Weekly Feature

2018-03-08 / Sports

Tundo steps down after legendary career on the gridiron

Sports Reporter

The time ticks down in Orchard Park’s first New York State football championship. They lead Monroe-Woodbury as the clock ticks down to zero on Nov. 30, 2008. When the game finally ends, the first thing longtime coach Gene Tundo does is hug his son and star two-way player, Jeff. After nearly three decades of coaching, he had reached the pinnacle of the sport with his son by his side.

When Tundo looks back at his 38-year football career, this is what he thinks of most fondly.

“There are a lot of games that stand out, but when we won our first state championship and I got to hug my son, that was probably the best feeling,” Tundo said. “It was our first state title. To be able to do it with a great group of guys was pretty cool.”

The longtime coach will hang up his whistle as one of the most successful careers in Western New York High School history. After all this time, he’s decided he’d like to spend less time watching time and more time with his family.

“I’ve been coaching for 37 years, so it’s hard to coach three sports for that long at a high level,” Tundo said. “From 6 a.m. to 10 at night, I don’t come home or put football away. I always tried to research the heck out of what we’re doing to get better at it. It’s just a lot of things. There are a couple great guys that have a little bit more energy than me right now. It’s their turn.”

Tundo began his coaching career in Lackawanna, where he led the wrestling team for two years in the late 1970s. He came to Orchard Park as an assistant coach in 1980, where he remained for more than a decade. In the 1990s, he took over as the varsity head coach. The success began almost right away. He led the team to 17 sectional finals, 12 sectional titles, two state titles in 2008 and 2011, and a state final runner-up in 2012. He was also a highly successful lacrosse coach, winning more than 20 sectional titles before stepping down in 2016.

“I think it’s just that I’ve had an unbelievable group of kids,” Tundo said. “I think we did pretty good. I’m proud of what we did. We were probably in five to eight final fours and we went to the state finals three times. That’s very good. I’m happy with what we achieved, and our kids have been phenomenal.”

Under Tundo’s watch, the program pioneered the system of using similar playbooks and terminology from little league all the way through varsity.

“Our kids have performed every year,” Tundo. “We’ve done a great job. I was lucky to have some great coaches that I coached under that taught me the game. I just think that our Little Loop program has been awesome. My friend started it – Dave Bonacquisti. They’ve always done what we’ve done and copied what we did so it would be seamless between Little Loop, junior high and high school.”

Those around Tundo describe him as a football genius. His coordinators – Chuck Senn on offense and Craig Dana on defense – have been with the program for two decades and have been in their current positions since 2012. Both have been wowed with Tundo’s wealth of knowledge.

“Gene’s a savant; he knows everything,” Senn said. “He can answer any question that you ever have. He’s really taught us how to make the game fun for the kids first and foremost. When you go up a level, football gets more challenging and difficult. We always tried to keep things easy for the kids to understand and remember stuff. That piece there I don’t think anyone else could have taught more. For Gene, it is always about the kid.

“He’s been just an unbelievable mentor, just with all the lessons he’s taught us in meetings and during games,” Dana said. “When I started in 2012, I was the defensive coordinator, but I was basically facilitating the defense that he wanted to run. His insight was just unsurpassed. “There’s a reason that he has the records that he has. There’s not anything that he hasn’t seen. He watches five minutes of film and he sees stuff that I have to watch for an hour to figure out.”

Tundo hasn’t just been a help to those who coached with him, he was also vital to David Hack transitioning into the Athletic Director job six years ago.

“It’s been great working with Gene,” Hack said. “He’s such an insightful guy on so many topics and in so many capacities. He’s an outstanding person who cares about the students. He has an ability to see things before other people do, and that’s what separates him from the rest. If you think of something, chances are Gene already thought of it 10 days ago. That’s just how he is, how he thinks and prepares. He always wants to gather more knowledge and is a student of what he is attempting to do.”

Tundo has also earned the respect of his opponents. Lancaster coach Eric Rupp went against Orchard Park as both a player and a coach. He played for the Legends in the late 90s and early 2000s, where he first met Tundo.

“We had a real close game at home and we won 17-14,” Rupp said. “I just remember that he was very complimentary going through the handshake line.”

Rupp served as a varsity assistant for a few years after graduating from college. In 2016, he took over as head coach and led the team on an undefeated run to the sectional final, where they took on Tundo’s Quakers. The Legends would go on to win their first sectional title in 17 years. They followed that up with a run to the state title game this season. But they knew they would have to go through Orchard Park to have any success in Class AA.

“I think coach Tundo is an icon,” Rupp said. ‘Orchard Park was the standard for Class AA for many years. They had a tremendous run and obviously most of the credit goes to him. I told the kids that if they want to be considered the best team in Western New York, you have to beat the best. As far as teams go in Class AA, Orchard Park was the standard.”

Tundo is not completely done with coaching; he’s currently gearing up for the girls track season. Much like his lacrosse and football teams, the Lady Quakers have fairly high expectations going into the season.

“We have about 70 girls signed up right now,” Tundo said. “It’s a different orientation. Track is different. It’s a lot of preparation but it’s more individual. The practices are still team-like and we like to keep it fun, but they’re a great group of girls. We have a lot of talent. I’ll approach it the same way. I study the heck out of track and field. It’s not going to be any different for me. I’m competitive. The only thing is my 100-yard dash isn’t as good anymore. I’ve slowed down a couple steps.”

Although Orchard Park football will be different without Tundo’s presence looming, the program will continue on in what he feels are good hands.

“Football is doing fine in Orchard Park,” Tundo said. “My grandson plays Little Loop and there are tons of kids playing. I think they’ll continue to do that also.”

There will be a different Orchard Park football coach next year, but Tundo’s legacy will live on.

“We wish him the best in whatever him and his family do next,” Senn said. “He’ll always be a part of OP football. He’ll always be Orchard Park football.”

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