By John Goralski
John Fontana voice caught in his throat as he began to talk about his first heart surgery and the overwhelming helplessness he felt as he scanned through channels on his tv. But a loud knocking at his front door drew his attention, and he craned his neck to see who was coming to visit.
Carl Pavano stepped into the room.
Just a few hours earlier the former Blue Knight was pitching on a Florida mound, yet here he was in the living room of his high school coach. Fontana’s eyes welled up as he recalled that day.
“His mother told him that I was sick, so he flew up,” Fontana said. “He stayed with me for two and a half hours, and we talked baseball. Then, he had to hurry back to the airport for a 5:00 flight. People can talk about Pavano all they want. He was great to me.”
He’s gruff. He’s opinionated, and he’s stern. He’s been criticized, battled, and revered. Critics have charged that the former Blue Knight was only concerned about winning, but his players tell a different story. Record books are filled with his many accomplishments on the field, but it’s the ones that happened behind closed doors that Fontana cherishes the most.
When asked about his legacy, Fontana shrugged off his winning record. He waved off his state titles, honors, and designations. Fontana pointed to a small array of photographs that line the wall of his basement of former players dressed in college uniforms. Others are draped in major league attire. Not a single one of them is wearing the familiar blue and white Southington dress.
It’s what they did after graduation that Fontana is most proud about. In his 41-year career, Fontana secured scholarships for 192 Southington players. In 1991, he watched seven former Knights competing in college world series games. Former players like Rob Dibble and Carl Pavano have become household names, but Fontana points out that 17 of his Knights went on to compete in the professional ranks with four advancing to the major league level.
“That lets me know that we did something right,” he said. “I know that there are people out there that think that I would have done anything for a win, but I hope that there are people that will remember me as a guy that cared about my kids—all of them. Did I have some guys that were upset with me? Yeah, but I hope the majority of them think that I was there to make them better as men. We tried to stress the right things to do, and that was more important than the victories.”
Mike Lantiere worked as an unpaid assistant to Fontana for almost half his career, and he said that Southington’s success at the next level was no surprise. Nobody worked harder to promote their kids. Fontana spent every spring stuffing almost 300 Blue Knight programs into envelopes to distribute to colleges across the nation. Each spring, he orchestrated trips to Florida Southern University to showcase Southington’s young talent.
“He did it all just so the kids had a chance to play in other areas. I think it helped give our kids the perspective of looking at other schools. They didn’t only have to go to school in Connecticut. They could go down South or somewhere else,” said Lantiere. “We used to draw coaches from colleges in the area like Florida Southern, Tampa, and others. They’d come to watch us practice and talk about some of his players. Even some professional scouts would come out to see people like Carl Pavano and Rob Dibble. He gave the kids a great opportunity to show what they had. Immeasurable good was done, and it was all for the kids.”
Behind the scenes he’d work his magic, and it didn’t matter if it was his player or not. Coaches would call for help. Parents would seek him out, and opponents would call him up between seasons.
“People didn’t know that he spent just as much time with kids that weren’t his players, particularly with girls softball,” said Lantiere. “All you had to do was go to him and ask for help. He had contacts everywhere. He even helped my daughter to get into college to play softball. If you were an athlete, he knew somebody that you could talk to. I don’t care what your sport was, he could find somebody to take a look at you. Then, you had to prove yourself, but that’s okay.”
“John has connections all over the country. He knows everybody. I mean everybody,” said Jim Senich, former sports writer and editor at The Southington Observer. “He could call any school, and they’d listen to him. He had connections with major league scouts. He knows every reporter from around the state. He knows their home phone numbers. He knows their extensions, and he’s always on good terms. Everybody knew about Southington. In New London, they knew about Southington. In Greenwich, they knew about Southington. He was an expert, and he’s still going today like nuts.”
Of course, none of that marketing would matter if Fontana wasn’t a winning coach, and Fontana seemed to back up every outlandish boast. Right from the start, his cockiness raised eyebrows. Even the established coaches at Southington High School raised eyebrows at their young hotshot newcomer.
But Fontana’s biggest accomplishment was his ability to turn critics into fans. He remembers addressing the athletic director in his first days on the job. It was his uncle, a legendary coach in football and baseball. The rest of the coaches in the high school staff had resumes that listed multiple state titles and coaching honors, but the young Fontana threw down the gauntlet.
He remembers boasting that people were going to forget about football in this town now that he was the king of the diamond. Baseball would be No. 1. A bemused smile spread across his uncle’s face, but Fontana remembers a brusque compliment hurled his way in a car ride a few years later.
The baseball team had just enjoyed a huge crowd for a night game. The stands were packed. Concessions were jumping, and the parking lot was full.
“I never thought I’d see it,” his uncle started…
Fontana always gave his critics reasons to condemn him. From the brash boast to his uncle to his quotes in the press, Fontana would ruffle feathers, but he always seemed to back it up with success. When Tom Garry pitched a perfect game in his coaching debut, Fontana was quoted as saying, “What’s so tough about this?” When his team failed to make the tournament the following year, he answered that with a streak of 39 straight postseason appearances that continued through his retirement in 2003.
“When John took over the baseball team it didn’t take him long to get it going, but it took him a long time to win a state title and people held that against him,” said Senich. “I remember that there was a luncheonette downtown with a real wise guy. Every time I’d go down there for breakfast he’d ask me, ‘How’s that great coach doing? How many state titles has he won?’ John said that it didn’t bother him, but it had to.”
Fontana said that it never crossed his mind. He was only worried about what his players thought. He committed himself to being demanding but fair. He made them sign responsibility contracts in the start of the season, and he would kick his best player off the team if they didn’t behave well off the field.
“Nobody was stricter discipline-wise. I threw kids off the team. I suspended them, and did everything else. On the other side of the coin, when you came to our practices we’d have more laughs than anybody else. We made it fun so that they would work hard at it,” he said. “I think that if I needed help, 99 percent of my ballplayers would be here tomorrow. I believe that. I have faith in them. I had faith in them then, and I still do now.”
Like him or not, you didn’t want to face his Southington team. That’s because few teams were as practiced on game day. They ran trick plays. They hit in pressure situations, and they rarely made mistakes. That’s one reason why college coaches flocked to Southington practices just to get a look at his up-and-coming talent.
“I got to Florida Southern without them even having a chance to see me play, and to get the kind of scholarship that I got was a tribute to how great he really was as a coach,” said former Blue Knight Cris Allen. “If he said that a guy was good, they took it to heart. Either things have changed really dramatically, or we’re talking about one of the greatest high school icons in the country. I believe that because of what he did for me and some of the other players that I played with. We had one kid go to LSU. One went to South Carolina. Those aren’t second class programs. He got his kids involved in top quality programs.”
Fontana approached the game as if it was a puzzle that only he could solve. He took risks in the outfield to give his teams a chance to throw out runners on the bases. He drew up trick plays with misdirection that caught runners in their tracks. They’d practice, practice, and practice until it became second nature. On game day, they’d execute to perfection.
By the time he retired, Fontana had secured a career winning percentage (.810) that was ranked fifth in the nation. He still ranks in the top 20 for wins as a varsity baseball coach (668) with 24 conference championships and a pair of state titles.
That’s why he was such an easy choice for the selection committee for Southington’s Sports Hall of Fame. On Thursday, Nov. 8, Fontana will be inducted in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf. For tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335.
“When I get awards, it’s because somebody recognized that we did something right,” he said. “That’s why I worked so hard to get kids into college. Those kids played for me. They gave it their all because, to play for me, you had to work your tail off. We drilled the hell out of them seven days a week. I appreciated all of it.”
Now they get to return the favor.
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.