Dec. 9, 1995.

East Camden.

Cold rain.

Really cold. Really raining.

Bob Coffey took his Mainland High School football team to Woodrow Wilson that miserable Saturday afternoon to face the Tigers, the No. 1 team in The Inquirer's South Jersey Top 10 rankings, in the South Jersey Group 3 championship game.

"Nobody thought we could win that game," Coffey recalled the other day, looking back on the signature victory of a career that spanned 30 seasons and included both incredible highs and incomprehensible lows.

Coffey coached his final game for Mainland on Thanksgiving Day at Egg Harbor Township.

His beloved Mustangs beat Egg Harbor Township, 27-25, sending the coach into retirement with a career record of 187-118-2.

But the numbers never mattered all that much to Coffey. This is a man whose most famous victory doesn't even appear in the record books.

Coffey always was more about the moments and memories and relationships and the way the community rallied around the Mustangs and the looks on his players' faces after victory, after defeat, in celebration, in distraught disbelief.

Coffey saw vibrant young faces after those five sectional titles (only four of which the NJSIAA recognizes, which is another part of this story).

And he saw scared and confused teenage faces after one of the worst tragedies ever to strike a South Jersey sports program.

"The tragedy, it hurt everyone around here so much," Coffey said of the 2011 automobile accident that killed four of his players who were on their way to a restaurant after a morning practice.

Coffey might be remembered by sports fans for building a football program that won South Jersey Group 3 titles in 1995 (although the NJSIAA doesn't agree), 1996, 1997, and 2002 and a South Jersey Group 4 title with a 12-0 team in 2008.

It says here Coffey should be best remembered for his leadership in the aftermath of that awful August day in 2011, when he helped guide a football program, school community, and thousands of stunned supporters from Linwood, Northfield, and Somers Point through a terrible tragedy.

"Everybody looked to Bob," said Oakcrest coach Chuck Smith, a longtime assistant under Coffey who still teaches at Mainland. "He's such a strong person, so strong in his faith, everyone looked to him when that was going on.

"It was such a tough time. He was the father figure that everybody looked to."

Mainland football was a family affair for Coffey, as his sons have played in the program, and his wife, Donna, was "as much a part of this as I was," the coach said.

Coffey said his wife was a driving force in creating the close-knit culture of Mainland football, through pasta dinners, Thanksgiving baskets, Christmas baskets, movie nights, the ad book, and countless other small touches.

Coffey's teams enjoyed strong support from students and adults at their home field, the "Mustang Corral," and his teams were known for playing sound, fundamental football.

"Bob created the atmosphere around that program," Smith said. "Friday night games, they became events."

Coffey was a success as a coach, as a teacher, as a mentor because of his commitment.

"I think every day of my life for the last 30 years, I've thought about Mainland football and my wife has thought about Mainland football," Coffey said. "It's been the focus of our lives.

"Thirty years is a long time. It takes a lot of energy, a lot. You know when it's time."

Coffey walked away on Thursday afternoon in the No. 8 spot on South Jersey's all-time list in career victories.

But no game stands out quite as clearly, after all those time, as the victory that has been expunged from the record books - the unforgettable game in East Camden in 1995.

First, the weather. Cold rain is the worst - way more difficult than snow - and this was about as bad a combination as meteorologically possible.

Second, the context. Mainland was seeking its first-ever title, Woodrow Wilson was ranked No. 1, the game was on the Tigers' home field, and nobody thought the Mustangs could ride into the city, seize the victory, and parade back out on Haddon Avenue, horns honking.

Third, the stand. Coffey allowed a senior linebacker to play that day even though he had been ejected from the previous game and was ineligible under NJSIAA rules.

Coffey passionately insisted that he and his coaches had watched the game film, were convinced the kid didn't deserve to be ejected, and weren't going to deny the athlete the chance to play his final game with his teammates.

It was courageous, it was controversial, and it was costly.

Here's how costly: It stripped the Mustangs of their first title (officially, anyway), as the NJSIAA vacated the championship after the game because of Mainland's use of an ineligible player.

Coffey didn't care.

The rest of the Mustangs didn't care, either.

They knew what happened on the field that day, their stunning dominance in every phase, their 42-14 victory announcing to everyone that Bob Coffey had built a South Jersey powerhouse of a football program.

"That first title at Woodrow Wilson," Coffey said a little wistfully the other day. "I'll never forget that. That was something special."

@PhilAnastasia

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