By John Goralski
If you wanted to showcase your shooting skills, Coach John Salerno was rarely impressed. The former Blue Knight basketball coach seemed to be more concerned with the little things in the games that usually go unnoticed. Salerno approached the game of basketball like a master at a chess board.
So when he stepped into the Southington High School gym at the start of the 1991-92 season, Salerno wasn’t worried about shooting or layups. The Knights were coming off an 0-20 seasonthat seemed to showcase turnovers more than baskets, so Salerno turned to fundamentals.
“When John held his first practice each season, the entire workout consisted of how to catch the ball. There was no shooting, no scrimmaging, just learning how to catch the rock,” said former Observer sports writer Jim Senich. “Talking hoops with Coach Salerno was like attending a seminar on how to play the game of basketball. As you would expect, his teams were relentless on the court, and they knew how to catch the ball.”
On Tuesday, Jan. 21, the former Blue Knight coach passed away, surrounded by family, in Fort Myers, FL, and he will be missed by Southington fans. Salerno didn’t win a state championship. He didn’t boast an undefeated season, but the former coach brought a sense of pride back to a floundering program in the the 1990s.
For 10 years, Salerno coached the Knights. His first team won nine straight games during one stretch of the season. His second team went 16-8. In 1995 and again in 1998, Salerno’s squads captured CCC South titles—a feat that hasn’t happened since—and the 1995 team rallied all the way to the state quarterfinals.
He coached for from 1991-2000, and Salerno’s overall record was 100-94. Salerno had a rare gift for bringing the best out of his players, and he brought respectability back to Southington’s floundering program.
“There’s more than wins and losses,” he said to the Observer in September of 2000. “Having a booster club that supports the program and sending players to all the spring, summer, and fall leagues they played in makes a difference. All teams that play us now respect Southington High. Before they counted it as a win; now teams have to play their best game to beat us.”
Perhaps that gift came because Salerno understood the difficulties encountered by athletes in a varsity sport. As a student at Southington High School, Salerno was actually cut from the high school roster every season that he tried out, but he never gave up. At Central CT State University, Salerno finally got his chance as a point guard for the Blue Devils under coach Bill Detrick. He became known for his court sense and tenacity on the both the offensive and defensive ends of the court.
After graduation from college, Salerno threw himself into coaching. He was inducted into the Mattatuck Community College hall of fame for his 10 seasons with the Waterbury team as both coach and athletic director and his last Mattatuck CC team rallied to third in the nation at the Community College Division II championships.
“Mattatuck’s president at the time could care less about sports,” said Senich. “John had to scrape and search for sponsors to buy uniforms. He held fundraisers. Pretty soon hoop fans in Waterbury—a hotbed for basketball—caught on, and Mattatuck’s teams played to sold out crowds at Kennedy High School.”
By the time Salerno arrived at the Blue Knights, he had already established himself in most coaching circles. He was even enlisted by Kevin Bacon to help him prepare for his role in the movie, “The Air Up There.”
“He was a rare coach that could go from college to high school,” said former Southington Athletic Director Dr. Bob Lehr. “He really understood the game. He had great character, and he did such a great job. You can see that in his sons. Jay is still active as a high school official, and he does such a good job.”
Salerno will be missed by longtime fans.
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By John Goralski