During my coaching career, I always enjoyed it when Joe Campoli slipped in the back door to take in one of our games. The long time Ohio Northern University basketball coach was a welcomed guest in many high school gyms in our area as he scouted potential players. If a poll was taken among high school basketball coaches in that era to determine their favorite local college coach, Campoli would have won it hands down.
Campoli, a transplant from the east coast, spent 30 years on the sideline for the Polar Bears and in that span achieved accomplishments that earned him induction into six different Hall of Fames and, more importantly, the love and respect of several generations of his players who still sing his praises.
Joe’s life story is filled with irony. As a young head coach at Valley Central High School in New York, Campoli suffered through a winless 0-18 basketball season, and it appeared his coaching career was over, barely after it started. Nineteen years passed before Joe would get the opportunity to be a head coach again. Named as the head coach of ONU in 1992, Campoli won his first 18 games en route to winning the NCAA III national basketball championship. It was only the third time in NCAA history that a first year coach won a national title.
It was his close friend and mentor, Gale Daugherty, who convinced Campoli to leave the east coast and join him at ONU. Daugherty, who previously coached basketball at Annapolis and West Point (where he roomed with a young Bobby Knight), was offered the head position at Ohio Northern. Daugherty targeted Joe as the man he wanted to take along as his assistant coach.
It was a difficult decision for Campoli. “We had two young kids, a new home, and I had tenure at the high school I was teaching at,” Joe remembered. “I had close family ties and would have to take a pay cut.” But Campoli always harbored the dream of coaching at the college level. “I bit the bullet,” says Joe. He packed his bags and moved his family to Ada, Ohio, to begin his college coaching career.
Joe admitted his first impression of his new home was “kind of a cultural shock.” He had trouble finding the food he liked and missed his extended Italian family back in New York. Campoli also had his hands full at work. In his first year, Joe was an assistant coach in football and basketball while carrying a full time teaching load. In addition, he was named the full time athletic trainer despite the fact that “I had never taped an ankle in my life.”
But he quickly adapted and found that his family “loved the small town atmosphere and the beautiful campus. We grew to love ONU and the community,” declared Campoli.
Campoli spent 17 years as associate basketball coach at ONU before taking the reins of the program from Daugherty in 1993. In his 13 seasons as head coach of the Polar Bears, Campoli set a spectacular standard of achievement. His teams never had a losing season and Joe was named national coach of the year twice. His impressive list of accomplishments as head coach are simply too numerous to list.
When talking about his coaching philosophy and career the word “family” was often mentioned by Campoli. “I think it was probably the Italian in me, but we used the words family and loyalty quite a bit with the guys in our program,” Joe said. He mirrored that thought when expressing what he misses the most about coaching. “I look back now, and it’s not the wins and losses that I remember, it was the opportunity to coach and be around great kids. I miss the relationship with the players, the atmosphere of family that we built in the program,” Campoli said. And he was quick to add that his two long-time assistant coaches, Jeff Coleman and Dave Cox, share in all of his achievements.
Campoli’s former players echo his sentiments and add that it was Joe’s unique sense of humor and wit that also impacted the ONU basketball program. Kevin Sensabaugh, who was recruited to play at ONU from Spencerville High School where he now coaches, remembers that Campoli had “interesting and unique ways of motivating every player. He was not a screamer and a yeller. He had so much faith in you as a player, and he encouraged you to live up to his expectations. You just never wanted to let Coach Campoli down.”
Jimmy Conrad, who starred at Perry High School before embarking on a great career at ONU considers himself lucky to have played for Campoli. “Joe had a tremendous sense of humor and wit,” Conrad said. “He was definitely a player’s coach and made it fun to compete. His personality is one of a kind and that is reflected in how many people recognize him locally and nationally at all levels of basketball.” Conrad goes on to reveal the quality he most admired in his former coach, his ability to touch the lives of those he worked with. “Coach Campoli made an impression on every player he had and has positively impacted our lives in ways that he may never know. We were all lucky to have played for him.”
In his retirement, you can still find Campoli enjoying basketball games in the area or watching his beloved ONU Polar Bears, where the court is named in honor of Joe and his late wife Margaret. He is recognized everywhere. After sharing a recent lunch with Campoli at an Italian restaurant in Ada, I asked our waitress if she knew who Joe was. “Are you kidding me,” she replied. “Everybody knows Joe. Coach Campoli is royalty around here.”