Irvin E. Biasi, a retired Patterson High School football and basketball coach who led teams to numerous championships during his 30-year tenure and helped break down racial barriers in Baltimore, died of pneumonia Sunday at a hospital in Hanover, Pa. The former Baltimore resident was 87.
Mr. Biasi was born and raised in Luzerne County, in the rugged anthracite coal country of eastern Pennsylvania. He was a 1936 graduate of Hazelton Township High School, where he had been an outstanding athlete, and worked two years before beginning college in 1938.
Attending what is now McDaniel College in Westminster, he played football and basketball and was captain of both teams in his senior year. In 1942, after earning his bachelor's degree, he was drafted by the Detroit Lions but enlisted in the Army instead.
Commissioned a lieutenant, he trained troops and coached basketball and football at Fort Monroe, Va., and Fort Dix, N.J., before receiving a medical discharge.
Mr. Biasi came to Baltimore in 1944, briefly played basketball for the Baltimore Bullets in the old American Professional Basketball League, and began teaching and coaching at Patterson.
From 1946 until his retirement in 1973, Mr. Biasi piled up impressive records as his football and basketball teams won a dozen Maryland Scholastic Association championships. He was known as a "high school Vince Lombardi" and "Mr. Football in Baltimore."
"Irv was the best high school coach around here in his time. He was simply the best, and he produced the best high school teams in Baltimore in the late 1940s and 1950s," said Bill Tanton, former Evening Sun sports editor.
He recalled seeing Mr. Biasi's powers of persuasion at work one day when a burly student walked by him in a school hallway.
"He asked, `Why isn't a big guy like you going out for the football team?' and the kid answered, `My mother won't let me,'" Mr. Tanton recalled. "Irv said, `My mother wouldn't let me play football either, but I went out anyway and hid my equipment in the garage. I want to see you downstairs drawing your equipment at 3 p.m. this afternoon.'"
After the student left, Mr. Biasi turned to Mr. Tanton and said, "I just told the biggest lie of my life. My mother saw every game I ever played."
Mr. Biasi ruled his teams with strict discipline and used to insist that his players cut their hair to near baldness. While other coaches held practices only during weekdays, he scheduled additional practices on Saturdays and Sundays.
When a young Dick Bielski told the coach that he'd like to play football but had a job working in a bakery after school, Mr. Biasi told him to go to work after practice. The owner of the bakery agreed with the arrangement.
"I don't know when the boy slept. He worked in the bakery all night and we used to practice twice a day -- before school and after school," Mr. Biasi told The Evening Sun in a 1989 article.
Mr. Bielski later was a running back and receiver playing for the Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles and Baltimore Colts, then became a football coach himself.
Mr. Biasi "was tough, he worked you hard, and everyone respected him. He loved his boys and did a lot for them," said Charles M. Keegan, a halfback on Patterson's football team in the early 1950s. "His motto was: `A quitter never wins; and a winner never quits.' He always felt we could wear our opposition down and win in the fourth quarter."
Carl A. Runk, who coached lacrosse and football for 38 years at what is now Towson University, played for Mr. Biasi from 1951 to 1956. "Irv was a tremendous positive influence on the lives of so many East Baltimore boys," Mr. Runk said. "He exemplified character, respect and dignity at its highest level. We were fortunate to have him touch our lives. He was a guy who thrived on discipline and demanded respect from youngsters."
From 1963 to 1973, he was director of boys and girls athletics at Patterson. Mr. Biasi quickly embraced the African-American students who began attending Patterson in 1962.
"I grew up with blacks in Pennsylvania," he told The Evening Sun in 1972. "I was the first coach in Baltimore to play an outside team [New Rochelle, N.Y.,] with blacks, and that was the year Navy refused to play Boston College because of BC's black tailback. And Patterson was the first school to scrimmage an all-black Baltimore team [Douglass High School]."
Mr. Biasi lived for years on East 33rd Street, near Memorial Stadium, and moved in the 1960s to a farm he and his wife of 63 years, the former Nelda Kalar, who had been a Baltimore junior high guidance counselor, purchased in New Chester, Pa. In recent years, they lived in New Oxford, Pa.
He was inducted in 1988 into the Maryland High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame. A Mason, he was a 50-year member of Boumi Temple and Maryland Masonic Lodge in Joppa, and a longtime member of Krider's Lutheran Church in Westminster.
He was an avid golfer and a member for more than 40 years of the Hanover Country Club.
He kept in touch with "his boys," and in recent years they would gather at his home and spend hours poring over scrapbooks and pictures, Mrs. Biasi said.
Several of them served as pallbearers at his funeral yesterday in Hanover.
Mr. Biasi is also survived by several nieces and nephews.