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.
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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.”
Guandolo said his older brother Alan, who won two championships as a football coach at Monaca before being selected to the Beaver County Hall of Fame, taught him a lot about the game. Guandolo also learned from Larry Bruno, who was Namath’s high school coach at Beaver Falls.
“This guy was so meticulous, he had all his practice schedules in a folder with the date and what the weather was like,” Guandolo said.
Guandolo, who eventually got his degree from St. Thomas University in Miami, got his first assistant coach job with Bob Leibowitz at Hallandale High in 1983. Four years later, Guandolo was doing it all at Pace at just 25 years old.
“I remember cooking the pregame meal, lining the field and taping players up all the way up until kickoff,” Guandolo said. “Then, I had to call offense, defense, everything.”
Guandolo said he never stuck around at one school because after awhile “things got stale” or he “wore his welcome out.” In 2000, after making his first run at the state title at Southridge, Guandolo said he decided it was time to go home and coach his son. With Mark Jr. at quarterback, the Lions won a second state title in 2005.
“To win a championship with your son as quarterback is a coach’s dream,” Guandolo said. “No matter what I do from there I’m good.”
But the hunger to win continues. In his six seasons at Cypress Bay, Guandolo has led the Lightning to at least the second round of the playoffs each season. He said he came to Weston because “it feels like a strong little community,” and is something unique in South Florida.
Guandolo’s catch phrase these days?
“Don’t swallow the poison,” Cypress Bay safety/receiver Alex Montgomery said. “It means don’t believe the hype, we haven’t done anything yet.”
Guandolo said he took the line from 10-time state championship-winning coach Corky Rogers of Jacksonville Bolles.
“We went up there to play them one year and it was in their weight room,” he said. “It read: ‘Publicity is like poison, only fatal if swallowed.”
Mark Jr., who spent the past season as the strength and conditioning coach at Bryant University in Rhode Island, will be in Orlando Saturday with his mom to cheer Cypress Bay on. He said he can’t wait for the season to end so he and his father can go their favorite spot, the palm tree off Jackson St. on Hollywood Beach.
“It’s been the perfect father-son getaway for years,” Mark Jr. said. “He’ll bring his tablet, write down plays and I’ll bring the music. We’ll talk about life. And then before you know it, it will be football season again.”