STONEHAM, Mass. -- Of all the quirks, all the whip-smart one-liners, all the wisecracks, the first thing that comes to mind when you meet Lexington football coach Bill Tighe -- father of six, grandfather of nine, great-grandfather of four -- is the laugh.
Never a chuckle, never a few heavy breaths through the nose. It's always a steady burst just short of a guffaw. And at this point in his illustrious life, Tighe laughs hard and often.
Hey, what else is an octogenarian supposed to do?
"I'm trying to find a good spot up there," Tighe jokes, pointing to the ceiling as he stews over a haddock plate. He's eating at the 99 Restaurant and Pub, his restaurant of choice these days, just a stone's throw from his apartment in Stoneham.
At 86 years and nearly 2 months, Tighe is the nation's oldest active high school football coach. His 261 wins are most among active coaches in the state. Every year he gets asked the same questions -- Is this it? When are you hanging 'em up? -- and he always delivers the same answers.
"This could be the year," he suggests. Then again, "I say that every year. But who knows? I'm just going to take it one game at a time."
But by the looks of it, two, maybe three years more wouldn't exactly be shocking. There's still plenty of bounce in his step -- or, rather, however much bounce 86-year-old bones will allow -- and his mind is still sharp. Get him going, it seems, and he'll still give you color.
Get him going about philosophy and strategy, and he'll start diagramming formations and plays on napkins.
Get him going about technique, and he'll rave about his linebackers of old and their "uncoachable" instincts.
Get him going on military service, and he gets passionate -- "You ought to hear my speeches on Armistice Day and the importance of our freedom," he remarks.
Some of that newfound bounce, he'll admit, might come from the cataract surgery he underwent last summer. Before, the coach once nicknamed "The Hawk" was "seeing shapes" and couldn't drive at night. "I could not see the field," he says, laughing.
"I'm ready to roll," Tighe says.
A 1942 graduate of Ashland High, Tighe went on to play football (he was a quarterback and safety) at Boston University, where he once famously opposed Joe Paterno in a 22-12 win over Brown. After a stint in World War II, Tighe got his start in the summer of 1948 as an assistant at Malden High. A year later, he started what would be a seven-year run as an assistant at Wakefield, before taking the head-coaching job in 1957.
He still remembers that first year at Wakefield strongly. After the first scrimmage with Framingham, Tighe remembers telling his staff they wouldn't win a game that year: "We couldn't block or tackle," he says. The Warriors ended up shutting out six straight opponents, led by a 5-foot-5, 130-pound quarterback named Charlie Encarnacio who'd "go after anybody!"
Tighe moved on to Malden in 1964 before taking his current post at Lexington in 1975. To this day, he's been known as an innovator, first incorporating split-back pro formations in the 1950s and being among the first to dabble in run 'n' shoot formations back in the late '70s and early '80s. Even now, he's known to go with unbalanced lines at times, or even a "muddle huddle" formation.
His Lexington squads hit their strides in the late '70s and early '80s. After losing to Winchester in the 1980 season opener, the Minutemen won their final nine but missed out on a Super Bowl berth.
The Minutemen last made a Super Bowl in 1984, a 20-6 loss to a Brockton squad led by former New England Patriots and Chicago Bears wide receiver for the Division 1 title. The argument over which of Tighe's teams was strongest -- 1980 or 1984 -- persists.
In his time, Tighe has sent two dozen or so players to the Division 1 FBS level, and a handful have gone on to short careers in the NFL. But Tighe's legacy is more about the humility of it all. You don't last 50 years in coaching without changing at least a few lives.
"With me, the whole thing is built around the word 'love,'" Tighe says. "I love the game, I love the kids, love the school, love Lexington -- great school -- but Lexington kids are special. But I run a tight ship.
"The Metco kids [that he's coached], those are character kids. They get up at 5 in the morning to catch a bus, deal with me for two hours, catch a bus at 6 [p.m.], get home at 8:30, then do it all over again. That's character."
Tighe has impacted virtually everyone he comes in contact with.
"First of all, whenever Bill went places, whether it was to scout or go to a coaching clinic, it was like traveling with a rock star," said Hopkinton head coach Jim Girard, who served on Tighe's staff from 2001 to 2004. "He's such a well-known guy, but the reason he's so well-known is because he has such a positive impression on whoever he meets."
Cecil Cox, a 1981 graduate of Lexington who had a cup of coffee with the Detroit Lions, started the Bill and Mary Tighe Scholarship Fund two years ago with his close personal friend and former Lexington teammate and classmate Justin Beckett (who himself briefly played with the Cowboys).
A student in the state-funded Metco program, which places inner-city students in suburban schools, Cox had a positive role model in Dorchester in the form of his father, a Boston policeman. But within the school, Cox admired not only Tighe's diligence in putting his students in a position to succeed but also his discipline methods.
"Frankly, he had no problem intervening when issues took place," Cox said. "There were definitely Metco kids who became targets of some of the local kids, and Bill would intervene. He was ahead of his time as far as guidance. You take it for granted, but again this is the 1980's. Pre-Columbine, 'boys being boys,' just a bloody nose, right?"
Every struggle his kids went through, Tighe could match. He lost his son Billy in 1969 to cystic fibrosis, then another son Michael in 1992 as he waited for a lung transplant. His wife, Mary, passed away four years ago at 79 from severe asthma.
Yet every day, there is still a bounce in his step and smiles abound.
"I want to be that passionate at that age," said Beckett, who now lives in Los Angeles and became a millionaire at age 29 by starting the first American investment firm in post-apartheid South Africa. "It's awesome and inspiring when you hear about him coaching. He is an institution.
"There just aren't many guys that have walked the walk, and he is a living example of what it takes. It's awesome."
So just what does keep Tighe going, year after year?
"The will to win," he says, laughing. "I just love to win!"
And then, as he takes a bite, he lets out a loud cackle.
"Coach's laugh, there's some irony and toughness in it," Beckett said. "It's one of those things you never forget."
Brendan Hall covers high school sports for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.