It began more than four decades ago. To Bob Ford and Rudy Vido, it still seems like yesterday.
Ford was the new coach of the fledgling club football team at what was then SUNY-Albany, hired in 1970 to resurrect a sport that had been discontinued in 1924 after one win in three seasons.
The four shutouts that final year by a combined score of 105-0 were apparently the last straw.
Vido was the star of Ford’s first class at 6-foot-2, 255 pounds and capable of a 4.7-second 40-yard dash. Vido had enrolled at Albany despite interest from over 100 colleges, including Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Maryland, because he wanted to stay close to his upstate New York home.
The Great Danes went 2-4 in Ford’s first year and improved to 4-4 the next — mostly without Vido. He was kicked off the team his sophomore year after missing a practice.
“He’s the best football player on the squad, and I cut him,” Ford said. “It was the best thing I ever did.”
Vido didn’t know what to think.
“It was a shock,” he said. “ ‘OK, I’ll be fine. He’s going to let it go.’ He didn’t. It wasn’t mean-spirited. I acted like I didn’t care. I just wasn’t thinking things through well. I was free to come back, but I had to change.
“It was a wakeup call. I found out it wasn’t about me.
Everything wasn’t all about natural talent. He taught us how football parallels life.”
Ford has been spreading that message since then. With one game left in his last and probably most forgettable season, the 76-year-old Ford ranks first among active FCS coaches with 265 career victories and fourth all-time. And the school believes he’s the only coach to take a team from the club level to Division III, Division II and Division I at one institution.
Not bad for a guy who likes to joke that at 26 he was the youngest head coach in America when he took over at St. Lawrence University in 1965 and four years later, the youngest to get fired.
“We were told we’d start as a club team at Albany, and if we had success, we could be a varsity team after four years,” said Ford, who won his first game, beating Rochester Institute of Technology, 30-21, after opposing coach Tom Coughlin, now the New York Giants head man, helped line the field.
Notching 12 wins the first three seasons was enough. The Great Danes fielded a varsity team in 1973 that finished 7-2 and Ford, whose head coaching record stands at 265-190-1, was on his way.
Albany moved to Division II in 1995 and was Eastern Football Conference champion in 1997-98, going 21-2, before jumping to FCS in 1999 and joining the Northeast Conference. The Great Danes won six titles in 14 seasons, with Ford winning NEC coach of the year honors four times, before the powerful Colonial Athletic Association beckoned.
Instead of retiring, Ford opted to coach one last season to guide the transition. With 25 fewer scholarship players than the rest of the league, Albany has struggled to a 1-10 mark, 0-7 in the CAA, and winless in its new home — Bob Ford Field.
“I think it gave me a major dose of humility going out the door,” said Ford, who served a term as president of American Football Coaches Association and leaves behind a sparkling new $19 million sports complex that seats 8,500. “I am totally humbled, right now. Losses hurt more. I don’t know why. You try not to take it personally. It’s not who you are.”
Ford is proud more than 100 of his former assistants are currently working in the professional, college or high school ranks.
Taking a stroll around the Albany campus with a smiling Ford, everyone who passes says hello to the man in his trademark felt hat. A glance at his office door defines much of what the coach is all about.
A giant photo shows former star defensive end Eddie Delaney and Ford whooping it up. Even though Delaney was born without a left hand and is diabetic, Ford gave him an opportunity. The result: Delaney morphed into a three-time All-Northeast Conference selection — only the second Albany player to accomplish it — and piqued the interest of a few NFL scouts because of his tenacity.
“Coach never misses an opportunity to teach a lesson, and he’s such a man of values and integrity that you can’t help but learn from him,” said assistant coach Bill Banagan, who played for Ford in the early 1980s. “I’ve really never heard anybody say anything bad about coach, the way he does things and the way he carries himself.”
That includes Vido, now 61, who returned to the team after his fallout with Ford and led the 1974 squad to the school’s only unbeaten season.
“It’s uncommon what happens to him,” said Vido, now a program director at the Millview Brain Injury Program in suburban Albany. “You can’t help but love that man.”
Ford’s final game is today on the road against Stony Brook, and the opposing coach will be Chuck Priore, who also played for Ford.
Nobody wants to think about it.
“What he’s done for the game, what he’s done for this university, it’s going to be a sad day for me,” Banagan said. “I think the day will be more of a celebration than it will be a farewell because that’s just the way he is. He doesn’t want to draw attention to himself. He’s always been about the kids from day one. That’s going to be the hardest for him — saying goodbye to the kids.”
Ford’s career has come full circle — in as the youngest coach, out as the oldest.
Couldn’t be scripted any better.
“My father used to tell me, ‘Leave the place better than you found it.’ I thought he was talking about the kitchen and bathroom,” Ford said. “But really, he was talking about everything one’s involved with. I sincerely hope I left this program in good shape.
“My grandmother used to have a tremendous saying: ‘Things work out best for those who make the best of the way things work out.’ For me, that became totally true.”