By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
A dozen years ago, Atlantic City High School had a phenomenal athlete named Antwone Snead. Snead was 6-foot-4, 195 pounds and a dynamic tight end/defensive end and basketball player. But Vikings basketball coach Gene Allen — who was in just his third year of coaching — didn’t allow Snead to play basketball. He said Snead wasn’t willing to buy into what the coaching staff was preaching, and there was no room for anybody who wasn’t willing to get on board with the staff’s philosophy.
Quite a stand to take in your third season.
Atlantic City still went on to have a great season, finishing with 25 wins and earning a berth in the South Jersey Group 4 championship game. Last month, coach Allen reached 300 wins to become the third winningest coach in Vikings history behind Bill Swain (352 wins) and Mike Sweeney (307), and he’s on track to pass Sweeney this season. But it’s always been about more than just wins for coach Allen. He sees his job as Vikings basketball coach as a way to develop boys into young men who will go out, make the school proud and become productive members of their communities.
Snead has done just that. He went to Lamar Junior College in Colorado, helping that team win a region title, before earning a scholarship to play at IPFW (Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne). Eventually, Snead went on to become a police officer in the ACPD.
“The greatest story is a guy named Antwone Snead. He never played for me, but he should have. He was so talented. In 2006, he would have been on the team, but he just didn’t want to buy in to what we were doing. He actually went on to junior college and then played Division I basketball. Now he’s a police officer in Atlantic City,” Allen said. “He pulled me aside recently and said, ‘coach, you not putting me on that team really helped me out a great deal.’ To this day, that’s something special to me. It changed the direction of his life. He said, ‘you were the first guy who stood up to me and said, no, I’m not going to go for your foolishness.’ And he’s gone on to do some great things. His senior year, he would have been one of the best players on the team, but he just didn’t want to buy into what we were preaching. He was shocked. We wound up going to the state final, and I believe if he would have played we would have won that game. But, I was hell-bent on having it one way, and that was it.
“I saw him a few days ago, and we have a great relationship,” Allen added. “He gives back, doing some work with kids in the basketball program at the PAL. It worked out in the end, and that’s all that matters.”
Allen is one of the most demanding coaches in the Cape-Atlantic League, and one of its most animated on the sidelines. If the jacket and tie aren’t flung somewhere behind the bench by late in the first quarter, fans start to wonder why Allen isn’t coaching as hard as he normally does. He can’t help it. That’s just his passion for the game of basketball. When he’s on the floor coaching, it’s like he’s in another world. Off the court, he is a mild-mannered jokester, but his on-court persona can be intimidating, especially to incoming freshmen.
“He’s a very aggressive coach. I heard that he was going to be a really tough coach to play for, but he pushes you to be the best you can be. You don’t want a pushover coach when you are in high school because that won’t help you in life or in your future,” said Juanye Colon, a senior who transferred in this year from a school in Georgia. “He pushes everyone, and that’s what is great. He doesn’t want anybody slacking off. He’s always seeking perfection. When he’s pushing kids when they are freshmen or sophomores, that’s going to help them when they are junior and seniors.”
“When I came in as freshman, I was a little intimidated by Atlantic City basketball, just the name and the reputation,” said another senior, Ray Bethea. “I had met (coach Allen) before. It’s been a fun experience, just the whole atmosphere.”
Atlantic City has a long tradition of winning basketball, and that’s only been enhanced by Allen the past 14 years. He’s won two out of every three games he’s coached, and led the Vikings to six South Jersey titles and three Group 4 state championships. Ironically, Allen never even played high school basketball while at Holy Spirit.
“I didn’t play high school basketball. I ran track and cross country. I was a kid who talked a lot, but didn’t back it up too much. But I was always around basketball. I started coaching when I was about 14 in the biddy leagues. They used to have a Camden vs. Atlantic City game every year in the summer, and I wound up coaching the older guys like Walt Montford, Donnie Marsh, Ray Coursey — these dudes were legends who I looked up to, and they asked me to coach. I was only 17 and they were just out of college. We wound up winning, and that’s when the bug really hit me,” Allen said. “My first varsity coaching experience came when coach Joe Fussner got thrown out at Cumberland. We had good assistants back then like Mr. (Lloyd)Barksdale. But yeah, I did have that ‘oh, boy’ moment.”
A couple years later, Allen was named the head coach at Atlantic City and immediately began his own winning tradition. He won 19 games his first season, then 20 or more in each of the next five seasons. In his first 13 seasons, Allen led the Vikings to 20 or more wins nine times, including a 30-2 record in 2012-13. He gives a lot of credit to guys such as legendary St. Augustine Prep coach Paul Rodio, and former Middle Township coach Tom Feraco, two guys who are synonymous with South Jersey basketball.
“With this 300th win, so many former players have texted me and said some really nice stuff. And all of them weren’t great relationships when they were in high school, so it feels so much better when those kinds of guys reach out and come back and try to help out with the kids. I know I’ve had some impact, but I’m always striving to do more,” Allen said. “I’m still worried about the next game. It is an accomplishment though. I’ve been trying to let it sink it a little bit. What humbles me is when I think about guys like Rodio and Feraco. Heck, 300 is nothing. I’d have to be coaching from the grave to catch those guys. But, it is an accomplishment and I was glad to share it with these guys and some of the former players who came back to see it.
“When I first got the job, Paul Rodio and Tom Feraco were really mentors to me, and I’ll be forever in their debt. They didn’t have to do that. They knew I was going to be a rival, but if I had a question I could always pick up the phone and call them, and it’s still like that today,” Allen added. “Rodio, that dude has energy. There were games where, quite honestly, I thought he out-worked me. He’s reinvented himself many times, but he’s always invigorating his team, and that’s what I take away from him.”
The wins are one thing, but the impact Allen and his coaching staff have on the young men of Atlantic City is what will define his legacy whenever the time comes to step away from the game. It’s not always easy to be tough on young men, he said, but he knows he has to be in order to get them to reach their potential, as basketball players and members of the community.
“It’s more important than winning. The main thing I’m stressing now is the importance of working hard. Anything is achievable if you work hard. What I’m seeing in these young guys is they want to take short cuts. I try to stress to them that I’m demanding because in the real world you have to be demanding. There are no short cuts. Either you’re doing it or you’re not. And it’s not just me, I have a great staff who is trying to shape and mold these guys into men,” Allen said. “It’s a maturation process. Their freshmen and sophomore years, and even about halfway through their junior years, these guys don’t like me too much. But once the light bulb comes on, we have a great relationship. Ryan Fader, a 2016 graduate, sent me a text the other night that almost brought me to tears. He and I clashed. He didn’t understand where I was coming from. But once they get it, we develop a really good, long-lasting relationship. But it takes a while, I’m not going to lie. They aren’t used to a man challenging them and they rebel. Once they see I’m genuine and there’s a method to my madness, they really take to it.”
Trust is the key, Allen said. If you can convince a young man to trust that you have his best interests in mind, that’s when the maturation process begins.
“You do have to build that relationship and trust. What I’ve found is that so many people have let them down in the past one way or another, so there is a trust issue,” Allen said. “But once they believe in you, they’ll run through walls for you. And that’s what I love about the job — going through that process of building the trust. Once they believe in you, these kids can do some phenomenal things.”
“He has passion for the game. He shows passion when he’s on the bench, and that pushes us to do better,” Colon said.
“We just have to be together, and when we’re together we can do great things. Our coaching staff is helping to prepare us for college and they want us to be good young men. A lot of times he’ll scream at you, but, like my dad said, sometimes you have to listen and not just hear. He might be loud, but he’s trying to get a point across,” Bethea explained. “He teaches a lot of life skills. We have a lot of team meetings to talk about what’s going on with us outside of basketball. And that’s good. We all talk to each other, and that helps our team chemistry when we play.”
“I’m the jokester of the group, really. We have a group text and the kids send stuff and we laugh. That’s the part that people don’t see,” Allen said. “I tell the kids not to take everything I say personally, because I’m the same guy you laugh and joke with. And they’re learning that. This whole thing is a process of establishing the trust. We like to play around, but there’s also a time to be serious.”
Allen said he is a much kinder, gentler coach than he used to be. Part of that may be because he is a dad now, to Jackson, age 7. But part of that also is knowing times change and coaches have to find different ways to get their points across to kids of a different generation.
“I’m soft now compared to the way I used to be,” Allen said with a laugh. “I heard Andy Reid say something the other day and I thought it was very applicable. He said if you’re not willing to change with the times, you need to get out. I’m still just as demanding, I just take a little bit different approach because the kids today are different than they used to be. I’ve had to take a different approach when it comes to communicating with the kids. Times have changed and kids have changed, and you have to make adjustments.”
Having an impressionable son inspires Allen even more to get the point across to his players that they are role models, and should act accordingly, especially off the court. He wants his players to understand the kind of impact they can have on the community.
“It’s the greatest joy in the world to have him around. The kids on the team really embrace him. It’s fantastic, and the way they embrace him is really special to me. I don’t think they understand the impact they have on him,” Allen said. “At home, one day he’s pretending to be Ray Bethea, the next day he’s (former player) Isaiah Graves. So, through the years he’s taken on these guys and tries to emulate them. Ray is his favorite, him and Jaunye and Flash (Nah’sir Morgan). He even wants to have the same hair styles as those guys.”
With a 7-year-old boy to raise, Allen said he’s not sure how much longer he will continue to coach. Chances are it will be longer than he thinks. He may very well end up the winningest coach in Atlantic City history, but no matter what his final record ends up being, he said he doesn’t want to be remembered for wins and losses — although he knows Atlantic City basketball fans expect a lot of wins each year.
“I wouldn’t want it any other way. I like the fact that people expect us to win,” Allen said. “Trying to meet that challenge keeps me going. I hope, in the end, they say, ‘he was a tough son-of-a-gun, but he was fair.’ That would be perfect.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays
By DAVE O’SULLIVAN