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My ode to Vito Montelli, exemplary coach and family man

There wasn't a man who embodied a well-lived life as well as Coach Montelli did. PIC: David Handschuh, New York Daily News

I started high school on Wednesday, September 7th, 2011. I had all the jitters of a fourteen-year-old kid; adding onto my first-day-of-school anxiety was the fact that I was going to a school outside my district for the first time in my life, I just got braces a few weeks before, and I was playing freshman football - a sport I'd never played before. I knew it'd be the right home for me long-term, but it sure didn't feel like it in the first week or two.

I knew my future wasn't going to be as an athlete, but boy did I love watching sports. I had grown up listening to Michael Kay and John Sterling call Yankees games on our box TV in the living room, and if I was in good graces with my parents, they'd let me listen to games on the radio to fall asleep.

So that being said, the decision to go to St. Joseph High School in Trumbull, Connecticut was easy for me. I was well-aware of their sports culture; they'd been among the state's best programs in football, lacrosse, and baseball from the date the school opened in 1962. I would've fit in fine at our town's public high school, but something about St. Joe's just felt like home.

Little did I know how much more I would fall in love with sports when I got there. And, ironically enough, it was never about a team that I'd played for. It was about Vito Montelli and the rich history of the St. Joseph basketball team.

I'm not sure which day it was, but it was a cold winter night in 2011 - probably very close to the time I decided to attend St. Joe's. My dad and I saw the Cadets were playing at home that week; Coach Montelli was on the cusp of 850 wins as the head coach, and - perhaps far more important to me at the time - Trinity Catholic's 4-star prospect, Paschal Chukwu, was scheduled to suit up. Chukwu, for those that know, ended up transferring to Fairfield Prep - he then spent a year at Providence, then transferred to Syracuse where he averaged 5 points per game in three years.

My eyes were drawn to Chukwu immediately when we walked in. He was simply larger than life; I don't think I had ever seen someone that was over 7 feet in my lifetime at that point. He did things with grace; went to the rim, played great defense, and even hit shots from distances I didn't think were possible.

Paschal Chukwu (left) defends a shooter from Career High School in New Haven, CT. PIC: Arnold Gold, New Haven Register

St. Joe's won that game 83-66. Timajh Parker - who played four great years for Pat Skerry at Towson - stood out again as he did every night. Pat Hopkins, James Jennings, and Charles Howell all contributed and did it well. (St. Joe's went 23-1 that year - their one stumble came against the formidable Ridgefield High. They cruised over Fairfield Prep - who beat them in previous years - for the CT Class LL State Championship.)

But for me, that night just months before I was to call St. Joseph High School my home, and fresh off the first St. Joe's basketball game I'd ever seen in person, I learned a valuable lesson - Vito Montelli was a special man.


In just about every account of Coach Montelli you hear or see, it'll be relatively consistent: his larger-than-life personality, his obsession with his faith and family, and his booming, almost atypical voice. For me, what stood out was his presence on the sideline. Even at almost 80, he was sharp - he dressed well, he commanded any huddle, and even gave referees a hard time when he had to. His exclamation of simply the word "HEY" radiating throughout the St. Joe's gym was a sound that could only come from one man.

PIC: Keelin Daly, CT Insider

Fast-forward to that first day at St. Joe's: I was finally part of the community I'd been excited to join, but I had doubts on if it would be like the feeling I got at Open House, the Accepted Students Days, the 'Cadet-For-A-Day' Shadow program, and football practice. And sure enough, it delivered. While I never played for Coach Montelli, he quite literally helped me fall in love with sports in an entirely different way.

In the first few months of my time at St. Joe's, I quickly learned that Vito Montelli's whole life was around sports. Montelli knew he wanted to be a coach, and found that calling at nearby Notre Dame High School in Fairfield where he ran the baseball team there. St. Joe's purged him away for the same position when they opened in 1962, but he came to a daunting realization when he got there - the baseball field wasn't finished, and wouldn't be for the first season. Pointing to the basketball gym, which had already been complete, he had a revelation - why not just coach basketball?

Fast-forward 50 years to when he stepped down in 2012 - my freshman year at St. Joe's - Coach Montelli went onto become one of the most successful high school basketball coaches in the nation. His 878 wins are the most by any coach in New England, and he's the only coach in the region to amass 850 wins. Montelli was inducted into several Halls of Fame over his career, including the New England Basketball Hall of Fame (2003) and the National High School Coaches Hall of Fame (2005). He also received the Tom Konchalski Lifetime Achievement Award earlier this year in honor of the late basketball talent scout that was a good friend of Montelli, an accolade that was near the top of his list.

While I definitely thought I'd be able to have a career in sports, I was never sure how it'd work. Seeing Coach Montelli thrive in an industry he cared about, doing what he loved, with the people he loved around him, was a major realization for me. I fell immediately in love with the story behind the 2011-12 team - my freshman year - the storyline was just too perfect to write. This was widely accepted as Coach Montelli's final year on the sideline; as he approached 80 years old, it was all but confirmed that Chris Watts, one of St. Joe's best players over the years and Montelli's then-number-one assistant coach, would be the heir to the throne in Trumbull.

The Cadets were 24-1 heading into the Class LL Championship at Mohegan Sun Arena, where they were matched up with the mighty Hillhouse Academics from New Haven. As CT Post writer Mike Cardillo put it, it looked like St. Joe's - who spent majority of the year as Connecticut's number one team - had been playing together for the first time. They looked discombobulated, as Hillhouse pushed the tempo and executed their "run-and-gun" offense, which forced St. Joe's to play a different style of game they had all year. But at halftime, down 10, Vito Montelli re-encouraged the team to play their game the way they know how, and to not let anyone take it from them.

While St. Joe's was down as many as 13 in the 3rd quarter, they came roaring back on an 18-0 run that spanned 5 minutes. They put Hillhouse away 62-54 and registered their 11th state title.

Coach Montelli's 11th - and last - CT State Championship. PIC: Christina Abraham

AND...of course...a pic of our student section, which spanned 2 floors. Freshmen were relegated to the top. Behind the strange guy in the werewolf getup was House creator Matt "Slize" Testi, who asked Jacqueline Marconi to be his girlfriend mere minutes after this - they are getting married in October 2023!! Right next to him is more than likely me, obscured by the towel. PIC: Christina Abraham

I don't think I'd be nearly as passionate about the sports world as I am today if not for Coach Montelli. Not only did he show me what a life in sports could be like - and ignite my love for basketball - but he showed me that it's possible to do it with a strong support structure around you, too.

Vito Montelli sadly passed away a couple of weeks ago at the ripe age of 91. He had a massive family - his children and many grandkids surrounded him when he was called away from his earthly life. The support that poured in from around the nation was nothing short of amazing - everyone from national figures like college hoops writer Seth Davis and Kentucky coach John Calipari, to my mentor and Connecticut broadcaster Rob Adams, to so many others from east to west.

My relationship with Vito wasn't necessarily a personal one, but we'd say hello when we saw each other. I hadn't seen him in years, but it was still horrible news to receive.

I can only admire to live a life like Coach Montelli - "God, Family, and Basketball" (as his biography by Chris Ellsbury is titled) aren't too bad of pillars to hang your hat on.

PIC: St. Joseph High School


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