By John Goralski
John Salerno greeted opponents at Mattatuck Community College with a devilish grin and the charm of a back-alley magician. Opponents would swarm into their gym sporting brand new Nike shoes and crisp, colorful uniforms, while Salerno’s squad practiced in the same shoes they wore to class.
Teams must have laughed when they first saw Salerno’s fledgling team on their schedule in the early 1980s, but the laughter always stopped with the opening tip-off. Looks can be deceiving. You can’t judge a book by its cover, and teams that scoffed at Mattatuck before the game typically cried their way home at the end.
Salerno wasn’t one to be trifled with, and he loved to be called an underdog.
“He was an excellent coach and a tremendous competitor,” said fellow Mattatuck coach Bob Ruderman. “I’ve known a lot of coaches, but I’ve always said that if I had to win and needed a coach for one game, John would be somebody that I would have to consider. He was that good.”
Salerno was an underdog himself, a long-shot as a player and as a coach, and that gave him a rare perspective about teamwork and persistence. Sports fans love to point out that Michael Jordan was cut from the varsity roster in his first high school season, but Salerno was actually cut from the Southington High School roster every time that he tried out.
He didn’t play a single minute. He wasn’t courted by a single college coach, so when former Central CT State basketball coach Bill Detrick showed up at a pick-up game in New Britain in 1960 to woo the Southington graduate onto his college team, it didn’t turn many heads on campus. Four years later, Detrick looked like a genius.
“I think that, because he didn’t play high school basketball people still don’t really know how good he was,” said Ruderman. “He was a great basketball player at Central and really saved Coach Detrick’s team. He was the key for that team at the time. Coach Detrick had a lot of great players, but John was the glue.”
The Blue Devils rallied to a 100-10 record with the Salerno as point guard. Nobody knew about the Southington grad as a freshman, but he was greeted to a standing ovation four years later as the sole senior on an undefeated team. The Blue Devils knocked off 25 consecutive opponents before losing in the national tournament that season, and Salerno was the central figure.
He was cut from his high school team, but he was celebrated by college fans.
“There wasn’t a person that he ever met that he didn’t tell that story to,” said his oldest son, Jay. “That was one of his biggest lines—especially later when he was coaching at Southington High School. He would tell kids about getting cut and how he never gave up. He kept playing down at the YMCA until Coach Detrick gave him a chance.”
It was that attitude that carried into his coaching, and few coaches can compare to Salerno on the sidelines. He coached at every level, from elementary school, to high school, to college. He coached basketball, softball, and baseball. He played tennis. He bowled, and he golfed.
The boy that was cut from his high school team, returned to the sidelines to coach the Blue Knights. When he took over the Southington team in 1991, the Knights had gone winless the year before. Salerno’s first team boasted a 9-game winning streak. His second team went 16-8. He coached his high school team for nine seasons and enjoyed a 100-94 record with conference titles in 1995 and 1998 and a trip to the quarterfinals in 1995.
“He was so competitive. He would even get upset during pick-up games in the front yard,” Jay said. “He just hated losing, but he always knew that losing had a lesson. He would go back to the drawing board the next day. When he would lose at Southington High School, that night we would watch the videotape. He would analyze every inch. He knew that a loss was a lesson.”
Of course, Salerno was a proven coach long before he arrived at Southington High School. His first job was at North Center Elementary School in Southington where he built a competitive elementary school program. He took the next step at St. Thomas Seminary, turning a 1-19 basketball team into a proven contender.
It wasn’t just basketball, either. Salerno began to branch out to different sports. In the late 1970s, he served as general manager for the short-lived CT Falcons professional women’s softball franchise in Meriden. Over a four year span, the Falcons rallied to a 267-102 record. The team captured world championship titles in every season and was the first professional softball team to earn an invitation to play in China.
“He loved sports, and that was all he ever talked about. He was a student of the game. In his scrapbook he has binders and binders of plays that he drew up. He used to go up and sit through practices with Jim Calhoun in his early years at UConn because they knew each other from battles back in the 1960s,” Jay said. “He was definitely an old-school coach. He was like Bobby Knight, always trying to get more out of you. Nowadays, there are a lot of different coaching styles, but his was definitely a tough love. He loved you, but he was also going to get the most out of you.”
Salerno got his biggest break when he returned to basketball at Mattatuck Community College, and it was here that Salerno made his name when he built an athletic program from the ground up into a regional juggernaut. The school had no gym, a limited budget, and no practice facilities, but for nine seasons Salerno’s teams manhandled established programs. It culminated in an undefeated regular season in 1991 when Mattatuck scrambled to a third place finish at the Community College Division II national championship. His efforts earned him an induction into the New England College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009.
“You have to be very lucky and you have to be very committed,” Ruderman said about the undefeated season. “It’s not that easy, and it isn’t done that often. We had great chemistry on that team, and we had good depth. When somebody got hurt—and that happens during that long college basketball season—kids were ready and willing to step up.”
Rick DiBiaso was a player on that undefeated team, and he went on to coach alongside Salerno for many years. “That was big-time basketball at the time,” he said. “In that year we played Central, Southern, and Eastern’s JV teams, and everybody was trying to beat us. Coach Detrick put everyone in the game except for his top six varsity players, and even they couldn’t beat us.”
DiBiaso credited Salerno with the rare ability to bring together different players from different backgrounds and form a team because he would challenge every player to reach his potential no matter what that was.
“He was demanding, and he wanted you to be the best that you could be. He believed that potential was a deadly word, and he would always want us to keep improving and working hard every day,” he said. “He could coach the kids at Southington, but he could also take that kid from Prince Tech that lived in the north end of Hartford. He could coach them both, get them to produce and play team basketball. It was an all-for-one motto. He would set goals and say that this is what we are going to accomplish.”
Joe Palladino was another former player that continued to work with Salerno throughout his career. As a sports writer for the Waterbury Republican-American newspaper, Palladino often credits Salerno as one of that town’s greatest sports icons.
“He was known as the best basketball player you ever saw, and the best tennis player, and if he focused on golf, he would have been the best at that too. John was simply the best at whatever sport he tried,” he said. “He guided the small school into national prominence in sports. More importantly, he was a pioneer for women’s sports. He brought Joan Joyce and Joyce Compton into the Mattatuck athletic programs. Compton went on to a distinguished softball coaching career at South Carolina.”
Salerno was well-respected by coaches, too. When filmmakers contacted Jim Calhoun with an opportunity to prepare Kevin Bacon for his role as a coach in “The Air Up There,” the UConn coach knew just the guy to do it.
“It was probably only in theaters for like a week, but my dad worked on it,” said Jay. “Calhoun got a call from the movie producer. They needed to train Kevin Bacon, so Calhoun called my dad. He had just retired from coaching, so he agreed to do it. He went up to the Kent School every day to work with him.”
It was just the icing on a storied coaching career, so it’s no surprise that Southington Sports Hall of Fame selection committee chose Salerno as the only coach in the Class of 2014. On Wednesday, Nov. 12, he will be honored posthumously in a ceremony at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville. Salerno passed away in January of this year.
“It’s a little bittersweet, but it’s a great honor to have him recognized,” said Jay. “He never wanted the notoriety. He just wanted to be working behind the scenes, and he always wanted to see the athletes shine.”
“Forget the games and the wins, his greatest accomplishment may well have been what he did for thousands of area men and women who simply wanted to play the games they loved for a few more years at the junior college level,” Palladino wrote in a January article for the Waterbury Republican-American. “John Salerno did it all. He did it all well, and he did it with a tenacity that inspired everyone around him.”
Who could disagree?
To reserve tickets, contact Jim Verderame at (860) 628-7335. To comment on this story or to contact sports writer John Goralski, email him at email@example.com.
By John Goralski