T.J. Lynch grew up without a father. With no direction or motivation, all he knew was that he enjoyed playing football. Hans Wiederkehr, the head coach at Babylon High School at the time, struck up a relationship with Lynch like he had with many players before him. He would pick up the athlete early in the morning to make sure he was going to school, take him to the weight room and speak to him about the potential he saw.
“He was the biggest positive influence in my life,” the 1998 graduate said of Wiederkehr. “He was a very caring man, and he guided me. He showed me how to train, breathed words of encouragement and wisdom about life into me and lifted me up. He made you want to be better on the field and in the classroom. He got you excited about life.”
Relationships like the one Wiederkehr had with Lynch are what the soon-to-be Suffolk County Sports Hall of Fame inductee had hoped for when he decided to trade in an NFL career for a high school coaching gig back in 1988. Making a positive impact on someone’s life drew him from the gridiron to the sideline, and as a result he’ll hold a special place in Suffolk’s athletic history.
The Shoreham resident was born in Connecticut and played for East Lyme, graduating in 1981. He competed in the state championship his senior year, and after receiving multiple offers to play at the next level, decided to commit to Syracuse University on a scholarship. The 6-foot, 4-inch 322-pound offensive lineman played under defensive coordinator George O’Leary, a Central Islip native who went on to coach at his alma mater, and eventually with the San Diego Chargers and Minnesota Vikings. While leading Central Islip, O’Leary mentioned to Wiederkehr, who had a physical education degree, that if things didn’t work out with the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he was on the injured reserve list following college, that a teaching job and eventually head coaching position would be available at Babylon. While rehabbing, he spent a year as an assistant at Babylon under 20-year head coach Tom DiNuovo, which is where he caught the coaching bug. He returned the following year and took over the helm when DiNuovo retired.
“Probably the most enjoyable part of coaching is teaching a kid something that he really doesn’t think he can do, and then looking into his eyes after he completes something and say, ‘I told you so,’ that’s the biggest kick I get out of coaching,” Wiederkehr said. “You work with kids who are there because they really love the game, and I fell in love with coaching. I decided this is what I want to do.”
The head coach, who went on to enjoy a 15-year career, said he wanted to pay it forward, giving to others what coaches had given to him. When he was a sophomore in high school, his parents moved to Schenectady, but he wanted to stay in Connecticut because he saw potential in his team. Head coach Tom Smyth opened up his home to Wiederkehr and let him live with him until he graduated.
“He was the biggest positive influence in my life. … He got you excited about life.”
— T.J. Lynch
“He was a lead figure in my life next to my dad,” Wiederkehr said of Smyth. “I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for him. He got my name out there and opened up the doors for me. It’s unbelievable the pedigree of coaches that I’ve had, and all those guys have one thing in common — they preached outworking your opponent.”
While at Babylon, Wiederkehr amassed a 99-41-2 record, good for a 0.70 winning percentage. The Panthers reached the playoffs 12 times and won nine league titles under his guidance, going on to play in nine Suffolk County finals, winning five, followed by two Long Island championships. He coached alongside Rick Punzone, his defensive coordinator, and the pair of 25-year-olds led the team until Wiederkehr retired in 2002, leaving the team in the hands of
Punzone, who has now been the head coach at Babylon for 15 years.
“With his experience we had very successful teams,” said Punzone, the godfather of one of Wiederkehr’s daughters, who considers the coach a best friend of his for the last 28 years. “He’s a brother to me. He was professional, and always gave me free reign over the defense. We weren’t always the most talented but he got the most out of the kids, which is why we were always known as one of the tougher schools around. It’s because of his leadership, work ethic and organization.”
Wiederkehr left coaching to focus on his daughters, and eventually went on to coach his son in youth programs at Shoreham-Wading River.
“He stopped to watch my sisters develop,” his son Ethan Wiederkehr said. “It just shows you what type of person he is. He’s a family first type of guy. He’s not selfish, he cares about others and he’s a humble person. It’s been amazing to call him my father.”
Punzone also noted Hans Wiederkehr’s work with and attention to detail regarding his position as president of the Suffolk County Football Coaches Association.
“He’s taken our association to the next level,” he said. “I’m a coach in the association and we’ve never had as good a leadership as we’ve had under his reign.”
Joe Cipp Jr., the head coach at Bellport for the 31 years, who has collected his own 202-84-3 record and been a coaching friend of Wiederkehr’s over his entire career, said he took on being president the same way he tackled anything else in his life, giving it 100 percent.
“He puts a million hours in, just like he does with coaching, without getting paid,” Cipp said. “I could say he puts in 150 percent of the effort, but there’s no such thing. He makes the football awards dinner something special to the kids in Suffolk County. He does a tremendous job, and it speaks to the type of person he’s been his whole life. And as a coach, he was able to demand tremendous [effort] of his kids and still be well-liked. It’s the best combination you could be.”
Wiederkehr is one of 11 honorees selected for the hall of fame out of 32 nominees. According to Section XI Executive Director Tom Combs, who was a head coach at Babylon’s rival Harborfields for 13 years, his former opponent is the first to get into the hall of fame his first time being nominated.
“It says a lot about what a good man he is,” Combs said. “It’s very competitive, especially their first time on the ballot, and Hans is just a great coach and mentor to a lot of people. His teams were always very well
prepared and it usually came down to our two teams for the head of our division. There were some fierce battles. He’s a hard-nosed guy but the kids loved that discipline and direction that he provided. You could see he motivated the kids, and they loved him.”
He added that giving up reaching the monumental 100 wins once again shows how he’s always willing to put others before himself. He eventually became an assistant coach to the Shoreham-Wading River varsity team under head coach Matt Millheiser. His son Ethan was part of two undefeated seasons and three straight Long Island championships. The 6-foot, 5-inch 273-pound offensive lineman accepted a scholarship to play at Northwestern University after winning the Bob Zellner Award, presented to Suffolk’s top lineman. He has aspirations of going pro.
“I fell in love with the team aspect of it, the relationships you build with your teammates and extend your family,” Ethan Wiederkehr said. “It’s hard to pinpoint any one thing since he taught be so much, but through hard work and dedication you can accomplish almost anything. I’ve learned to push through difficult obstacles to gain success. There was ups and downs having him in the sideline, but looking back now it’s been a blessing to have him by my side. He’s developed me as a person and an athlete through our experiences together on the field.”
Ken Gray, whose multisport standout son Chris played under Wiederkehr, remembered the first time he met the coach.
“Parents want their kids to win, and he was about teaching them about not always wining at an early age and expanding the program,” said Gray, whose son started playing football at 5 years old. “Shoreham-Wading
River wasn’t a big football community, and I’d say over 10 years he did a pretty good job of developing a pretty good program. I think that’s a result of Hans’ commitment to the community and the kids.”
Babylon athletic director Michael DeJoseph, was one of several who along with Cipp, wrote letters of recommendation for Wiederkehr to be inducted. DeJoseph said he was not at all surprised when he heard the news but, like many, said he wasn’t aware he’d been selected, because the coach remains humble.
“Probably the most enjoyable part of coaching is teaching a kid something that he really doesn’t think he can do, and then looking into his eyes after he completes something and say, ‘I told you so.'”
— Hans Wiederkehr
“It’s beyond well deserved,” said DeJoseph, who was hired by Wiederkehr as a teacher and coach of the junior varsity team, and eventually worked his way up the ladder. “He really cared about the kids, and he showed me and the players blueprints for success. As impressive he is as a coach he’s probably more impressive as a father, husband and family man. He’s a community guy who cares for others.”
Former athlete Drew Peters, a 2002 graduate, also said he knows about his former coach’s devotion firsthand. He played on the varsity team all four years of high school and said he and all of Wiederkehr’s players felt like he cared about him.
“He treated you like you were one of his kids,” he said. “When you’re on a team of 30-plus kids, every one of you felt very special to him, and I think that’s what made you play even harder. He had that father-like figure to everyone on the team and we always wanted to do our best for him.”
Peters spoke of his coaches sacrifices, saying Wiederkehr would drive from Shoreham, even during the winter months, to pick up his athletes at 6 a.m. and take them to the weight room before school started. He said he’ll never forgot how the man with three children would sacrifice his own time to come to each one of his teammates houses to pick them up. He became so close with so many of the players, he even attended
several of their weddings, including Peters’.
“He teaches you a lot more than just the sport, he prepared us young men to go through the struggles that you’ll face in life,” he said. “My senior year we lost in the Long Island championship and it was a tough game for us, but there was a controversial penalty that I was involved in and he took me under his wing after the game and said, ‘Hey, if this is the worst thing that’s ever going to happen to you in life, losing a football game in high school, then you’re going to have a pretty good life.’ And I just remember that being something that obviously at the time was very upsetting but it’s true, it was a game that was very important to everybody, but he definitely had a way of putting things into perspective.”