Ed Petrie, Coaching Legend, Dies

In a 52-year career, he taught not just basketball skills but character
Ed Petrie on the court and on the job in 2008 Doug Kuntz

Ed Petrie, the man who gave this town, and Sag Harbor before that, so much to cheer about over his half-century career as a high school boys basketball coach, died on Sunday at Southampton Hospital at the age of 82.

A gathering at the Yardley and Pino Funeral Home in East Hampton is to be held today from 4 to 7 p.m.

Bill McKee, who played for Mr. Petrie when he was in high school, who was his assistant, along with Tom Bubka, for 22 years, and who succeeded him as East Hampton’s varsity boys basketball coach in 2010, said of his death, “It’s hard . . . I looked upon him, as many of his former players did, as a coach first, later as a second father, and still later as a close friend. That’s why it makes it so hard. He had such a positive effect on this entire community — it was about much more than basketball.”

“It’s a tremendous loss,” Howard Wood, a former professional player who won a state championship under Mr. Petrie in 1977, and who is now coaching the high school’s varsity girls basketball team, said. “He had two sons named Petrie, but he had dozens of other sons. He taught them so much about a lot outside of basketball.”

Michael Sarlo, East Hampton Town’s police chief, who played on the varsity in the 1980s and on Mr. Petrie’s Biddy Basketball teams from the age of 8, said, “He was tough on us, but we all knew why, and the results backed him up. We have a proud tradition and extendedamily of Bonac basketball alumni . . . thanks to Coach. He always found a way to get the most out of his team. . . . He used to love bringing back alumni to scrimmage with the varsity. It was a thrill to play against the guys we watched win championships — guys like Mike and Ed, Howard, Jerome Jefferson, Scott Rubenstein. . . . We saw their passion and it pushed us to work harder.”

“How do you write a letter about a legend,” another member of that 1977 state-championship team, Scott Rubenstein, wrote to The Star on the occasion of Mr. Petrie’s retirement. “Does anyone have any idea what an honor, what a privilege we felt to be able to say we played for Coach Petrie? He stands tall among the likes of Vince Lombardi, Knute Rockne, Phil Jackson, John Wooden, Tom Landry. The finest kind. He took a small town and gave it a big heart.”

“Billy McKee was like a third son to Ed,” Nancy Petrie, Mr. Petrie’s wife, said, adding that her husband, who “loved life, and got up each morning with a smile on his face,” had died unexpectedly. A bacterial blood infection had caused his death, she said.

With 754 wins, Mr. Petrie was the winningest public high school boys basketball coach in New York State.

In 2006, he was among four high school coaches honored by the Frank McGuire Foundation at the New York Athletic Club. On the way to that ceremony, Bob Vishno, the first person Mr. Petrie met when he came to Sag Harbor from Hamden, Conn., in 1958, said, “As long as I was able to walk, I was going. Ed Petrie is one of those guys who come along only once in a while, who has instilled in his players the persistence, dedication, and sense of loyalty that he always had. I’ve always been impressed by the loyalty he showed to his coaches, to Jack Hasley at Rye Neck High School and to Honey Russell at Seton Hall. Ed gets that same kind of loyalty from his players, which is very rewarding.”

Also at that ceremony, Paul Babcock, a Vietnam veteran who played for the “mighty, mighty” Whalers in Mr. Petrie’s early coaching days, said, “The big thing about him as a coach was his ability to size up another team. He was always prepared. He’d say, ‘This guy can only go to his right, don’t worry about that guy, we’re going to double-team this guy. . . .’ He taught small guys how to compete with big guys. He taught you the importance of doing your homework, how to assess a situation, to know who you were and who your opponent was, and that you should play with purpose . . . all the things, really, that you need to increase your chances of being successful in life. That’s why everyone who has played for him has so much respect for him.”

“What I learned from Coach Petrie saved my life, and saved others’ lives in Southeast Asia.”

In January of 2011, when East Hampton’s basketball court was dedicated to him, the gym was packed with well-wishers, including four of his first Pierson team’s starting five — Mr. Bubka, Jack Youngs, Bob Jacobs, and Mr. Babcock. Mr. Bubka, who went on to work with Mr. Petrie for a quarter-century, serving as his assistant, as East Hampton’s junior varsity coach, as the scorer, and even as a driver to away games, said that day, “The best thing was having him as a friend. He was great on and off the court. He got the most out of every one of his players. They all respected him. There should be one more banner here: ‘Thank you, Coach,’ signed ‘Your Players.’ ”

Seconding that, Mr. Wood said, “Some of you may not know he was also a great vocabulary teacher. Once he called us ‘prima donnas.’ That night I went to a dictionary and looked it up!” Whereupon, the former University of Tennessee star and 10-year professional turned to Mr. Petrie and said, “Thank you so much for being there for us. Thank you for all you’ve done . . . for me, my family, and for East Hampton basketball.”

“We all grew up in the Biddy basketball program that Coach put into place over 42 years ago,” said Mr. Rubenstein. “We all played in the summer rec evening programs he would run, and we cherished those times when he would show up at the park and watch our pickup games. We felt so special that he would take his time to do so.”

During his 52-year career, which included 19 years as a physical education teacher at the East Hampton Middle School and a year, when the East Hampton School District was on austerity, helping his good friend Roger Golden coach the Bridgehampton High School team, Mr. Petrie won 20 league titles, three county championships, and two state titles. Besides the McGuire Foundation, he was inducted into the New York State Hall of Fame, the Suffolk County Hall of Fame, the East Hampton High School Hall of Fame, and the Rye Neck (the school was known as Bellows High School when he led it to two county championships in 1950 and ’51) Hall of Fame. He captained Seton Hall University’s team in 1956 and played in two N.I.T. tournaments.

“Oh, I still like to win,” Mr. Petrie said, with a smile, during an interview in 2004, correcting a writer who had observed that he had once said winning mattered less to him as he grew older. “But as I’ve gone along, I’ve made so many friendships with my former players. I’ve had so many good kids who have become friends of mine, who have been successful, who I still talk with a lot. That’s pretty much what it’s all about.”

“In lieu of flowers,” said Mrs. Petrie, “we decided that Ed, who loved animals, would have loved it if people would make donations to the Animal Rescue Fund.”

Besides his wife, Mr. Petrie is survived by two sons, Ed Petrie Jr. and Mike Petrie of East Hampton, by two daughters, Cynthia Petrie and Miriam Petrie, both of Knoxville, Tenn., and by three stepdaughters, Susan Morris of West Chester, Pa., Joanna Brinker of Portland, Me., and Karen McQuiston of New York City. He is also survived by three grandchildren and by seven step-granddaughters. 

With Reporting by Taylor K. Vecsey