By Arnie Leshin
Maybe I’m ageless or maybe I like keeping in touch, but seeing Purdue as the new No. 1 in men’s college basketball, does bring back memories, and I have many.
But back in the day when I was covering sports for the Jersey Journal in Jersey City of the Garden State, I came upon many athletes in the high schools, the colleges, and even the professional ranks, but Dennis Taibl, was special.
Currently he resides in Jacksonville, Fla., after several years in Colorado with his wife and daughter. I’ve never lost touch with him, from the his elite three-sport days at North Bergen High School to when he committed to play baseball at Purdue University and became the starting catcher for the Boilermakers.
He probably could have played football there, but chose our national pastime, baseball.
Yes, he was an exceptional athlete. I first learned of him through a friend from North Bergen, Joe Sticco, whose son played football at the high school. He took me to a youth baseball game in another county and told me to watch the catcher. I did, he came away with noteworthy hitting and with a strong arm.
Then Sticco informed me that this was Dennis Taibl, still in middle school and with everyone on this roster older than him, but Sticco said he would start behind the plate as a freshman at North Bergen High.
He was correct, but I soon found out this youngster played other sports, as in being the first freshman in head football coach Joe Coviello’s storied career as a coach to start. Coviello put him at defensive end, and he also played wide receiver, tight end, and linebacker, and in the following years, he excelled as one of the best players in the state.
Basketball, same thing? He was the starting shooting guard as, yes, a freshman, and head coach Matty Sabello never regretted it as Taibl led the way to the North Hudson County championship and in the playoffs disposed of the lame-duck St. Michael’s team from Union City in its final season, and at its home court.
Back to baseball, and where North Bergen head coach, Ralph Fedele, followed the others and Taibl was his starting catcher as a freshman as Sticco predicted.
In the county title game at Bayonne Field, he clobbered two home runs deep over the left field fence against St. Peter’s Prep and threw out two runners as the Bruins defeated the team considered to be one of the best in the state. St. Peter’s had Jerry Costaldo on the mound and he was one of the top hurlers in the state.
Back to football, in his senior year, North Bergen scheduled a non-district tilt versus Brick Township and coached by Warren Wolf, who played under Coviello when he was the coach at powerhouse Memorial High in West New York, and this was at Jersey City’s Roosevelt Stadium.
It was quite a turnout before a huge, perhaps record, in the years after the late Jackie Robinson and the then-Brooklyn Dodgers played seven game at the legendary ballpark.
Now Brick Township, one of the better teams in the state, led 18-0 at halftime, but if Coviello gave a Knute Rockne-type speech at the half, his Bruins responded and trimmed the deficit to 18-14. But now it was down to North Bergen’s probable last possession and the Bruins had the ball five yards from the game-winning end zone.
Taibl was his team’s best pass catcher and Glenn Illovichny was the quarterback, and each time North Bergen had the ball, Taibl was double-triple teamed. Time out. Apparently Coviello had drawn up a play, but all he heard was Taibl calling out, “Just get me the damn ball.”
So there he was with three defenders hanging on to him as Illovichny released a rather high toss that Taibl reached for, reeled it in, and, at the same time, carried the three defenders with him into the end zone. Now there were only seconds left, the Bruins kicked off, and the final whistle followed.
Sorry about that, but I wasn’t going to forget that Purdue was the real reason I decided to write a deserving commentary on who, in my dozen years with the Jersey Journal, was “thee” number one athlete, and I heard this then and probably still now.
So now you have Purdue unexpectedly on the top of the heap in college hoops for the first time since the top 25 was introduced in 1974. Now maybe Taibl doesn’t follow sports like I do, but I always let him know if the Boilermakers won a football, baseball or college game. This time they were away to a good start, which had happened before and ended with a dismal finish.
So the school had a reason to celebrate after a full house at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind., watched a 78-54 blow out over FSU that followed on the heels of a 93-84 win over No. 18 North Carolina.
It was during the FSU game that Ohio State was downing then-No. 1 Duke and the Boilermakers had moved from No. 2 to the top spot after being at No. 5 a week before.
They are not just a threat now, but with four freshmen, six sophomores and two juniors joining with four seniors, unless some of these players decide to enter the college draft, there will be some good times at Purdue for the first time in hoops.
Just to size it up, there’s a 7-foot-4 sophomore in center Zach Edey, a pair of 6-10s in Caleb Furst and Treivion Williams, plus 6-9 Trey Kaufman-Renn, 6-7 Brian Waddell, 6-6 Ethan Morton, two standing 6-5, and a 6-4 pair that includes its best player, Jaden Ivey. The only player under 6-feet is 5-10 guard Jared Wulbrun.
Under veteran head coach Matt Painter, the team is 7-0. It is shooting at 60 percent from the field, 48 percent from beyond the 3-point arch, is 78 percent from the foul line, and dominating inside with its size and outside with sharpshooters led by Ivey. Against FSU, it was 44-22 in rebounds, 32-12 in assists, and had seven blocked shots.
I began letting Taibl know about what’s going at his alma mater when I noticed it was in the top 10. Then, when it reached No. 5, I got more informative, and at No. 2, he let me know that he will now pay more attention, and so it was today that he was tuned in to celebrate and thanked me for always keeping in touch.
No problem, at my age there aren’t many to remain in touch with so Dennis Taibl remains No. 1 from way back and now his alma mater is No. 1 right now in the college world of hoops.
By the way, I went to Syracuse University and wish the Orange would include more than its one national championship in 2003 now that long-time head coach Jim Boeheim has a his two sons, Buddy and Jim, Jr., in his starting lineup. My advice to Coach Boeheim, don’t play Purdue.