Hall honours ‘football bum’ on, off gridiron

John P. Metras Sports Museum // Special to Western NewsAs a young high-schooler growing up in Hamilton, Frank Cosentino, HBA’60, did what most sports-minded kids did – he tried out for the football team. And for three straight years, he was cut. Last week, he was named to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame Class of 2018.

As a high-schooler growing up in Hamilton, Frank Cosentino, HBA’60, did what most sports-minded kids did – he tried out for the football team. And for three straight years, he was cut.

Little did his high school coach know, however, but that same eager teenager would go on to a successful career that included two Yates Cups; a decade in the Canadian Football League (CFL) and two Grey Cups rings; and a stretch as a university football coach that would include two national championships.

Last week, Cosentino capped off his gridiron career by being named to the Canadian Football Hall of Fame Class of 2018 as a builder.

Football wasn’t Cosentino’s go-to sport growing up. Born into an immigrant family in Canada, it was costly to play any sort of organized sport – “except, if you grabbed a pair of sneakers,” you could almost play any sport you wanted. A strong baseball player with the Hamilton Police Minor Baseball Association (thanks to a glove and ball he won in a Labour Day race in Hamilton’s Dundern Park), he played football only in the fall.

Although “unimpressive” in his would-be high school football coach’s eyes, Cosentino’s strong baseball arm made him a tempting target to try out at quarterback. When a new head coach took over and inserted the Split T, an offensive formation popular in the 1940s and 1950s, Cosentino thrived – although painfully.

“I knew a little about it because I watched Tiger-Cats use it but watching it and doing it are two different things,” he said, recalling his best friend smashing him on the shoulder or the head every time he had the ball. “I asked him what’s going on. He said, ‘I’m just doing what the coach told me. You’re going to get hit on every play and he wants you to get used to it.’ I quickly learned to avoid him and we won the city championship that year.”

Cosentino’s skills on the diamond brought him attention from major league scouts – attracting offers from the Cleveland Indians, Milwaukee Braves and Kansas City Athletics, as well as baseball offers from American and Canadian universities. Cosentino chose football and Western for one important reason.

“I met my future wife (Sheila) the night we won the city championship in 1954. That made the decision a bit easier,” said Cosentino, who has been married now for almost 60 years. “I set baseball aside and ended up going to Western. It was far enough away from Hamilton to get away from home, and close enough I could get back and visit Sheila when I wanted.”

As a Mustang, Cosentino won the Yates Cup in 1957 and 1959, as well as captained the team to the university’s first-ever Canadian Intercollegiate Football Championship during his final game as a Mustang in 1959. He credits the coaching staff of John P. Metras, Bill L’Heureux and Jack Fairs for teaching him so much on the field.

But his university football career almost skidded to a halt because of what was happening – rather, not happening – off the field. Seems Cosentino was more enthralled with picking up a football than picking up a book.

“In my first year, I was just interested in football and wasn’t paying much attention to my studies,” said the 80-year-old. “I was at King’s (University College) and wasn’t doing very well, not sure if I had even passed any exams. That’s when the dean, Monsignor Lester Wemple, called me into his office and laid it on the line for me. ‘You’re a football bum. All you think about is football and you’re throwing your future away because you’re not approaching your studies the same way you approach football. So shape up.’

“It was definite a wake-up call. I started getting up at 6:30 a.m. every morning, heading to the library, checking over my notes, and I actually got a C average. Next year, I got a bursary and a B average. I started to learn it was fun to learn.”

Following graduation, Cosentino was drafted by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the first round of the 1960 CFL Draft. After a tepid 4-10 record in his first playing season, he helped Hamilton to five consecutive Grey Cup appearances and championships in 1963 and 1965. During his 10-year CFL playing career, he also played two years in Edmonton and one in Toronto.

While in the CFL, Cosentino continued his education. He acquired a Physical Education degree from McMaster University, then a master’s and PhD from the University of Alberta.

Cosentino returned to Western in 1970 to take over head coaching duties from the legendary Metras. In his five seasons at Western, Cosentino won Vanier Cups in 1971 and 1974 and helped revitalize the football program.

“It helped me that I was a player here, with some great coaches, and had great coaches at the CFL level,” he said. “I learned something from each of them. So when I did become a (Mustangs) coach, I was able to draw on certain strengths they had and passed on to me.

“When people ask me what I coach or what I teach, I say I coach or teach people. I know my Xs and Os of football as well as anybody. But, at the same time, none of the players are Xs and Os – they’re kids. I look at you first as a person, second as a student and third as a football player. Those were our priorities.”

Cosentino headed to York University in 1976 as professor and chair of Physical Education and Athletics, coaching for seven more years. He retired from the university in 1997.

Cosentino, honoured with athletics Halls of Fame at Western, York and the Ontario University Athletics, has found ways to keep the memories fresh. The author of 17 books, including three on the CFL, he goes by the cliché ‘write what you know.’ He latest book, Home Again, is the story of the Canadian Football League from 1995-2014.

Cosentino eagerly anticipates the CFL induction ceremony in September, with as many of his children, grandchildren and soon-to-be-two great-grandchildren in attendance. And if he had his way, there would be two names on his plaque – his and Sheila’s.

“My wife, as much as anybody, should be considered a builder. (During my football career) she was keeping the ship upright and covered all the bases, so much so she eventually went to university, one subject at a time, and graduated with our son Peter from York in 1988. It will be a great family affair. I’m looking forward to it.”

ALL ABOUT WINNING

Frank Cosentino, HBA’60, played collegiately for the Western Mustangs where he won the Yates Cup in 1957 and 1959, as well as Canada’s intercollegiate championship in 1959. He was drafted by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the first round of the 1960 CFL Draft. During his 10-year CFL playing career, he helped Hamilton to five consecutive Grey Cup appearances, and Grey Cup victories in 1963 and 1965. He then coached his alma mater for five seasons, winning Vanier Cups for Western in 1971 and 1974. He went on to coach York University where he turned a program that had struggled into a winner that earned post-season appearances in 1984 and 1985. A leading academic and lecturer, Cosentino authored 17 books on sports in Canada, including three on Canadian football.