Long-time Blue Devils football coach Drew Besler commands the field during a 2016 game at Hamilton High School West. Besler is leaving EHS after taking a job as an assistant principal in another district. (File photo by Martin Griff.)

Drew Besler had a difficult time getting the words out to tell the Ewing High School football team that he was leaving.

His announcement that he was departing to become assistant principal at Helen A. Fort Middle School in Pemberton came on top of the Blue Devils finding out that they were one spot from making the playoffs this year, just missing being one of the 16 playoff teams.

“The whole decision to leave was hard. Telling those kids was hard,” said Besler, who has been head football coach since 2012 and a coach with the program since 2003.

“I’ve only been with those kids for four years, but some of them I coached and taught their brothers and cousins,” he said. “When I told them, you feel like you’re telling every kid that you coached that it’s the end of an era.

“I’ve been there 16 years and it’s all I know. It was pretty emotional for me, it was difficult to tell them and look them in the eye and say, ‘I’m leaving.’”

Besler is leaving after many years in the Ewing family to focus on his own growing family and a new career opportunity. He and his wife have three children under 7 years old. His new post will allow him more time at home in Shamong.

“I missed Halloween,” Besler said. “I know it’s Halloween for a 6-year-old, but I don’t remember my dad ever missing Halloween.

“It’s one of those things where I love the Ewing kids and the community and it was a really hard decision, but it’s at the point where it’s costing time with my own. I looked at it as it’s time to go. I wasn’t even looking for it. A former coach that I worked with told me there was an opening and I applied and I got it.”

‘I met with my team and asked for their support with the younger guys and helping them in the weight room and policing them and keeping them out of trouble.’

Ewing will begin looking to replace Besler, who went 31-37 in his seven seasons as head coach. He made the playoffs three times, including a 7-4 season in 2016 marked by their first playoff win in 14 years. Ewing finished 6-4 this year after a 12-7 win over Hamilton sent Besler out with a win on Nov. 10.

“The search will start immediately because the sooner you can find somebody you’re comfortable with and really like as a program, you want to do that,” said Ewing athletic director Bud Kowal. “Football’s not really just a fall season sport, it’s really 12 months out of the year. You have kids that aren’t involved in other sports working out in the weight room starting in January. We have assistant coaches that will help out with that until someone is named. I think everyone will feel more comfortable once they know who the successor is.”

Besler spoke to his team the week after the season ended to make sure things would continue to progress in the gap before a new head coach is named.

“I’ve already set up what needs to be done with the returning guys,” Besler said. “I met with my team and asked for their support with the younger guys and helping them in the weight room and policing them and keeping them out of trouble and making sure everyone is doing their work. I have a really good senior class and I think they’ll be able to help in that area.”

Besler was set to start at his new position after Thanksgiving. He received his master’s in education administration from Rider University in 2009, but hadn’t used the advanced degree until he had an opportunity to work closer to home and further his career in education.

His new job is just 20 minutes from home, almost 40 minutes closer than Ewing. He won’t be taking his eye off the Ewing program that he built up over 16 years as an assistant and head coach.

“We’re a competitive program now and I’m going to be their biggest fan,” Besler said. “I’m going to be cheering them on. I’ve had coaches reach out to me and ask if I’m interested in coming on and I just said, ‘I’m flattered but this isn’t a football decision. This is a family and career decision.’ My ultimate goal is I want to be a school principal and I have to get started on that.”

Besler came to Ewing after graduating from LaSalle College in 2003. He coached quarterbacks and defensive backs for John Bamber in 2004 before being promoted to offensive coordinator the next year. Seven years later, Besler became head coach and is proud of what since he has established.

“That it’s a program, not a team,” Besler said. “There are a lot of procedures in place. When I took the program over, they didn’t have a pasta party every night before a game or have lunch with each other every day of a game. They didn’t have a legit offseason conditioning program. They didn’t have any kind of mandatory community service. They didn’t have really somebody monitoring their grades constantly. There might have been some grade monitoring before, but not to the extent that I did. Kids who weren’t doing well, I was able to identify and get extra help.

‘I’d hope the next person comes in with, if not the same work ethic, close to the same kind of work ethic that Drew had.’

Besler said that he feels there are now a number of procedures in place that will leave a strong foundation for the new coach to build on.

“Everybody will do it their own special way, but there’s a parent group that knows how to help,” he said. “I think the general procedures are there, and there’s an expectation to win.”

Besler helped at Ewing even outside of the football season. He was an assistant athletic director who served as a site manager for events in the winter and spring. On top of that, he was monitoring offseason workouts and weight lifting.

“The program really benefitted from having him around as long as we did,” Kowal said. “He put in countless hours preparing the team for football games and really preparing each individual kid for successful work in the classroom and successful life. Those kinds of things are really hard to replace.”

Besler taught English for the first 14 years he was at Ewing and in the last two years has been dean of students. He’s come to know the students and Ewing well.

“What really stuck out is how much the community does care about football,” Besler said. “One reason I’ve stayed as long as I have is just because of the support of the community, the support of the board of education, the administration at Ewing. You don’t get that everywhere.”

Nothing has been more important to Besler than the well-being of his players. He’s enjoyed watching them go on to have success in a variety of capacities.

“I have a million stories,” Besler said. “That’s what makes it so enjoyable. I’ve taught two doctors, I’ve taught multiple law enforcement officials, I’ve taught multiple firefighters, I’ve taught a lawyer, I’ve coached an NFL coach who gave me and my family five tickets.”

His former players’ successes will still be a source of pride for Besler. While he’s diving into his new job and future in school administration, he knows it won’t have some of the same appeal as coaching.

I’m going to miss the Friday night lights, the feel of the crowd, it’s an adrenaline rush,” he said. “Everyone has their thing—what gets them up and gets them excited, and that environment under the lights on the turf is great. The band only plays for the football team. The cheerleaders in the fall are just cheering for your football team. It’s a community event.”

Besler hopes the community will continue to enjoy games under his replacement. He’s expecting to see Ewing do well in the coming years.

“We have a freshman class of 30 guys that went undefeated,” Besler said. “I’m leaving the program with some good numbers and talent. If I was on the outside looking in and going for jobs, this would be a job I’d apply for.”

Besler set a high standard in his tenure at Ewing, and the Blue Devils expect more applicants than they got in 2012 when the football job was last open.

“No. 1, I’d hope the next person comes in with, if not the same work ethic, close to the same kind of work ethic that Drew had,” Kowal said. “The biggest thing that Drew did was bring accountability into everybody that was part of the program whether that was the student-athletes or coaching staff or himself. Those are things you do want to see continue because that has a tremendous impact on the success when you talk about wins and losses.”