Tradition of Excellence: Holy Ghost’s Tony Chapman on 39 seasons with the Firebirds

PHOTO: HOLY GHOST PREPATORY SCHOOL / Tony haman has been the head basketball coach at Holy Ghost Prep in Bensalem for 40 years, and served as the Dean of Students for the past 25.

PHOTO: HOLY GHOST PREPATORY SCHOOL / Tony haman has been the head basketball coach at Holy Ghost Prep in Bensalem for 40 years, and served as the Dean of Students for the past 25.Few people are lucky enough to spend four decades at the same job. Even fewer get to say they did so at the place that molded and shaped them as kids.Tony Chapman is one of the lucky ones.

Ed Morronefor the Times

Chapman, 63, has spent almost the entirety of his career at Holy Ghost Prep in Bensalem. He’s taught social studies at the school for 40 years, and served as the Dean of Students for the past 25.

However, many know and love Chapman for the hat he’s worn for the last 39 seasons as the head basketball coach of the Firebirds.

In those almost 39 seasons, Chapman and Holy Ghost basketball have racked up an enormous list of accomplishments, including 21 Bicentennial Athletic League titles, nine district championships, 27 20-win seasons and more than 800 victories.

In almost 40 years, the Firebirds have had just three losing seasons under Chapman, whose legacy at the school is so strong that the gymnasium is named in his honor.

In that time, Chapman has never felt compelled to leave for another opportunity, perhaps at the collegiate level. In short, Holy Ghost is his life.

“Why do people leave jobs? Because of money, which was never real big to me,” he said during a recent post-practice conversation.

“Why else do they leave? They get bored, or want to seek a change, or are unhappy, or don’t like their employer or co-workers. I never had that. I like the people I work with, I like what the institution stands for, so for me there was never a reason to go anywhere else. Why would I be curious about something else when I’m happy here?

“But it is crazy that it’s been almost 40 years. It definitely doesn’t seem that way.”

Born and raised in Levittown, Chapman enrolled at Ghost as a freshman in 1967 and almost didn’t stay, mainly because most of his friends were headed for Conwell-Egan. But he stuck it out, starring on the basketball court and baseball diamond before graduating in 1971.

He went on to La Salle for college and was a baseball standout for the Explorers. After graduating in 1975, Chapman taught for a year at Our Lady of Grace in Penndel before getting his foot back in the door at his alma mater.

He coached freshman basketball and JV baseball before getting the opportunity to inherit the varsity basketball program in 1978. He was just 24.

“My own experience here — socially, academically, athletically — it was all tremendous,” Chapman said. “I formed great friendships that still exist today. Going back was part by chance and part by design, but I always said if I had the chance to come back here, I would.”

He still remembers every player on that first 1978 team, as well as the starting lineup and the team’s record (20-8). The Firebirds won the first of Chapman’s 21 league titles that year, and the rest, as they say, is history.

“It’s always been a strong tradition, and there’s only been three basketball coaches here since the first season in 1964,” he said. “We didn’t have as much success as maybe I wanted that first year, but it was enough for me to want to come back. It made me feel like I belonged. I didn’t know if I could do it, but that first year gave me confidence as a coach.”

All Chapman has done since is win. A lot.

High school basketball is faster these days and players are infinitely more athletic, but Chapman has evolved as the game has. He’s tweaked his system as needed, focusing more on defense in recent years and calls himself “more cerebral” as a coach than he was 20 or 30 years ago.

But as far as secrets to his longevity in one place goes, Chapman keeps things pretty simple.

“Staying this long, to me, means I like it here, that’s all,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate to have great kids and really good administrators. I still enjoy it, so why would I want to stop? I’ve never felt burnt out or tired or anything like that. Here, I knew as long as I was doing my best that things would take care of themselves.

“I’m fortunate of the winning percentage we’ve had, but I’d still want to be here if that didn’t happen. If I only had 400 wins, I’d still want to be here because it’s such a great situation.”

Following another district title last year, the Firebirds have more or less picked up where they left off this season. They’re off to a 9-4 start overall as of this writing, including a 7-1 league mark, which is tied for first. Chapman said the next two to three weeks will dictate how far this year’s team will go, but it’s safe to assume that come league and district postseason time, the Firebirds will be there in the end as is usually the case.

As far as how long he plans on coaching, Chapman isn’t sure. He’s thought about the end, but anytime he thinks he may be nearing the finish line, his brain snaps him out of it and convinces Chapman it’s not time yet.

He’s physically and mentally healthy, and his four children, ranging in age from 41 to 22, are all grown. So why not keep on going?

“I’ve gone back and forth with it over the years,” Chapman said of retirement thoughts. “I don’t know. When I lose and it doesn’t mean as much to me anymore, I’ll stop. When I’d rather go home and watch La Salle or the Sixers play on TV instead of studying game film, then it’s time to quit. It will come, but not yet.”

And despite all the wins and league and district titles, that’s not what makes it all worth it to Chapman. That would be the kids he teaches and coaches, who have meant more to him over the decades than any trophy or banner on the gym wall ever could.

When former students and players show back up as working adults to say hello and thank you to Chapman, it’s proof positive that he’s made the right decision in staying at Ghost all these years.

“To me, there’s nothing better,” he said. “All people are different in terms of how they measure success, and I measure it by what’s important to me. When you have kids come back to thank you for what you did for them, to me that’s it. It’s the ultimate situation, especially when it’s a kid I maybe banged heads with for three or four years. It’s amazingly gratifying.

“As a teacher, those impressionable high school years, you try to form them the best you can. Eventually, and hopefully it clicks for them and they appreciate it, and what could be any better than that?” ••

One thought on “Tradition of Excellence: Holy Ghost’s Tony Chapman on 39 seasons with the Firebirds

  1. I wonder how many of those 800 wins came against BAL schools? The BAL is one of the weakest leaguez in PA and HGP got some of the best talent from two of the best CYO regions, 19 and 1, in the state. He should have won most of those games on talent alone. Should have moved into the PCL or Sub One to challenge themselves. The BAL taints his legacy, thats why he stayed so long, easy job.

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