Guard Tom Dolina played next to tackle Mike Papero on the right side of the Hamilton West offensive line in the autumn of 2000. The two have been tight ever since, and Dolina knows as well as anyone how important it was to his buddy that he got the Hornet head coaching job after Tom Hoglen stepped down last winter.
“He wanted it very badly, and I don’t think I could have consoled him if he didn’t get it,” said Dolina, now the West defensive coordinator, with a smile. “He’s been coming to the games since he was a little kid. He watched the progression of Hornet football come back. Hamilton West football is in his DNA.”
That comes as no surprise to pretty much anyone ever associated with West football over the last 30 years. When he was attending Rowan University, his predecessor already knew what Papero wanted.
“When I was in college, Coach Hoglen knew I wanted to coach at West,” said Papero, who graduated in 2002 and played under Hoglen his senior year. “That was my first choice. I had never seriously thought about coaching anywhere else. It was Hamilton West or nowhere. And that’s even as an assistant. As a head coach, I would not put in for any other job. Teams could offer me other jobs, and I would turn them down. I was either going to be the head coach at Hamilton West or I wasn’t going to be a head coach anywhere.”
It is no wonder athletic director John Costantino stated, “Papero was our natural choice.”
“He’s a kid who grew up in the system,” the AD said. “He used to carry the headsets around when his older brother played, and then came up through the program. He was a Hamilton West kid, he’s been involved in the program since he started teaching here. He bleeds Orange and Black football.”
He had no other choice. It was all around him.
Growing up an extra-point’s length away from the school, he would step onto his front porch on a crisp weekend morning and hear the band warming up before a game. His dad, Pat Papero, founded the Hamilton Pop Warner League with Bud Ralston, and Mike played in the inaugural season for the Hornets. By then he had already been working the sidelines for the Keith Hartbauer-led Hornets varsity because he was one pound too heavy to play rec football on Saturdays.
It was then that Papero realized his calling in life.
“People think I’m crazy, but when I was about 9 or 10 and carrying the wires for Coach Hartbauer’s headsets, I was just kind of in awe of him and all the coaches,” he said. “At 9 or 10 years old, I wanted to be the next Keith Hartbauer. I remember all the phrases he would say and the way he would carry himself on the field, off the field.
“Going back to the early 90s, I realized this is what I wanted. I still keep in touch with him and he always said, ‘You can’t be the next Keith Hartbauer, you just have to be Mike Papero.’ I made sure I remembered that; but I also made sure I remembered everything I learned from him and Coach Hoglen, Coach Norm Paul, Chuck Murphy, Mike Taylor and all the other guys.”
By the time he was playing in high school—where he was part of a sectional finalist team—Papero was already letting his inner-coach surface.
“He was a football guy back then; he lived and breathed it,” Dolina said. “We all did to a certain degree back then, but he had the look in his eyes that not a lot of other people had. You could tell he was gonna make this his life in some way. I’m not surprised right now he’s got the head job.”
Not surprisingly, he has embraced it. Once he was hired in March, Hamilton West Football became a brand name, popping up all over Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Pleas for artists to re-design the helmet logo appeared, or just shout-outs to Hornets past.
“He’s all over social media,” Costantino said. “You look at the number of paraprofessionals we have coming back to help the program that were former players. That’s huge.”
It was something the Hornets former offensive line coach felt had to be done.
“Nowadays it’s more than just getting on the field and playing football,” he said. “It’s about getting the fans back again; getting people in the neighborhood to wear Hamilton football stuff. I didn’t have any social media before I put in for the head coaching job. Now I have it, I don’t put much personal stuff on there. It’s about Hamilton West football—I stay away from politics or anything that has to do with my opinion. I’m just trying to sell this program and get people excited. I want to see those stands packed on Saturday.”
His defensive coordinator feels it is an aggressively positive game plan.
“Besides head coach and tactician, he’s definitely the brand manager of Hamilton West football,” Dolina said. “He has an idea what he wants to be and he’s marketed it that way. When McDonald’s wants to sell a burger, they tell you this is the greatest thing ever. He’s selling Hamilton football right now but he’s also backing it up by saying we’re making our comeback, we’re gonna be winning and doing all the things we need to do to make it better.”
Papero is quick to point out that anything he does, is just a process of building on top of a foundation within himself, that was already started by his former mentors.
“It’s tough following a coach like Coach Hoglen, who has the program’s all-time winning record and cared about the kids as much as anybody I’ve ever met,” Papero said. “It’s not about changing anything that Coach Hoglen did, it’s just about, sometimes somebody new takes over and that just happens to be me. I appreciate everything he did and Coach Hartbauer did, I’m following two of the best coaches in the history of the school. Hopefully I can continue the process and bring a state title here.”
And while football is the hub of it all, Papero wants to go beyond just Xs and Os and wins and losses. He is focused on academics and is also looking into giving back to the community, much like Hoglen did. Papero is in meetings with the John O. Wilson Center executives as the two look to partner and help those in need.
“We are going to be a part of their food drive, maybe help with their clothing drive,” Papero said. “We also started a scholarship for Jarred Crowley, a former teammate who passed away years ago.”
As a long-time assistant, Papero knows a head man is only as good as those who surround him, and feels is blessed with quality coaches “who are good men who really care about the kids.”
He unabashedly claims he is “living the dream,” although his time to dream has curtailed since his sleeping patterns have changed. Well, not really changed, as much as just lessened as his Sep. 6 regular-season debut at Somerville draws near.
“I sleep for three or four hours a night,” Papero said. “I had that feeling of anxiety before the first practice. Not because I was nervous, but because I was so excited. It’s great. It’s everything I thought it would be. It’s better than I thought it would be.”
Which is why it’s the only coaching job he ever thought about.