Sanfilippo, coach from 1957-1973, remembered
This story originally appeared in the May 14, 2015 edition of The Salamanca Press. By Sam Wilson Sports Editor
For all the success he enjoyed on the football field under Joe Sanfilippo, including an undefeated season, Jud Foy said his greatest memories of the coach were away from it.
Son of the late Salamanca administrator and coach Louis Foy, Jud played high school football from 1968-72, near the end of Sanfilippo’s run with the Warriors.
“You have to understand, we feared Joe,” Foy said. “He was the disciplinarian and one thing you learned about Joe is you don’t make the same mistake twice. But our senior year, Carl, his son, was one of my closest friends in high school and in May, we had our junior-senior prom. Joe invited all of us seniors who played for him to come to his house after the prom to hang out with our dates.
“We weren’t sure what to expect because we just feared this man like there was no tomorrow, but he showed us this human side of him we never knew existed. We played pool with him, we did other things and it wasn’t the same man who coached us in football.”
Sanfilippo, a Navy veteran, legendary coach and San Jose State star, died Sunday (May 3, 2015) in Syracuse at Veterans Medical Center at 91.
He arrived in Salamanca in 1957, named the school’s football coach that August, after moving from Gallup, N.M., where his coaching career began.
After a 1-6 debut season, he built the Warriors into a powerhouse with four undefeated seasons (1964, 1965, 1967 and 1971) and went a total record of 95-33-4. After two of his undefeated seasons, 1964 and 1971, he was named Big 30 coach of the year.
His Salamanca tenure included 11 championships in the then-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Interscholastic Athletic Conference and Division VI of the Section VI Football Federation.
“He was an old-school, very basic, disciplined football coach,” Foy said. “We did not have a lot of plays in Salamanca, but what we did have, he practiced us to perfection. The man could tear apart an opposing team’s offense or defense like there was no tomorrow.”
Among the Warriors’ stars under Sanfilippo were his son, Carl Sanfilippo, his son who went on to a successful coaching career in Baldwinsville, and former Giants, Saints and 49ers safety Chuck Crist.
“He brought discipline and work ethic to the program,” said Crist, the former Salamanca principal. “Looking back on it, the thing that he brought — believe it or not — he did a lot of nonfootball things to bring the camaraderie in. The one that comes to mind is we had this old wooden sled, it just had boards in the front and some runners on it. There were nights that we were out there 30 minutes, 40 minutes after dark, pushing this thing around and it really had nothing to do with conditioning or football as it did building the camaraderie of the team.”
Crist played from 1965-67 at Salamanca, then at later Penn State and the NFL. Chief among Sanfilippo’s traditions were strategically planned Saturday night home games.
“He wanted to show off the program: we were the only game in town,” Crist said. “And the coaching staff was free to go scouting on Friday nights. We went seven days a week, practiced Monday through Friday, played on Saturday and had film sessions on Sunday.”
Brad Weitzel had the distinction of scoring Sanfilippo’s last touchdown at Salamanca and George Whitcher’s first and wrote a book of the Sanfilippo and Whitcher years.
“Tuesday was the most grueling test of manhood I’ve ever been through as a human being,” wrote Weitzel wrote by email. “We blocked and tackled for over 3 hours and all of this was live (it was brutal but I would love to do it again). Wednesday was a repeat of Tuesday. By the end of the week we’d all be beat up from pounding on each other and then he would start telling us how good we were. Then he’d have us in a fevered pitch for punishing the other team. On Saturday, that’s what we did. Everybody was afraid of us. People from outside thought we were animals — disciplined animals. We did not lack confidence and I have to say that carries down from Coach Sanfilippo because I think he was the most confident person of what he did more than anybody I’ve ever met.”
Weitzel is an eight-year assistant baseball coach for the University of Florida. After playing for Palm Beach Community College and the University of Georgia, Weitzel has spent the last three decades in baseball coaching and scouting. “After high school I often think how (Sanfilippo) has helped me mold myself because of his philosophies of discipline and preparation in my 36 years of coaching collegiately and professional baseball,” he wrote. “I can’t imagine where I’d be today if I didn’t have the opportunity of being around Coach Sanfilippo.
“Actually, looking back at how tough he was and how hard he worked us, I feel blessed.”
A native of Jamestown, the elder Sanfilippo left Salamanca after the 1973 season and took the Red Raiders’ head coaching position in 1975.
Sanfilippo’s two football coaching jobs took remarkably similar tracks. Sanfilippo’s first Jamestown team struggled at 1-8 but went 48-22-2 over the next eight years.
“He was very sure of himself,” said Whitcher, Sanfilippo’s Salamanca successor after six years as an assistant. “He knew his way would work and that gave him a lot of confidence. That first year at Jamestown, I happened to be in a graduate class with people from Jamestown and they were bad-mouthing because they had a bad year. I said, ‘You wait. He went through the same thing at Salamanca and look what he did there.’ You just wait, give him a year and see what happens. It was almost like a carbon copy at Jamestown to what he did at Salamanca.”
Sanfilippo, looking for an assistant, approached junior high coach Wally Huckno in 1976. Huckno succeeded Sanfilippo in Jamestown in 1983.
“I didn’t know, I was pretty happy, but I thought I’d give it a try,” Huckno said. “I remember we went to Buffalo and we beat Kenmore East and it was like the first big win we had and we were both so excited.
“He certainly was a taskmaster. He was a great defensive coach and he certainly took his players that played under him and he made sure they were in their prime physical condition, knew their assignments well and I would say generally he was quite a good teacher of the youth on the football field and the things they should and shouldn’t do.”
Between his first job in Cathedral High in New Mexico, Salamanca and Jamestown, Sanfilippo retired with a total record of 170-607.
Both Huckno and Whitcher carried on Sanfilippo’s success at the two schools. At Salamanca, Whitcher became the school’s all-time winningest coach at 167-59-5, posting a near-identical win percentage (.734) to Sanfilippo (.735 at SHS). Huckno won three state championships.
“The program was so wellestablished by Joe, and a lot of people don’t realize that the program was not all that strong — it had a couple of moments, but it wasn’t all that strong,” Whitcher said. “When he took over, that first year was a real bad year, and from then on they were just on the upswing. He was lucky in a sense that he had some great players, but he also played a very tough schedule so he needed everything he had, kids like Chuck Crist and Tommy George, Chuck Light. He knew how to use them.”
Sanfilippo’s teams didn’t surprise anyone, running hard and running often, the source of one of Whitcher’s favorite stories. The two were gameplanning Sunday afternoon when Sanfilippo gets a call from Salamanca’s Dick Fitzgerald.
“‘I’m down at the club and we’re having a big argument here,’” Whitcher recalls Fitzgerald saying. “‘We’re watching the game and the quarterback took the ball, he backed up, he looked downfield and he THREW it. He didn’t give it to anybody, Joe, he threw it. I told the guys that’s got to be illegal, because if it was legal, Joe would do it.’ Joe at first was taken aback and then he started laughing like crazy. A lot of people didn’t realize the sense of humor Joe had.”
Foy’s other favorite memory of his coach came months after graduation. Over the summer, he umpired for Sanfilippo, who ran the Salamanca Youth Activities. One day, he said, they came across Salamanca and St. Bonaventure tennis star Pat Blocher.
“Joe saw an extra racket and he said, ‘Pat, do you want to play?’” Foy recalled. “What nobody knew, and my late father told me, Joe was a state tennis champion in New Mexico. And he took Pat Blocher apart, 6-1, like there was no tomorrow and Joe was in street shoes.
“My late father told me when he got the athletic director job at Salamanca, he knew who the man was who he wanted to turn around the football program and keep the football tradition going. He wanted to get Joe Sanfilippo, and that’s exactly what he did. The rest of the story is history.”