It was fall of 1981 when Nick Restifo Hon. ’19 walked through the doors of Saint Ignatius High School to take on his new job as a Spanish teacher – but it wasn’t long before he got offered his “second job.” In 1983 the newly named head football coach Chuck Kyle ’69 offered him the role of assistant coach and offensive coordinator. It’s a role Restifo has played with skill and passion for nearly 40 years, helping deliver 11 state championships and three national titles – while building lifelong relationships with players and colleagues alike.
Although he continues to teach Spanish, Restifo has retired from his coaching role. Reflecting on a storied career in high school football, he puts it in perspective. “As an assistant coach, I’ve always felt it was important to support the head coach in any way I can,” he says. “And I have tried to model the five tenets of Saint Ignatius – being open to growth, intellectually competent, religious, loving and committed to working for peace and justice. This is what life is all about.”
A passion becomes a career
Nick Restifo grew up in the 1950s on Cleveland’s southeast side. Football soon became his passion, but with no team at his parish school, he played backyard football with buddies. Attending Cathedral Latin high school, he played for Cleveland’s powerhouse team like his father before him. At John Carroll University he played football all four years and majored in Spanish. “I thought maybe I wanted to be a lawyer but was more attracted to teaching and coaching,” recalls Restifo.
Graduating in 1974, he was hired to teach and coach at St. Joseph High School (now Villa Angela-St. Joseph) where he “learned a lot of football” and remains grateful for great coaches who mentored him, including Joe Perella at Cathedral Latin and Bill Gutbrod at St. Joe’s.
In 1981 Restifo was hired to teach at Saint Ignatius, where his buddy Chuck Kyle was teaching and coaching. Friends on John Carroll football team, Kyle recalls his momentous first decision after getting the head coaching job. “I walked out of the president’s office, up two flights of stairs, right to Nick’s desk and said, ‘I’ve just been named head coach. Do you want to be the offensive coordinator?’ He said ‘Sure!’ Within minutes of my being hired, Nick became the first and only offensive coordinator at Saint Ignatius High School.”
Kyle describes their relationship as never a dictatorship, but like brothers bouncing ideas off each other, trying to be on the cutting edge of high school football. Restifo concurs. “He lets me do what I want to do, obviously with his blessing. We’d put together plays, and he’d ask what I think. We have mutual respect for each other.”
Together, Kyle and Restifo would change the face of football at Saint Ignatius.
Crafting the “secret sauce”
“Saint Ignatius had a good reputation in football during the 1960s,” says Restifo. “But St. Joe’s had become the real football factory, with a lot of players ending up playing pro ball. Saint Ignatius was known more for academics, not for football.”
Under Restifo and Kyle, that was about to change – transforming the school into one known not only for rigorous academics but for championship football teams. The first thing they tried was getting away from the “three yards and a cloud of dust” running game commonplace on Ohio football fields. Restifo describes it as the Woody Hayes style of play. “Eventually you’d get a first down, eventually you’d get down the field and score, and play great defense. But I had been a wide receiver at John Carroll and really enjoyed the passing game, so Coach Kyle and I decided, ‘We’re gonna throw the ball!’ and we did! That put us ahead of the game, as we developed a very good passing game.”
From his early days as a coach, Restifo loved to study teams with great passing offenses at the time, including Brigham Young University and the Cleveland Browns during their Cardiac Kids era in the 1980s. When college coaches came to visit, Restifo would draw up plays and ask for their critiques. And family vacations included trips to Notre Dame, Bowling Green, and the University of Florida, where Urban Meyer was coaching. He was passionate about watching and learning the passing game from the best. “I spent many hours at clinics and spring practices trying to learn my craft better,” says Restifo.
Restifo boils it down to this simple strategy: “Our goal was to put our kids in a position to win. You can draw up any diagram, but in a tight game you have to be able to put kids in a position they can execute and win a game. A passing game coupled with a great defense – that was the special sauce for a winning combination.”
As many assistant coaches heard him say over the years: “It’s not about the Xs and Os – it’s about the Jimmies and Joes.” Restifo knew that the best-designed play in the world was useless without players capable of executing it. He feels fortunate to have had the caliber of players at Saint Ignatius who could accept the challenge. “Our success has been all about the kids. We were just smart enough not to screw them up!” he says with a laugh.
Saint Ignatius Athletic Director Rory Fitzpatrick ’88 admires Restifo’s character and abilities. “He’s a passionate Italian guy. He is emotional in a good way, caring deeply about the guys and giving his best. Everybody thinks they can call plays and every coach gets criticized – but it’s a hard job. Walk a day in Nick’s shoes to understand how difficult it is to talk to your quarterbacks, take in all the information around you, tune out the noise and call the plays. He did that for so many years and at such a high level. It’s one of the things that helped Saint Ignatius become who we are on the football field.”
Coaching the QB position
Restifo was never a quarterback himself, but when he decided to focus on a passing game, he began to hone the craft of coaching QBs. He learned the fundamentals of throwing the ball by working with good quarterback coaches, then teaching students what he learned, meeting in a classroom each spring from 6-7 a.m.
“The best quarterbacks came in with leadership ability. You have to be a special kind of person to want to be a quarterback, particularly at Saint Ignatius where the offense is so quarterback driven. There’s a lot of responsibility, more than just getting the ball and handing it off. You have to make decisions at the line of scrimmage, changing the blocking or getting us out of a bad play.”
Coach Kyle trusted Restifo to train quarterbacks. “Nick was technically very good. There’s a lot more to it than having a great arm – it’s your footwork, torso, chest. And a lot of quarterbacking is mental. You could have a cannon for an arm and throw 80 yards and not be a good quarterback. Nick was a student of the game in those areas. He loved researching it. You see that and say, ‘Go ahead, buddy! I’ll be over here,” Kyle says with a laugh.
Beyond mental and physical preparation, both men stressed spiritual preparation. At the team Mass before every game, Restifo would help distribute communion. “Picture that,” says Kyle. “Coach is up by the altar helping the priest. It sends a message. I never had to ask him to do that. His faith is important to him, part of what we do here.”
Many Ignatius quarterbacks recall Restifo’s response when they talked about the pressure: “No. Fellows, that’s not pressure. You know what pressure is? Pressure is when you’re 50 years old, you have a wife and three kids, and no job. That’s pressure. So, go out and have fun!”
Restifo’s QBs in the NFL
Coach Restifo coached some great quarterbacks over the years, many of them going on to play in college and the NFL.
Joe Pickens ’90 helped start what is one of the greatest runs in the history of high school football, leading the way to the first two state championships for Saint Ignatius. He led the Wildcats to a 14-0 season in 1988 and 13-0 in 1989, claiming the school’s first national championship. Pickens went on to play for Ohio State and Duke University and as a free agent for the Seattle Seahawks.
Pickens is now a successful attorney in Columbus and recalls the profound effect Coach Restifo had on his life. He says, “Any success I had was a direct result of his instruction. It wasn’t just the mechanics or footwork – it was how to mentally approach being a quarterback and how to lead a team. He was a bit of an ‘old school’ coach. If you screwed up, he let you know in very direct terms. But in the same breath, he was positive and encouraging. I always believed he had my best interest at heart – and he still does. I’ve been out of high school for 30 years and when our paths cross, he wants to talk about our families and careers. He still cares about one of his old guys! Last year he even showed up at my grandfather’s funeral. I consider him a friend and truly appreciate everything he did for me.”
As a kid, Tom Arth ’99 dreamed of playing quarterback with Saint Ignatius. After playing at John Carroll University, he became backup quarterback to Peyton Manning with the Indianapolis Colts, played in NFL Europe and was on the preseason roster with the Green Bay Packers. He coached for JCU, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and is now head coach for the University of Akron.
“Coach Restifo taught me the fundamentals of the position, and coached quarterback as well as anybody, college and pro level. He challenged you and didn’t take anything less than your best,” says Arth. “I started my senior year as a wide receiver, and it wasn’t until the fifth game I was put in as starting quarterback against Youngstown-Boardman. That was one of the greatest moments of my life. I will always cherish the confidence he had in me. Our relationship has only grown since I left Saint Ignatius. He’s supported me as a player at John Carroll, in the NFL and as a coach. Like so many others at the school, he lives the mission of developing Men for Others. We have a love for our Alma Mater because of men like Nick Restifo.”
Brian Hoyer ’04 was a two-year starter on the Wildcats team, played for Michigan State and went on to play for seven NFL teams, including the Cleveland Browns and the New England Patriots, where he played backup quarterback to Tom Brady in Super Bowl LIII. Now in his 12th NFL season, Patriots coach Bill Belichick has once again called on Hoyer.
“I had heard about the Saint Ignatius football legacy, so I was excited by Coach Restifo’s track record of quarterbacks before me,” Hoyer says. “There are drills I did with him that I still do in my 12th year in the NFL. He was my first real quarterback coach, teaching me to do a three-step drop, a five-step drop, play action and call plays. I remember thinking Coach Restifo was super smart when it came to scheming plays and relating those to players so we could understand them. I remember in Spanish class if we had a free day, he’d be looking up things in football magazines. But he also had a passion for the Spanish language and culture. I worked so hard in his Spanish class but he’d never give me an A, always a B. He didn’t want anyone thinking I was the teacher’s pet. Over the years we’ve maintained a relationship. I came back for football camps and he came to my wedding. Coach Restifo and Coach Kyle got me started on the path that allowed me to be where I am today in my career.”
Life as teacher & coach
The balancing act of being a great coach and a great teacher is not an easy one. “I don’t get much sleep,” Restifo says with a smile. “I’d get home by 7 p.m., go over the football script for the next day, go to bed early, be up by 5 a.m. doing lesson plans. At Saint Ignatius, education is the priority. When I was hired, Fr. Welsh was president and he asked me, ‘Nick, are you a teacher or are you a coach?’ insinuating that coaches didn’t care a whole lot about teaching. I said, ‘Father, you can’t be a good coach unless you’re a good teacher.’ He must’ve liked me because he hired me. I still believe the best coaches are the ones trained in education. They know how to present things in a way kids understand.”
Restifo is grateful to his wife, Susie, who was very supportive of his coaching and teaching career. “Football is no longer a seasonal sport. It’s a full-year, 24/7 job, especially as an offensive coordinator. It can be very taxing on a family.” His daughter, Grace, now 26, is a “Wildcat, through and through,” loves the blue and gold gear he brings home and knew many of the players growing up.
Relationships for life
Looking back on how football impacted his life, Restifo realizes it’s always been about developing relationships with players and coaches. “I get to spend a lot of time with these young men, not only coaching them, but sharing stories of family, hobbies, cooking recipes, and girlfriends. I try to find out what makes them tick, what pushes their buttons, what motivates them. We laugh and joke. I get to see the side of these young men that you don't see in the classroom, and they get to see that side of me outside the classroom as well. These relationships often last for years. Even to this day there are former players who invite me to their reunions. They all say how much influence on them that we coaches make. Little do they know how much influence they have had on me.”
Coach Kyle is most proud of the culture he and Restifo created on the football team. “Nick and I are both schoolteachers. That’s how you put bread on the table at Saint Ignatius. All these guys are college-bound, some will play football, and some won’t. But they tell us they learned a lot in the football program that will help them in life. We built a culture where second and third team guys work just as hard and learn how to help the whole team. Many of them go on to be very successful – because they learned to put their ego in the backseat and to serve other people in a quality way.”
Post-game retirement plans
While he continues to teach, Restifo knew it was time to step back from coaching. He looks forward to playing golf (after 3 p.m. on weekdays) with newly retired teacher buddies like Brian Becker ’77 and John Cooney ’67. But he also plans to visit colleges and high schools to see how they run their football programs. “We’ve done it our way for so many years at Saint Ignatius. Maybe there’s a different way to skin the cat. I’d like to have time to talk to guys we’ve competed against for so many years.”
Coach Kyle understands Nick’s decision to retire. “There is a point where you say it’s time, and deep in your heart, you know it. You don’t want to cheat the kids – you want to give your all. Yeah, I’m going to miss him. We hugged each other. I said, ‘Nick, look. The best thing I ever did in football was to walk up to you that day and ask you to be the offensive coordinator.’”
Of course, Restifo won’t be a stranger to the team. He plans to share what he’s learned and cheer on the next generation of assistant coaches and Wildcats. Rory Fitzpatrick sums up the impact of Coach Restifo.
“Nick didn’t go to high school here, but he’s an Ignatius guy, given an honorary degree. He’s as passionate about the classroom as he is about the football field. Nick has made Saint Ignatius a better place, a stronger place. His legacy will be felt for generations.”