As an only child born to a high school football coaching veteran, Mark Guandolo Jr. and his mom, Cindy, have often had to share their lives with somebody else’s kids.
“I can’t remember how many times we’ve had a player over for dinner because they had no one to feed them at home, or someone stayed over because they were going through a rough time,” said Guandolo Jr., who has been alive for 25 of the 26 years his father has been a head coach in South Florida.
“My dad’s always been that guy to go beyond the call of duty. I always remember him telling me the story of when he first came down to Florida to try to start a life here, hopping around to different jobs. Computers. Accounting. There just wasn’t anything for him other than football. To be able to teach young men, mold them, teach life lessons and make them stronger and teach them about hard work and overcoming adversity — for him, it’s never been about the money. For him it’s, ‘How do I show people to live with the same passion’ he has inside?”
Thirty-two years after arriving in South Florida because the steel mills in Western Pennsylvania were closing and he didn’t know what else to do, Mark Guandolo is still sharing that passion for football.
Saturday night at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Guandolo, known to all of his players simply as Coach G, will lead the Cypress Bay Lightning (12-2) into their first championship game appearance when they take on the Apopka Blue Darters (12-2) in the Class 8A title game at 7 p.m.
It’s hardly Guandolo’s first big game. He has rung up 240 wins, 70 losses and two state titles as a head coach at Monsignor Pace, Hollywood Chaminade-Madonna, Miramar, Miami Southridge and now Cypress Bay, and is making his fifth trip to the state title game Saturday. By taking the Lightning this far, he has also become the first coach in the state’s history to lead three different programs to the finals (Southridge in 1999, Chaminade in 2002, ’03, ’05).
At Pace, Chaminade and now Cypress Bay he has turned losing or mediocre programs into playoff contenders. So what’s been his secret?
“I’ve had great coaches and excellent players,” Guandolo says before mentioning discipline, a strong weight-room program and building a family atmosphere as key components.
“But it all starts with hard work. I learned that from my dad [Albert who passed away in 1995]. He was a milk man and would get up at 4 in the morning to go to work. I learned there was no easy way to success. You can never be satisfied.”
Born 54 years ago in Beaver Falls, Pa. — the hometown of Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath — Guandolo said he became “sick with football from an early age.” His mother, who still plays in a bocce ball league today at age 85, was almost as tough on him, he says, as his dad when it came to being a competitor.
“I can remember putting the Steeler gear on in the backyard at four years old. Shoulder pads, helmet,” said Guandolo, who by the time he reached high school played receiver and safety on the football team, shortstop on the baseball team and point guard on the basketball team. “People say I yell like my father now. You don’t lose that Italian, Western Pa. accent. I just think he’s where I get my intensity. The car rides home with him were always tougher than the games.”