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Bob Tattersall Is a Wilmington Friends School Legend

Photo by Jim Graham

After 54 years, Bob Tattersall finally enacts his succession plan on the Wilmington Friends School gridiron.

Rob Tattersall was more than a little concerned when his dad showed up for a Wilmington Friends School football practice one afternoon last fall with a cut on his face, a black eye, and bruises on his arms and legs. “He looked like he’d been mugged at the 7-Eleven,” Tattersall recalls.

Wilmington Friends School

The elder Tattersall, then 81, had been playing tennis and dove for a ball. When he hit the ground, his glasses fell off, broke and cut him near the eye. He asked the nurse for a Band-Aid. “She said he may need to get stitched up,” says Rob.

Instead, Bob Tattersall conducted practice as usual, just as he’s done every week since 1968—save a few months in 2018 when he had heart bypass surgery and had to miss one game. The venerable coach has piled up 331 victories at Friends and led the Quakers to the 1984 state title. But he enters the 2022 season in a different position. This past May, he informed parents of team members that, rather than leading the program, he’ll be an aide to his son, who’s assisted him on and off for the past 15-plus years. It’s a new chapter in a remarkable career, but it’s not the end of the line. “When I talked to the head of school, he asked, ‘This isn’t the R word?’” Tattersall says. “I said, ‘No. I just wanted to do it before spring practice started.’”

Retirement really isn’t an option for Tattersall, who’s taught and coached since the mid-1960s. His ability to persevere comes from an approach that changes with the trends. But he hasn’t abandoned the strong principles he’s always believed were necessary for teams to win. “He’s a great coach because of his ability to communicate with the kids and his strong commitment to being flexible enough to handle change, while still being committed to what he believes,” says Jeff Ransom, who’s been athletic director at Wilmington Friends for seven years. “He’s a student-centered coach who can get the most out of his players.”

Tattersall’s move to assistant will assure a smooth transition for the program. A 1991 graduate of Wilmington Friends, Rob played for his father and has been a coach at West Chester, Widener, Cornell and Wilkes universities. He knows the game, the school and the program, so it’s unlikely players will notice much of a difference this year. “I don’t want to screw it up,” Rob says. “My plan is to change as little as possible. I want to keep the same traditions, the same routine, the same terminology, the same teaching methods and goals.”

Bob Tattersall took over at Friends after the second entreaty. He’d worked there in the early 1960s while a student at the University of Delaware, coaching middle school football and basketball and JV baseball, making $80 a month. “I thought that was a good deal,” he says.

After he graduated, head of school Charles Hutton offered him a full-time spot, which he turned down. Instead, he taught physical education and helped coach football at William Penn High School, his alma mater. When Hutton called him again, asking him to teach history and coach middle school football, Tattersall acquiesced. “I thought I better not turn them down twice,” he says.

When he took over the varsity football program in 1968, he wanted to take the team away to camp before the season started. Hutton agreed, so Tattersall and his wife, Dianne, took a drive to the Poconos and toured various sites. “We tried to imagine a football field, even though there was two feet of snow on the ground,” Tattersall says.

The Quakers camped for nine seasons in the Poconos, then bivouacked at Camp Tockwogh in Maryland for the next 35. Tattersall abandoned the camp idea in 2012, after logistics became too much. But the trips away from campus allowed him to create bonding opportunities and work the players hard—though not so hard that the team lost its collective spirit.

Tattersall also instituted some traditions that made preseason training more bearable—like an annual charades competition between linemen and skill-position players. That showdown, which takes place just before the start of the season, continues today. “It’s competitive,” Rob says. “He wants to see who can handle themselves under pressure.”

Tattersall also borrowed a fight song from William Penn. He changed the words, and the Quakers sing it after every victory. Each player, assistant and parent knows to learn it.

Wilmington Friends has experienced tremendous success during Tattersall’s tenure, and those achievements have helped alumni stay connected to the school, both as supporters and donors. For alums from the ’60s, ’70s and even the early ’80s, Tattersall is the sole remaining link to Friends. He understands that and cherishes each of his teams. Just don’t ask him for a favorite. “No way,” he says, laughing.

Still, he does point to the 1991 squad, which dressed only 15 players for its opener and finished the year with 21. “That was a special team,” Tattersall says.

And he talks about the 1973 team, which boasted a back—Clark Sanders—who was in contention to be the top scorer in the state. In Friends’ final game, with the Quakers deep in Tower Hill territory, Tattersall called a play for Sanders. The player called a timeout and asked Tattersall to let one of his backfield mates, a senior, carry the ball because he hadn’t scored a touchdown that season. “That was the kind of typical unselfishness we had on that team,” Tattersall says.

In 2011, Wilmington Friends named its field after Tattersall. He allowed it, so long as it wasn’t a memorial. He had one more mandate: “Get it spelled correctly.”

This year, Tattersall embarks on a new chapter with the school. But he’ll still be at every meeting, practice and game. “He said something to me a couple years ago about shutting it down,” Rob says. “I said, ‘What are you going to do on Tuesday afternoon at 4 o’clock?’ It’s weird to see an 80-year-old man coaching. But he loves it.”

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