Joe Suriano, who built a legendary Hall of Fame coaching career that spanned five decades at West Orange High School, passed away on Friday at the age of 73.
According to Cynthia Cumming, the Communications Coordinator for the West Orange School District, Suriano was in the hospital for several days with Covid-19. He was making plans to be discharged this past Friday, but suffered a fatal heart attack on Friday morning.
Married to his wife Marlene (Melillo) Suriano for 50 years, Suriano leaves behind daughters Stephanie Suriano, Nicole Suriano-Postiglione and her husband Joseph Jr., along with granddaughters Avery and Dylan.
Suriano, who grew up in West Orange and was a state champ in the 100-yard dash for Our Lady of the Valley in Orange in 1965, began teaching at West Orange as an English teacher in 1969. He began coaching track and field and cross-country at West Orange in 1971.
Suriano, a member of the West Orange Hall of Fame, built a remarkable resume during his 46-year coaching run for the Mountaineers before retiring in 2016.
Over the course of his career, Suriano coached five All-Americans, and several Meet of Champions winners. including Heather Bury, who won the 1992 XC M of C title. Bury is the last girl from Essex County to capture that prestigious crown.
Suriano's West Orange teams won seven league championships, and he was named All-Area Coach of the Year 16 times, League Coach of the Year eight times, and Essex County Coach of the Year twice. Suriano was held in such high regard that the stadium at West Orange is named in his honor!
In addition to his career as a coach, Suriano was named Teacher of the Year three times.
News of Suraino's passing rocked the track and field community and triggered an outpouring of tributes as friends, former athletes, fellow coaches, and officials shared their thoughts about the lasting impressions Suriano made on them and the legacy of greatness he left behind.
Ronald Bligh, the Director of Athletics at West Orange, said his friend was a great all-round person.
"Great family man,'' Bligh said of Suriano. "Loyal, full of integrity, a great teacher, and never had a bad word about anybody. Great friend, a man of great faith, and a great coach. He will be greatly missed. I loved him.''
Bruce Berry, who won a Meet of Champions title in the 400-meter hurdles in 1984 under the watchful eye of Suriano and later coached alongside his mentor at West Orange, was devastated by the news.
"It was difficult to hear of his passing,'' said Berry, who now coaches track and field at Rutgers-Newark. "I just conversed with his daughter, Nicole, and he was supposed to be coming home (on Friday, the day he passed), but then he suffered a heart attack that took his life.''
Berry (pictured above with Suriano and teammate Janine Lorimer in 1983) was introduced into the West Orange Hall of Fame by Suriano in 1994. Berry credits Suriano with his success as a track and field athlete and as a coach.
"Coach Suriano was an incredible motivator he made you believe in things you could do even if you weren't too sure about it yourself,'' said Berry, an Olympic Trials qualifier in the 400 hurdles. "He was an excellent teacher not only in a the classroom, but as a mentor, and eventual colleague being his assistant for four years. His style was a calm demeanor, soft spoken but carried "a big stick". He always let you grow as a coach but would guide you in the right direction if you started to veer off course. He allowed you to express your opinion, he listened to you, and made a final decision as the Head Coach, but always seemed to incorporate your "idea" into the decision. One time I wanted to not run Darriea Pigott in the Essex County meet because she broke a team rule. Coach calmly said "she can be punished later, she will never have another opportunity to run the County meet again (she was a senior). So she ran and won the 100 and 200 and set the county record in the 200. Finally, he was extremely supportive of me as I moved on in my coaching career, always the first to call me when my teams or athletes were successful,. Coach was a CLASS ACT AND GENTLEMAN! He always had a smile and a kind word to greet you with..He will always have a place in my heart and will truly be missed.''
Dave Alfano, another West Orange Hall of Famer, was a star distance runner who graduated from West Orange in 2004. He said Coach Suriano is responsible for his getting his running career started and treated his athletes like they were one of his own kids.
"Coach Suriano was the reason why I started running in the first place,'' said Alfano, who won the Essex County XC title in 2003 and captured several county, conference and sectional titles on the track. "His enthusiasm, passion and motivation for the sport was felt by us all, and in return we all wanted to make him proud with our performances. As one of his athletes, I can say that he made us all feel loved as if we were his own children. When a coach goes the extra mile to check in with you throughout the day and during the summer, you know that they care and I believe that we all felt that, regardless of what our personal bests were.''
Alfano, who recently coached track and XC at St. Benedict's Prep and is now a full-time physical therapist, said he will always carry what he learned from Suriano with him.
"I've taken these many lessons and have implemented them not only with my athletes but with family and friends,'' said Alfano, pictured below with Suriano when Alfano was inducted into the West Orange Hall of Fame in 2017. "He will be tremendously missed by everyone who has ever had the privilege of crossing paths with him.''
Millburn track and field and XC coach Jeff Kaye said Suriano was one of the best people he knew, on and off the track.
"He was such a great coach, mentor, and friend,'' said Kaye. "He welcomed me into the county when I started coaching 20 years ago and was truly a kind and generous soul. He was well respected by everyone and helped make Essex County running great. He always had an infectious smile and attitude. It was always great seeing him show up at meets after he retired. His influence extended beyond the track/cross-country course, and he was a great example for coaches, athletes, officials, fans, and parents.''
Bob Byrnes, a long time coach and is now a meet director and an NJSIAA track and field and XC official, praised Suriano for being a true gentleman.
"Joe Suriano was a class act,'' said Byrnes. "When I was officiating at a meet, he would always stop and talk. One of the nicest people I had ever met. When I first started coaching at Morris Catholic we ended up in the same conference as West Orange. It was about 1980, and I think we were then in the Northern Hills. I had a good girls team, but they were all sprinters. Joe was coaching West Orange. We had a meet scheduled the Thursday of Penn Relays, and I planned on taking the top six girls to Penn. We had a good 4x400, and I would add two more and run a 4x100. The conference decided no meets could be changed, so we had to run a dual meet. Jack Conheeney was the boys' coach, and he said call Joe. I explained to Joe that we had a good team and could win the conference title, but I really wanted the girls to have a chance to run at Penn. He said go to Penn, his team was not very good, and he would make sure MC win the dual meet. We went to Penn, got medals in the 4x400, and we won the meet against West Orange. I called Joe on Friday to thank him, and he told me it was harder than I thought. I remember his saying, you were right. Without your sprinters, you have nothing, but he changed his lineup so that we won. His only concern was that my girls got a chance to run at Penn. The next year the conference decided not to schedule on Penn Thursday so that the girls could all go. Thank you, Joe.''
John Schwarz of the Essex County Coaches Association, a longtime friend of Suriano, summed up what many have already stated.
"He was a great coach, and teacher, but he was an even better person,'' said Schwarz!"