1920 - 2002

Al Rotella: A special person, positive influence

Jay Childress

Editor, La Follette Press:

Al Rotella died in his sleep at his home in Verona, NJ and not in Knoxville as was reported in the Press. True, he was in Knoxville up to one day prior to his death but was taken to New Jersey by air ambulance on Friday, October 11, 2002. His daughter got him to bed and he passed away sometime during the night.

He had been brought to Knoxville on October 4 by his family to receive the highest award of the Letterman's Club of the University of Tennessee. The award, known as the Service Award, was given in recognition of his contributions to the university and his community.

Al and the family were in the Ray Mears Room on the ground floor of the Thompson-Boling Arena before the Tennessee-Arkansas game on the 5th where his award was announced during the annual meeting of the Letterman's Club.  Though sitting in his wheelchair, Coach Rotella, in his usual strong voice and with a spirit of good cheer, gave a beautiful five-minute acceptance speech. His remarks were followed by a standing ovation. As I greeted him after the presentation, his only concern was whether his words were appropriate. A few hours later at half time of the game, I was honored to accompany his family onto the field where the award was accepted by son Mike in Al's behalf.

The events of the days were too much and early on Sunday Al had to be taken to UT hospital.

On Monday afternoon, I and another friend of his sat with him while his daughter took care of some business.  His mind was sharp.  As soon as he saw me, he called me by name and began to talk about how wonderful his time in LaFollette had been. While I was there he talked off and on as he drifted in and out of sleep. When his daughter returned, she had made arrangements to fly him home as soon as he was stable enough to do so.  As I left his room for the last time, he insisted on shaking hands and as we firmly gripped hands my comment to him was, "just like you taught us."

At the receiving of friends of the family, I noted that the new Service Award Plaque was on display at the casket. This man was truly a special person and a positive influence on hundreds of young people over his career.

Obituary for Coach Al Rotella
By News-Sentinel Staff

When former University of Tennessee tackle Al Rotella left his coaching job at Erwin in 1963 to become coach at Hawthorne, N.J., he said, "I'll be back. East Tennessee is home now. It's really hard to leave, even temporarily."

Rotella kept his promise. He spent the final two weeks of his life in Knoxville. He died Saturday at UT Medical Center (according to Jay Childress in a letter to the Press Editor, Coach died in his sleep at home in Verona, NJ. He was in Knoxville till October 11, 2002 and was air ambulanced home. See above--Jay Childress's letter to Press Editor.)

Rotella, who came from Paterson, NJ in 1940 to play for the Vols, married Mary Henson of Knoxville in the late 1940s after serving in the U.S. Military during World War II and graduating from UT in 1947.

He coached the line at North Carolina State from 1948 - 1951 for former Vol and College Football Hall of Famer Beattie Feathers.  Then Rotella succeeded former Vol blocking back Jack Armstong at LaFollette High School (1952-1954) and coached at Erwin High School 1955-1962.

His first team at LaFollette was 10-0 and played in the Jaycee Bowl.  At Erwin, his teams went 30-10-2 including 18-2 in his first two seasons. His Blue Devils were led by Buster Edwards, an all-state running back.

Rotella was more than a football coach.  He was an entertainer. The 300-pounder with a sense of humor just as big was a regular speaker and emcee at civic clubs and banquets. He was featured speaker at the Vols' football banquet in 1954.

The quick-witted Rotella was well ahead of his time in getting his messages across.He hosted a 15-minute TV sports show on WATE-TV in 1954.  Among his guests were coaches, fisherman, sports equipment manufacturers and athletes. During that time, he also served as a sports announcer on WLAF radio in LaFollette. He also raised more than $1 million in scholarships for New Jersey athletes.

Rotella used his size to his advantage, often poking fun at himself. He once claimed to be the only 300 bowler in Erwin.  "There's not another 300-pound bowler around," he quipped.

He said he rarely sent in plays to his offense at LaFollette.  "I sent in exactly four," he said after his 11-0 season (including a bowl game), "and every one of them resulted in a touchdown for the other teams. We'd either fumble or get a pass intercepted."

The Rotellas had five children--Al Jr., Jamie, Mike, Julia Ligon and Marianne Rotella.  Jamie, a UT linebacker 1970-72, was team captain and All-American in 1972.