MIKE PETTINE, simply put, was the best. For over three decades, his Central Bucks West football program was the measuring stick. Not just in this area but well beyond.
His record was 326-42-4 in 33 seasons, which included four PIAA state titles. Before playoffs, he had several teams that were considered mythical state champions. He won the last 45 games of his career before stepping down after the 1999 season. In the 1980s, the Bucks put together a 55-game unbeaten streak.
Friday morning, Pettine, 76, suffered a fatal heart attack while playing golf with friends near his winter home north of Tampa, Fla.
"It's just devastating," said Mike Carey, who played for Pettine in the 1970s and was his longtime righthand man before succeeding him for one season. "I'm just numb. It doesn't make any sense. We talked all the time. He was much more than a great coach. He was a true friend and mentor."
Carey said Pettine was in this area last weekend to accept a lifetime achievement award in Harrisburg.
"He was still sharp," Carey said. "He never missed a beat. And it wasn't just about football. You could talk to him about kids, religion, politics, almost anything . . . He was still golfing five days a week. He just took a cart because of his (bad) feet."
Pettine played at Conshohocken High and Villanova. While at West, he had offers to move to the collegiate level.
"He was put on this Earth to be a high-school football coach," Carey said. "He touched so many kids. The other day, I heard from a guy who was a backup quarterback for three years. Now he's a vice president of a company. I hadn't seen him in 30 years. He told me playing at West was the reason he's where he is today. He said his competitive spirit was just so much higher than anyone else's."
Pettine's teams were rarely the biggest or fastest. Just the most fundamentally sound. And innovative.
Souderton coach Ed Gallagher was an assistant at Allentown Central Catholic when he met Pettine in the early 1990s. They talked about one of West's upcoming playoff opponents. Later, Pettine helped run a football camp at Souderton.
"He was really intense when it came to football and coaching," Gallagher said. "But he was a really good man who had a big heart. And he cared about a lot of the kids who played for him."
Pennridge coach Jeff Hollenbach, who lost to West 49-7 in the 1999 District 1 semifinals, said: "I think one of the keys to his success was the offseason strength and conditioning program Mike developed. He was ahead of his time in that respect."
North Penn Dick Beck played for Pettine in the 1980s and later coached for him, against him and with him. He played at Temple, mostly because of Pettine.
"He looked out for us," Beck said. "I was a 5-111/2, 245-pound offensive lineman. He basically begged Bruce Arians to take me. And he kept asking him until he did. There were lots of stories like that.
"He was just one of those old-school guys who demanded a lot, but was there for you at every turn. I played golf with him last summer, and he beat the crap out of me. There was nothing fake about him. I remember him saying, 'I can teach anyone to run the ball. I need people who can block and tackle.' He just wanted to outwork you. And he usually did. He just beat you fair and square. I've seen good guys and bad guys through the years. He was in it for one reason – the kids . . .
"He was very focused, very determined. He wanted 11 guys doing something right on every play. What foot are you stepping with, what angle are you taking? He didn't pull punches. Everyone saw him as a hard-ass, but there was another side to him. We used to joke that he threw compliments around like manhole covers. But when he gave you one, it really meant something. We learned a lot of life lessons."
Pettine is survived by his wife Joyce, son Michael Jr. - who quarterbacked for him, coached against him at North Penn (but never beat him) and coached the Cleveland Browns in 2014-15 - daughters Linda and Sandy, and six grandchildren.
No funeral information was available.
"There's no warning, no nothing," Carey said. "He was absolutely the most amazing person I ever met. He wasn't just a hard-nosed coach. All the things he was imparting on you, you didn't really understand until later. But they meant everything."
West athletic director Henry Hunt remembers scrimmaging against the Bucks when he played for Archbishop Ryan.
"We thought we were the best team in the Catholic League, so we were going to show them," he recalled. "They kicked our (butts). He changed the way high school football was played. There are so many people in Doylestown who are connected to him. He's legendary. There's such appreciation and respect for who he was. People don't leave here. His house is right around the corner from the school. He just wanted his players to be part of something great, something bigger than yourself.
"You can't imagine the sense of loss everyone is feeling. It's all anyone's talking about."
That's how it is with the best. They leave unfillable voids.
Staff writer Rick O'Brien contributed to this article.