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Coach reminisces on championship season 40 years later

RESERVE – Forty years later, former East St. John head coach Phil Greco vividly remembers the day his Wildcats took down Barbe for the 1980 Quad A Football Championship.

It was the last year a Louisiana high school football championship was played outside of the New Orleans Superdome. The McNeese State stadium was packed to its 20,000-person capacity with all the hype and fanfare of a college football game.

“The whole community supported us,” Greco said. “I promise you, when we played the game in Lake Charles, there was hardly anybody left in Reserve, Garyville or LaPlace. They were all there. You couldn’t fit another person in the stands.”

The Barbe Bucs were 14-0 heading into the finals after averaging nearly five touchdowns per game in the regular season, but they were no match for East St. John’s winning combination of blocking and tackling. With only a minute left in the game and the Bucs trailing by seven, Wildcat linebacker Fred Cook slammed into quarterback Doug Quinalty at the two-yard line to secure the 15-8 win.

It was Greco’s third year as head coach and the Wildcats’ first undefeated season in 55 years.

East St. John started the year determined to make a deep dive into the playoffs after falling short the previous year. Greco remembers it as a magical year where everybody pulled together and had remarkable chemistry on and off the field.

“We had a good group of seniors,” Greco recalled. “Most had been with me for three years, so we had a good relationship. The other thing we had was good continuity of the coaching staff. We had only lost one coach in three years.”

It was a cohesive team that, above all, just refused to lose.

The Wildcats won a lot of close games leading up to the playoffs. They upset John Ehret, the No. 1 team in the state at the time, in a 14-13 blitz in Reserve. An away game at West Jefferson culminated in a victory in the last play of the game, earning East St. John a ticket to the Quad A playoffs.

“Those were two games in district that, if we would not have won at the time, we would not have made the playoffs,” Greco said. “Once we hit the playoffs, we sort of hit a stride. The kids got better and better each week.”

Clutching that championship trophy was not only a dream come true for the team and coaching staff; it was also an open door to new opportunities.

The 1980 championship win propelled Greco into coaching college football. Prior to arriving at East St. John, he had coached at Archbishop Shaw and De La Salle. After the championship title was in hand, Greco found himself surrounded by college offers.

Greco’s next coaching position was at Northwestern Louisiana, now known as the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. He went on to coach at Southern Mississippi, Tulane and Nicholls State.

Greco has kept in touch with some of the 1980 team members, especially Timmy Byrd, an LSU commit at the time who now serves as the head basketball coach and athletic director for Riverside Academy in Reserve. Greco has also attended 1981 class reunions to keep up with that year’s group of seniors.

“You look back at a bunch of those guys, and they are all successful,” Greco said. “They’ve done well, and that’s more gratifying than anything. Looking back, we’ve had a positive impact on them. They took the lessons that we’ve taught them in the football areas and brought it over to their lives.”