Tim Tierney '61, longtime CSU East Bay college football coach & mentor
By Pat Sullivan ’61
One spring day in 1961 at the SI on Stanyan Street, 257 seniors were assigned to write a caption to accompany their photographs in the Ignatian yearbook. The instructions asked us to state our plans after graduation.
This is Tim Tierney’s caption: “Tim came to SI as a sophomore and immediately displayed his fine character. He was an excellent athlete, leading the varsity football team to two championships and sparking the track team. For his athletic endeavors, Tim was elected to the Block Club. After graduation, Tim plans to extend his education in the field of criminology.”
All true except for the last part, but no harm, no crime. As with many of us, the yearbook plan didn’t happen. Instead of criminology, Tim went on to a career that no then-SI senior could have foreseen – more than three decades as a college football coach, teacher and much-sought-after academic adviser. That career was briefly interrupted by a life-threatening brain tumor that turned Tim’s dark hair white when he was only 37.
He bounced back from that health scare and persevered in his career in a way that inspired countless former SI and SFSU teammates and classmates, his students and colleagues at Cal State Hayward (now Cal State East Bay) and his family, including brothers Bob ’71 and Jim ’77. It was no surprise that after Tim’s death on Sept. 15 in Redwood City from complications during brain surgery, there came an outpouring of affection from many who met him at various stages of Tim’s life.
Players on the 1968 SI football team encountered Tim as an assistant coach. One former player praised Tim as “the best coach that I had at SI.” Another wrote this: “I learned more from Tim than any other coach at SI.” A third mentioned that “Tim was the calming influence from the coaching staff, which could be very volatile at times.”
His example led others to emulate him, including Dan Brown, captain of the 1985 Cal State Hayward team. “I’m a high-school football coach because of Tim Tierney,” noted Brown.
Major League Baseball umpire Ted Barrett, who played football at Hayward State from 1985 to 1986 and who coached there for one season, said that he attributed his “success as a major-league umpire to Tim [because] he taught me the value of life both on and off the football field. He preached teamwork and how to overcome adversity.”
Speaking by phone from Cleveland for this article, former SI football and NFL football coach Gil Haskell ’61 noted that he and Tim “were both very competitive and very close. We spent many hours talking football with Doc Erskine.”
Gil noted that he and Tim often water-skied at Lake Berryessa “We would work out on the SF State field at night after our summer day-jobs to get ready for football. We were in each other’s weddings. We played golf in Palm Springs with our wives. The worst part is I didn’t get to see him often enough over the past 30 years.”
Those who knew him best, of course, were his family. “The one accomplishment Tim was most proud of was being the father of three children,” added his wife, Jeanette Stone Tierney. “He could not be prouder of them. He was their academic adviser and life coach. Kent and Bryan are graduates of San Francisco Law School with successful careers; Sadie is a graduate of Cal Poly embarking on a successful career. Tim was publicly and privately very affectionate toward his children.”
Tim was born in Buffalo, NY, and grew up in San Francisco’s Parkside and West Portal neighborhoods. He was known as the fastest kid at Herbert Hoover Junior High, according to his brother Bob.
After graduating from SI, Tim entered SFSU, where he played football, again, with Haskell, Mike Burke ’61, Dennis Drucker ’61 and Paul Richards ’61. They impressed older teammate and quarterback Don McPhail, who noted that “Tim and his pals brought positive energy and a certain kind of sophistication to our team. We needed the grounding they brought.”
As a defensive back and special teams player, Tim twice was named to the All-Far Western Conference (FWC) team. In 1963, in a game you can find on YouTube, he returned a punt 89 yards, untouched, for a touchdown, setting a record and igniting a 33–22 win over visiting Cal Poly. In 1985, Tim was inducted into the San Francisco State Athletic Hall of Fame.
In the immediate years after college, he gained experience with the Rhode Island Indians of the Continental Football League and in the camp of the Philadelphia Eagles. Then came two seasons at SI as an assistant to Vince Tringali and one season coaching at Homestead in San Jose with classmate Burke. In 1970, a year before earning a master’s degree at Stanford, Tim moved on to Hayward State, beginning his 37-year career there.
In that first season as defensive coordinator, his team took on Southern University in a game billed as the Bay Area Football Classic – the first-ever college football game to be played at the
On a cold and rainy afternoon, a crowd of 24,092 showed up, many not so much for the X’s and O’s but for the tubas and batons, to see the famous Southern University Marching Band perform at halftime. Fine and dandy. The cymbal-clash to the day, however, was the Pioneers’ 20–6 upset of the Jaguars as Coach T’s defensive scheme blanketed 6-feet, 8-inch-tall receiver Harold Carmichael, who would later star for the NFL Philadelphia Eagles, limiting him to a lone touchdown catch.
In 1975, Tim was named head coach, a position he would hold until Hayward dropped football in 1993. Tim led the Pioneers to one FWC championship and four second-place finishes. The 1985 team allowed only 67.2 yards-a-game rushing, a school record. Tim was FWC Co-Coach of the Year in 1977 and 1981, the latter honor only months after his brain-tumor episode. Rivalry games, especially against UC Davis, were heated affairs.
Despite all his wins, Tim also could be philosophical in defeat. After a tough loss in 1984, he told the San Francisco Chronicle that “it’s like the fish that got away. Is it to the fish’s credit or is it the fisherman’s fault?” I included that quote in Football’s Greatest Quotes, a 1990 book I edited with Bob Chieger. Tim’s gem is in a chapter called “Win, Lose and Tie,” along with quotes from Woody Hayes, John McKay, Lou Holtz, Bo Schembechler, Tom Landry, Al Davis, Randy Cross, Bobby Layne and John Madden.
After football ended at Hayward, Tim, in addition to being a sought-after adviser and teacher in the Kinesiology Department, developed a golf program and coached the men’s and women’s teams until 2005. Longtime friend Mike Moriarty ’61, the 1969 San Francisco golf champion, was a behind-the-scenes consultant. After Tim’s appointment as interim tennis coach for one season, he told a student: “I’m your new coach; I don’t know anything about tennis.”
Tim’s Celebration of Life took place on Oct. 7, a clear, bright Sunday, the same day the Blue Angels flew over the city. At the United Irish Cultural Center, in the large upstairs hall filled with 200 people, three bagpipers roared their pipes as they strolled through a gathering that included dozens of Tim’s professional colleagues from CSU/East Bay, including Al Matthews, athletic director when Tim was coaching, who noted that “Tim never complained about the budget. All he cared about was recruiting the best athletes.” Matthews also recalled visiting The Portals with Tim. “I could not believe how many people knew Tim, how many drinks were backed up in front of us and how we were ever going to get out of there.”
For me, the quote by Xiong Sheng on the program at Tim’s Celebration of Life said it all: “In the end, it’s not going to matter how many breaths you took, but how many moments took your breath away.”
Pat Sullivan worked as a sports reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle between 1977 and 2002. After Tim’s retirement, the two men lived only 30 miles apart on California’s Central Coast. They rekindled their friendship shortly before their Golden Diploma reunion. “It felt new and special. It is my privilege to have had the opportunity to contribute this article to Genesis.” S
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