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WNY coaching legend Masters dies at age 70
Gene Masters coached for 44 seasons
News Sports Reporter

Gene Masters, a man whose coaching status boardered on legendary, died on Monday of a heart attack. He was 70.

Throughout his 44-year coaching career, Masters came to symbolize high school football and all that was good about it. His competitive spirit and his burning desire to win took him to heights few other coaches have achieved.

Monday started as a typical day for Masters, who rode his bicycle to 7:30 a.m. mass at St. Stephens Church on Baseline Road in Grand Island. Just before the Gospel was read, he reportedly grabbed his chest and his head fell backward. Attempts by emergency personnel to revive him failed.

"He was gone almost at once," said longtime friend Agnes Denler, who was seated right behind Masters. "He let out a funny sound, and I rushed up and held him. They worked on him like crazy, but he was gone. His eyes were alive and then they weren't. I don't think I'll ever forget the way he looked. I guess if he was going to go, that was the place for it."

Masters had a history of heart trouble. In 1991 he survived septuple-bypass surgery. During his recovery he was advised by his doctors not to drive. So in true Masters style, he rode his bike to get around.

"It was quite a shock. He really didn't show any sign of being sick or anything like that," said Grand Island athletic director Jon Roth. "If he was hurting he didn't tell anyone, but that's Gene Masters."

Coaching was a lifelong passion for Masters who once said: "As long as the good Lord wants me, I will continue his work; that is teaching young men what is right and then doing right through football."

For all who knew him, Masters was Grand Island athletics. He began his varsity football career at Brocton in 1957. Six years later he moved to the new high school on Grand Island where he founded the football and baseball programs.

"He personified what a coach on the high school level should be," said Roth. "The guy was always upbeat, he always had great stories, and that's what I'm going to miss. He won't just be missed in the world of athletics, he made so many friends on Grand Island."

Masters only had four losing seasons among his 44. His 248 wins (against 107 losses and seven ties) are the most all-time among public school coaches in Western New York and the fifth-most in the state. His teams won 18 divisional titles, and made nine trips to what is now Ralph Wilson Stadium.

He helped mold 25 All-Western New York players, including three Players of the Year, and earned WNY Coach of the Year honors in 1978 and 1989.

"He was a great motivator. He got us all pumped up for every game like it was going to be the last game in our high school career," said linebacker Mike Filosofos, nicknamed "Flipper" by Masters in 1973. "He always told us to go out and have fun and play the game the way it was supposed to be played, and he loved to win."

"He knew what was best for you," said quarterback Glyn Lipp, who led the Vikings to an 8-0 record in 1973. "He made us work hard, but he knew what the results were going to be. He was just a great guy. This is a big loss for the Grand Island community and the kids who played for him and all the kids he taught."

Masters' baseball coaching career spanned 1964-2000 and included over 450 wins, 10 league titles, five sectional crowns and produced 10 All-Western New York players.

Masters was recognized for his lifelong dedication to high school athletics in 1999 when he was inducted into The Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame.

Other honors included the Grand Island football field being dedicated in his name in 1991. In 2000 he was named large school Coach of the Year for the decade of the '90s by Western New York High School Sports magazine. He is a previous recipient of the Dick Offenhamer Award given annually on UB Civic Day.

Retired Depew coach Frank Constantino is one of Masters' few coaching contemporaries. He was inducted into the Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 1991. In eight meetings against Masters-coached teams the Wildcats were 3-5.

"He was ahead of the game," said Constantino. "I could never beat him at their place. We used to have a pretty good rivalry. He and I were good buddies. He was a super guy, but he kept to himself most of the time."

Master's early successes as an athlete provided a foundation for his coaching career. He was athlete of the year his senior year (1948) at Tonawanda High School. He played semi-professional football with the North Tonawanda Loggers and Fredonia Orioles.

In 1948 he went to Iowa State and later transferred to the University at Buffalo from 1950-1951. He played on the Bulls football team during the 1951 season. He was inducted into the army and served in the Korean war from 1952-1954. After the war he returned to UB and graduated in 1955.

Masters retired from teaching in 1993, but kept the football and baseball jobs until 2000.

Masters is survived by his wife, Marge, of 45 years, a son Mike of Amherst and a daughter, Cynthia Khries, of Tonawanda and four grandchildren. He had two sisters, Janet and Linda, and a brother Dick.

Visitation will be on Wednesday and Thursday from 2-4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. at Kaiser Funeral Home at 1950 Whitehaven Road on Grand Island. A funeral mass will be held Friday at 10 a.m. at St. Stephen's. He will be buried at Mount Olivet Cemetery in the Town of Tonawanda.

e-mail: mmonnin@buffnews.com