Danny Russell is a familiar name to anyone who’s been a part of North Toronto Collegiate Institute’s football program since the early 1970s.
The animated coach began teaching at the high school in 1971, and this year will mark his 42nd season coaching football.
Even more remarkable is the fact that he no longer teaches, but continues to lead NTCI teams to championships.
“I retired three years ago,” said Russell as he overlooked training on a rainy Tuesday afternoon after class. “I still supply. This is my fourth year off and I’m helping with the junior football and I helped the hockey team last year. We won the Cities [championship] last year.”
His love for the school and its sports teams is obvious. But what also influenced his decision to stay involved was a lack of other coaches stepping forward in his place.
“When I left, there was nobody else to do it. Four years ago, there was only me doing the juniors and about 50 kids.”
Times have changed, however. Russell is now just one of a handful of coaches in North Toronto’s football program and his involvement is now based purely off his desire to continue coaching.
“Another community guy came out and volunteered and then there were two of us. So I did the offence and he did the defence. Then Mr. Gardner [an NTCI teacher] came to the school three years ago and he’s really learned the game very quickly.
“We’ve got two other parent coaches who really know what they’re doing. So now we’ve got four coaches that actually know what they’re doing. The workload is spread out. It’s a luxury.”
Russell is also keen to point out that his current role at the school focuses on developing “student-athletes, not athlete-students” as he puts it.
“The kids here are still student-athletes. I expect them to take care of school. School is their job. That’s their work. This is extracurricular so I still believe in that. Hopefully these kids are going on to university or community college and furthering their education. We’ve given them the basis.”
And according to Russell, part of developing a student-athlete is assisting new students with socialization.
“Two thirds of our kids are out of district. You can come to the school in grade nine with 34-35 different feeder schools, and not know five people.
“You play football and all of a sudden within three weeks, you know 40 guys. Then all of a sudden, ‘Hey, what are you doing tonight? I’ll facebook you or I’ll call you.’ So you’re acclimating them to the school and socialization is part of high school.”
Few coaches can boast as much success as Russell when it comes to high school sports. The retired teacher holds the unique honour of having won trophies with North Toronto in five separate decades.”
“I won my first basketball championship in 1973,” said Russell. “I won another championship, a hockey one, in 2012. And I’ve won four or five football championships so I’ve won championships in three different sports in five different decades.”
His success at the coaching level shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows Russell. As a student at Gordon Graydon Memorial Secondary School in Mississauga, he often found himself on the winning end of things.
“It was a great athletic school when I was there,” said Russell. “I played football, basketball, and track in school. And I played hockey and lacrosse outside. In Grade 12, we won all three in high school football, basketball, and track. And we won the all-Ontario lacrosse and the Mississauga Hockey League. I played on five championship teams in one year. I thought I was born to win.”
Russell has no idea how much longer he’ll be coaching at North Toronto, but as long as he’s enjoying it, he’ll be back.
“I take it year by year. When it stops being enjoyable, I will stop.”