The FCIAC’s Annual Recognition Program, which was held Tuesday night at Norwalk’s Chatham Manor, is always a good time. The league honors its top coaches from the year and, as the highlight, inducts a new class into its Hall of Fame.
Personally, much of the enjoyment is the chance to reconnect with a lot of old friends, most of whom return to support inductees. Seeing New Canaan’s estimable former athletic director, Vinny Iovino, and outstanding field hockey coach, Sue Schwerdtle, brought me back in the time machine, though not as much as the old gang from Fairfield, the town I covered before coming to The Advocate, as long-time friend Ed Bengermino was part of a strong class of seven new Hall of Fame members. Included were outgoing Wilton and former St. Joseph athletic director Christy Hayes, former Stamford coach Frank Scott and football official Gerry Costello.
But by far the best stories, memories and revelations came from the triangle of the three highest profile inductees: New Canaan football coach Lou Marinelli, Greenwich football coach Rich Albonizio and Trinity Catholic boys basketball coach Mike Walsh. The group is interconnected: Marinelli and Albonizio have known each other for four decades from their early coaching days in New York; Albonizio, it was joked, could have been inducted representing Trinity because he in a sense was the impetus for the explosion of the Crusaders’ boys basketball program (more on that in a bit); and Walsh and Marinelli have developed a friendship, in part from running into each other during morning coffee runs.
First, the biggest revelation of the night: technically, Albonizio never applied for the Greenwich job. He was the football coach at Trinity Catholic when the Cardinals’ position opened. Albonizio had the application ready, but feeling a sense of loyalty to Trinity could not bring himself to send it in.
So Albonizio’s wife, Margo, secretly did so.
“To be honest with you, I had my application to Greenwich filled in and I never mailed it in, and all of a sudden I got a phone call, because I didn’t want to leave Trinity,” Albonizio said. “I got a phone call saying they wanted to interview me the next week. My wife sent it in without telling me. I was hesitant and then (Marinelli) called me up and said “carpe diem.”
Albonizio has a record of 254-103-2, with five league and four state titles. Before coming to Trinity in 1990, he was the winningest football and wrestling coach in Port Chester, N.Y.
On his induction Tuesday night, Albonizio said, “First of all, it’s a tremendous honor. Going in with Lou, Mike and Gerry Costello, it’s unbelievable.”
Marinelli has a career mark of 283-96-7, with eight state and four conference championships. He has been named a Coach of the Year 15 times by various organizations.
“How few people get inducted, and then to have my name read next to Rich’s, it’s special,” Marinelli said. “We’ve known each other since the early ’70s. We go way back. We’ve always kept in touch and then once we got in the league together we helped each other out. To be voted on by your peers, that’s a huge honor.”
Walsh, who has won 567 games, six state and six FCIAC titles, based on a recommendation started the process that led to Albonizio coming from Port Chester to Trinity. In the line that by far got the biggest laugh of the night, Walsh said, “That’s the only time I’ve ever recruited, getting Rich to Trinity.”
In 1991, Albonizio knew a kid that was looking to leave Port Chester and come to one of the Catholic schools in Connecticut. His name was Rashamel Jones. We all know what happened next. Walsh’s record was below .500 pre-Jones, who led Trinity to their first league championship and, as Walsh said, was the Pied Piper to a number of great eventual Division I players attending Trinity.
Jones was one of Walsh’s many former players who were in attendance for the ceremony.
“Rich introduced Rashamel Jones to Trinity Catholic High School and, as I’ve said, the rest is history,” Walsh said. “I’m very grateful to the FCIAC for being inducted into the Hall of Fame. It’s a great honor. Being inducted with people like Lou Marinelli, Rich Albonizio and Eddie Bengermino, it’s a real thrill.”