McPhee — who helmed a golden era for football at Cathedral High School in the 1960s — died Jan. 18 at the age of 90 in Ancaster.
By Dan Nolan
The Hamilton Spectator (Feb 11, 2019)
Hamilton has lost another legendary high school football coach.
John McPhee — who helmed a golden era for football at Cathedral High School in the 1960s — died Jan. 18 at the age of 90 in Ancaster.
His death follows two other legendary high school coaches in 2018 — George Knill in August at the age of 79, and Dennis (Griff) Griffin at the age of 76 in November.
They were contemporaries of other well-known coaches — like Phil Ruberto and Tom Gallagher — who racked up the victories and prepared young men for university, careers in football or anything they put their mind to.
McPhee, who attended and played football at Cathedral in the 1940s under the nickname Johnny Red, arrived at the school in 1959 and guided the junior Gaels team to a city football title in 1960. At the time, it was a boys' school (the boys and nearby girls schools were merged in 1992).
McPhee became head of the physical education department and the senior coach in 1961 and that team made the playoffs seven of nine seasons, winning titles in 1963 and 1964 and the four years between 1966 and 1969. The senior Gaels also went undefeated in 1964, '66, '68 and '69, and lost the 1965 title to Delta by just one point, 7-6. McPhee's overall record as a senior coach stood at 64 victories, 14 defeats and four ties.
He was promoted to vice-principal of Cathedral in 1970 and later served at St. Jean de Brebeuf Catholic Secondary School. He served two times as principal of Cathedral.
"The hardest part of my decision to take the position of vice-principal was the fact I would have to leave football," McPhee told The Spectator in 1970.
"I've built up a lifetime of experience in football since I first played for Cathedral in 1944, and when you put so much time and effort into something you are bound to miss it."
But football was never done with McPhee. He returned in 1972 as head coach, serving for two years, and captured his seventh city championship. And he coached the Gaels again in 1991 and 1992 after he retired, and coached them in 1993 with his one-time assistant Tom Gallagher (who spent 16 years as head coach).
McPhee grew up in east Hamilton and was one of three boys born to Aeneas and Catherine McPhee. His father was a machinist at Stelco.
McPhee was a star football player and played for the Western Colts for a year before transferring to McMaster University in 1951 to complete his bachelor of arts degree. He was regarded as the fiercest linebacker on the McMaster Marauders. He also played fullback.
In October 1953 he was admitted to the hospital after a recurring bout of pneumonia. Tests were taken to see if it was tuberculosis, but doctors told the family his football playing days were over.
He took it in stride. "While in hospital I saw a fellow who was completely paralyzed," McPhee told The Spec at the time. "And that fellow who had nothing to look forward to was happy. It made me feel happy when I thought just how lucky I was."
Tony Perri, 70, played guard on those Gael winning teams in the late 1960s and has fond memories of coach McPhee.
"We learned a lot from him, not just in football, but in life," said Perri, a trustee on the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic school board. "The good example he set — how to be a gentleman, how to be a man of faith, how to be respectful. I never remember him yelling."
He recalled the pep talks before a game were not about battling the other team but were about "being the best person you can be." He said it also involved a prayer — not only for the Gaels, but for the opponents.
"He was highly regarded, highly respected," added Perri. "You never heard anyone say a bad word about John McPhee."
McPhee's number (30) was retired by Cathedral in 1991 to mark his coaching contributions and retirement. And last year, the board named the artificial turf sports field at Cathedral after McPhee and Gallagher (who died in 2012).
McPhee was inducted into the Hall of Fame at Cathedral by the Gaels Football Alumni in 2008, along with Gallagher.
McPhee is survived by his children Colleen, Shelagh, Maureen, Sean and Kevin, 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his wife Patricia, daughter Patricia and grandson Kyle. His nephew, Dennis McPhee, was a defensive line coach for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.firstname.lastname@example.org
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