 victory over Ridley last week in a win-and-in affair was the 125th of Gallagher’s coaching career.

In O’Donnell, the Fords at least have an interim replacement with head coaching experience. He piloted the Fords from 1985-91, compiling a 27-50 record over seven seasons before stepping down and paving the way for Gallagher to take the helm in 1992.

O’Donnell, who was an assistant for four seasons under Hal Bauer and Rich Boyd in the early 1980s, has been on Gallagher’s staff for 19 of his 23 seasons, excluding a four-year sabbatical for family reasons in the early 2000s.

“Joe’s my best friend,’ O’Donnell said, “so I’m scared for Joe.’

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