All in the family; John Fontana’s legacy goes well beyond the wins

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.

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