(First In A Series)
For more than 30 years, Coach Tom Neidl was at the helm of the Cazenovia High School football program, building it into a consistently competitive juggernaut.
Neidl, who passed away in late 2016, had a legendary career as a coach and an area sports booster that has earned him a spot in the Rome Sports Hall of Fame.
The native Roman will be inducted as part of the class of 2018, along with Tom Barry Jr., Kelley Commerford Cobb, Tom Pugh, Gerry Staudmyer and Ronald “Whitey” Schultz. The awards banquet is slated for next Sunday night at 5:30 at the Beeches.
After graduating from Rome Catholic High School in 1974, where he was a year-round athlete who excelled in football, Neidl enrolled at SUNY Canton.
It was in college where he would his meet future colleague and close friend, Dominic Ventiquattro.
“We met just before school started, playing freshman football,” recalled Ventiquattro. “Tom was working out of the fullback position.” The pair would remain friends throughout their undergrad years.
Neidl graduated with a degree in physical education from Cortland in 1978, and he found work the next year as an assistant coach in the Cazenovia High School football program. In his time as a junior member of the coaching staff, Neidl worked under renowned head coaches Sam Volo and Paul Stoecker.
“We lost connection for a few years after school,” Ventiquattro said. “I took this job at Adirondack Central, and I ended up running into him at a track meet. Funny how that works, we just bumped into each other there.”
Both men were track and field and football coaches, and at similar points in life — “You know, we were both young, both just married,” said Ventiquattro— and so the friendship blossomed, with the two often hunting and fishing together. “We were always talking football,” Ventiquattro said with a laugh.
After nearly a dozen years on the Cazenovia staff, Neidl was named head coach of the football team in 1990. By that point, Ventiquattro was also heading his school’s varsity program.
“It all seemed to happen at the same time, when we became head coaches,” he recalled.
Though the Cazenovia football program had traditionally been strong, said Ventiquattro, under Neidl, “they became a machine.
“He had a tremendous football mind,” he added.
So much so, said Ventiquattro, that he would turn to his friend for coaching tactics. “We (Ventiquattro’s staff) would use a lot of their stuff — You know, I’d pick Tom’s brain.”
Being in different classes within the same section, the coaches’ teams rarely met on the field, Ventiquattro said.
“I only coached against him three times. I could never beat him,” he said of his one-time teammate.
He recalled one particular game, a back-and-forth battle for every yard. It was the first game of the season, and the dueling coaches were trying out new plays in a bid to outwit one another. Neidl’s Lakers finished the bout with 21 hard-earned points to Ventiquattro and the Wildcats’ 14.
“It was just a dogfight, just a heck of a game,” Ventiquattro remembered fondly. “He was probably the only guy I ever coached against that I didn’t mind losing to.
“He was a just a class act.”
In the 1998 and 1999 seasons, Neidl’s son, Terry, played as a tight end and linebacker for the varsity squad.
“Our team wasn’t as talented as others he’d had in the past,” Terry explained. “but he was flexible as a coach.
“That he was able to take a team with some talent all the way to sectionals is a testament to his tireless game planning,” the younger Neidl added. “We weren’t one of the easier teams to deal with.”
In his seventh season heading the program, Neidl led the Lakers to the Section III championship and the Class C state playoffs.
In the quarterfinals, the Cazenovia squad triumphed over Elmira Notre Dame, 21-14. The team’s chances at the championship ended in the next round, after losing to the LeRoy High School Knights, 19-6. LeRoy would advance to the championship, only to lose to Watervliet.
While the ‘96 state playoffs would represent the highest attainment of Neidl’s Lakers, it would be far from their only competitive postseason.
Neidl coached the Lakers to 13 divisional championships, seven sectional championships, and one regional championship. In his last three seasons leading the Caz squad, 2012-2014, the team never lost a divisional championship, and won the sectional championship in two out of three years.
Following the 2014 season, after driving the Lakers to another divisional title, Neidl announced his intention to retire from his position as head coach of Cazenovia football.
By the summer of 2015, he was on board with the program at Utica College as an assistant coach of running backs. He remained on the Pioneers’ coaching staff through the 2015 season.
“He was having a ball there,” Ventiquattro said of his friend’s brief tenure at UC. “He just loved it.”
Health concerns pushed Neidl to retire after the fall of 2015, though he was able to attend a September 2016 game in which he watched his old Pioneers beat out the favored Ohio Northern University Polar Bears, 34-30.
“It was really something special for him to be on the sidelines again,” Terry recalled of the game. “He felt such a strong connection to those players.
“When they saw my dad on the sidelines, and they beat Ohio Northern, it really solidified no matter where he coached, he made an impact.”
At the time of his passing, Neidl was married to his high school sweetheart and wife of 38 years, Lynn Baker Neidl. She will attend the induction ceremony on Tom’s behalf.
The awards dinner will be preceded by a public reception from 2:30-4 p.m. at the Rome Sports Hall of Fame located at 5790 Rome-New London Road.
Tickets for the dinner at the Beeches costing $35 for adults and $15 for children ages 12-and-under are available for purchase at the Rome Sports Hall of Fame. Hours of operation are Wednesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.
A limited number of tickets are available, and none will be sold on the day of the banquet.
Tuesday: Hall of Fame inductee Kelley Commerford Cobb.