It was 10 years ago this month that the Observer arrived on the Ewing Township scene, and one of the items in that inaugural issue was an interview with Fisher Middle School Industrial Arts teacher Craig Wood.
But the feature had to do with what Wood was more known to the public as — the head football and boys’ track & field coach at Ewing High School. The same year that story was published became Wood’s last in teaching and coaching, as he retired from both duties after the 2003-04 school year.
A decade later, he is still visible on the sports scene, serving as an NJSIAA official for track & field meets, and attending two to three Colonial Valley Conference football games per week. There is one big difference in his involvement, however.
“When I left coaching football, I said OK, I’m gonna go to the games late and leave early,” he said with a laugh. “As a coach you had to be on site so early, and as head coach you’re the last person out. Your days are very long and time consuming.
“I still see a game almost every Friday and two on Saturday, and I’ve stayed with that rule. I don’t have to get there two or three hours before the game and I can leave whenever I want.”
And while Wood, who has lived in the same West Amwell home for the past 28 years, still checks in on the Blue Devils, he also saw a lot of Nottingham’s games en route to last year’s Central Jersey Group III title.
“I see almost every team in the county, I don’t highlight on one or the other,” he said. “But I do go to quite a number of Nottingham games. One of my fishing buddies (John Berei) is a Nottingham assistant coach, so I try to catch their games as much, if not more than some of the others. I still see Ewing, too.”
Wood was a big part of the Blue Devils glory days in football. As a defensive coordinator under Bruce Martz, he was part of a program that won state championships in 1981 and 1985. After Martz stepped down, Wood became head coach in 1999 after 21 years as an assistant.
He will always list those state title wins over Somerville (in sudden death in ’81) and Colonia (a 3-0 win on a last minute field goal in ’85) as his greatest highlights. As a head coach, the memorable games that stand out were a 43-42 playoff win over Franklin Township that Ewing won on a last-minute two-point conversion, and a late loss to Middletown South in the 2002 playoff final.
“We had been behind against Franklin by 21 points early, we went ahead, then we had to stop them on defense in the last minute, so that one always sticks in my mind just for the sheer excitement of it,” Wood says. “Against Middletown, we lost on a real controversial out-of-bounds call that would have run out the clock and we would have won, but the officials didn’t see it. So that was memorable from the disappointment.”
In track, Wood oversaw a powerhouse from 1999-2003 when Ewing went undefeated by winning 46 straight dual meets. They also won three Mercer County Meet championships in that span, three Central Jersey sectional titles and finished second in the NJSIAA Group II meet in 2002 and the Group III meet in 2003.
“We lost out on the state title by a few points both times,” said Wood, whose team won the Group III indoor title in 2003.
Like most long-time coaches, Wood’s greatest memories will always be of the people he met during a 35-year career.
“Besides big games and things like that, I just always think back to the number of quality kids we had in our program that I was able to coach,” he said. “And also my association with so many great football coaches. I’ve made friends for life, with so many of those people.”
Immediately after he retired, the late, renowned official George Wah contacted Wood about officiating track. He accepted and has been a Capital District official ever since. He handles meets at The College of New Jersey, Rider and high school meets in Hunterdon and Mercer counties.
“It’s a little different,” he said. “I enjoyed the coaching end of it and now I’m really satisfied with the officiating side of it as well,” Wood said. “I get to see coaches I coached against and still get to see the guys and girls perform. It keeps my hand in it.”
When he is not officiating or attending football games, Wood is living the life of leisure to the hilt. He is an ardent fisherman and he and his usual group of Berei, Ewing softball/football coach Dan Bernoski and former Ewing schools superintendant Dennis Kelly just returned from their annual trip to Quebec in early August.
“I don’t catch the most fish,” Wood said. “But you can quote me on this — I have caught the biggest fish on numerous occasions. I am the least qualified fisherman of the group but I get my share of the big ones.”
The one staple of retirement Wood has avoided is hitting the links.
“I do not golf,” he said adamantly. “I never had a chance to do it. Since I coached during the spring and fall seasons, I never had time.
“Now,” he added with a laugh, “all the information I get is ‘Don’t try it, you’ll never be good enough at it and you’ll just be frustrated.’ So I’m taking the advice of my dentist and staying away from it.”
The other good news is that the Woods are expecting their first grandchild, as daughter Lindsay Allen and her husband John, living in Virginia, are awaiting a baby in early September.
And in an effort to stay connected with Ewing sports — and supply the kind of input on inductees that only a guy of his experience can do — Wood is on the Ewing High Athletic Hall of Fame committee.
He is enjoying life after coaching and teaching and, while he sometimes misses it, he remains a realist.
“I’m out here on my deck today relaxing and not worrying about anything,” he said. “When we were up there fishing, Dan and John already had to be focused on camp when they got back. I know I wouldn’t have the type of drive and dedication required to be a quality coach now. Do I miss it? Yes. Do I feel I can do it? No.
“I’m not willing to give up that freedom. It’s a tremendously time consuming thing to be a football coach, period. But to be a head coach, it’s 24-7, twelve months a year, not just football season. You’ve got recruiters, college coaches, letters to write and kids to keep in mind. There’s a lot more than people see when they go to a game on Friday night or Saturday.”
What they saw when Wood was coaching, was a darn good product that he worked hard to maintain.
And now, he is enjoying the fruits of those labors.