Buffalo News

Sanfilippo Weathers Storm

JAMESTOWN – It took 24 football seasons – 13 of them championships – before the big fellow was asked to do the impossible.Joe Sanfilippo was being asked to change his game, his very philosophy. The powers wanted him to do something he couldn’t, be someone else.

Sure, he could have told them to take a walk, but Jamestown High School has special meaning for him. Joe Sanfilippo played football there; he was an end. He played under the region’s legendary coach, Dent Moon.

The big fellow, 6 feet-1 inch and 225 pounds stood firm. He always has.

“Under the old coaches, if you got a sprained ankle, they’d cut the shoe away and you’d play until the game was over,” says George Whitcher, who replaced Sanfilippo after Joe was head coach at Salamanca for 17 years.

George admits he’s exaggerating but insists “If kids would take the mental toughness Joe tries to teach, then they’re going to be winners. Even when they lose, they lose respectably.”

That’s what it was all about. Joe Sanfilippo’s midsummer fight to save his job. The man has a way of doing things. Some people think that way is too tough. They took it all the way to the school board. They tried to take Joe’s job.

“He has a way of tearing ballplayers down,” stated Dave Vullo, who played two years under Sanfilippo and now is a sophomore at Fresno (Calif.) City College.

Vullo was one of three former Jamestown team captains to appear before the board of education and speak against their former coach.

“He’d belittle the players,” said Dan Fafinski, a two-year All-Western New York player, who as a junior represented Jamestown and as a senior Southwestern, where he transferred.

Fafinski will be a middle linebacker at Clarion (Pa.) State College this fall.

“It’s more his methods than his tactics,” added Clement Vullo, Dave’s father and a two-year president of the Jamestown Football Club, a parents group that supports the high school football program.

Jamestown High Principal, Jim McElrath, a former coach himself, and school superintendent Dr. Timothy Palmer spearheaded the drive to oust Sanfilippo, refusing to recommend his reappointment.

Sanfilippo filed a grievance with the Jamestown Teachers Association. The two administrators turned down the appeal, but the matter was brought before the Board of Education.

Players, former players and parents – about 100 - showed up in support of the Palmer-McElrath resolution before the school board.

The Jamestown Football Club went on record by a 19-8 vote to back Sanfilippo, and the Board of Education, under the leadership of president Spiro Bello, backed the coach by a 5-1 vote.

It was a trying time for Joe Sanfilippo and for his family. But the man stood on his record. He stood firmly and proudly, and he won.

“I just wish it would die down,” Joe emphasizes. “I told the kids that the only thing we talk about now is football.”

It is ironic that the controversy raged on the eve of what could be one of the finest seasons in Jamestown football history. The 1978 Red Raiders, who compete in Division I of the Section VI Federation, figure to be one of the powerhouse teams in Western New York, perhaps the best of all.

Joe Sanfilippo is again busy doing what he does best – building the character of young men in the process of building a successful football team. How does he go about it?

“He convinces the kids they can win,” says Louie Foy, Joe’s assistant at Salamanca for 15 years, who for the last two has been president of Section VI in the New York State Public High School Athletic Association.

“His personality has a lot to do with it – because he’s a winner… he’s a hard-nosed basic fundamentalist.

“He’s a strict disciplinarian… I don’t think you can emphasize that too much. I’d guess you’d have to say that Joe feels that football is a tough game, played by tough kids, and you’d better be ready to play.”

Then Louie Foy pauses to examine the current situation. “Joe isn’t one who will ever go through life without critics. His approach was predominant in the ‘40s, when he played. That approach today is no longer accepted.”

Sanfilippo’s treatment of players is consistent; he plays no favorites. And that includes his sons. Carl, an all-state selection at Salamanca, and young Joe, expected to be a strong lineman on the year’s Jamestown team, know as well as any players that Joe Sanfilippo is one tough football coach.

Could that approach, which might be termed Lombardian, actually be outdated? Louie Foy doesn’t think so.

“I think most people whose kids played for Joe – my son played for Joe – never worried about their sons being injured. They were in the best possible physical condition.

“Joe’s injury record is one of the best, if not the best, in New York State… it’s basically due to his strict, disciplinary, hard-nosed measures.”

So what was the problem in Jamestown?

“I think, if you don’t say please and thank you to kids today, you’re in trouble,” says Foy.

“If you were to consider all the great coaches in Western New York, they weren’t please and thank you people. All the good ones thrived on dedication and discipline.

“Oh, he has his critics. He’ll never win any popularity contests. But the majority of his ballplayers will say he’s one heck of a coach.”

One thing no one can deny – Sanfilippo produces outstanding ballplayers. His All-WNY selection last year was two-way tackle Dan Moran, bound for Alfred University.

“I think the only problem was probably excessive yelling,” says Moran.

“It really didn’t bother me that much. I took the yelling in stride because I knew he was just yelling for my sake.

“He made me feel bad a couple of times, but I lived through it,” Moran concludes with a smile.

And his experiences are ones that Dan Moran would gladly relive. “Yeah,” he stresses, “I have no qualms over it.”

George Whitcher was Sanfilippo’s assistant at Salamanca before succeeding him as head coach.

“It’s a pleasure following him,” Whitcher says.

“His background is single-wing football with a lot of power. I can remember when I was at Walsh, Joe used to play a pretty wide open brand of football.

“He had a couple of bad years during the turn of the ‘60s. He decided to go back to things he did best. No gimmicks – just prepare the kids.

“It’s pretty good strategy, really. You’ve got to beat Joe. It’s simple – he’s not going to make mistakes. He teaches tough, physical football.

“It’s not going to be fancy or crowd-pleasing. But it’s winning. If kids would take the mental toughness Joe tries to teach, they’re going to be winners.

“I think the kids appreciate him. They understand what he’s doing.”

Frank Hyde has been sports editor of the Jamestown Post-Journal since the Dent Moon days of the 1940s.

“Joe’s a controversial figure because he’s extremely outspoken,” says Hyde. “In the old days, they would have worshipped him for that kind of coaching. Now they’re a little more pampered.

“In 40 years or more, I’ve seen a lot of good coaches and a lot of bad ones. Joe’s a good coach.”

Perhaps the most celebrated of Sanfilippo’s pupils is San Francisco 49ers safetyman Chuck Crist, who attended Penn State University on a basketball scholarship, graduated, tried out for the New York Giants as a free agent and has been playing in the National Football League ever since.

Crist, a seven-year NFL veteran, played for Sanfilippo from 1965 through 1968.

“He was gruff,” Crist recalls. “He has some different ways of doing things. But if you look toward the end of things, results are what you’re looking for.

“They players may have talked about him in the locker room, but they all respected him as a coach and as a person.”

On this year’s situation in Jamestown, Crist suggests, “Instead of firing the coach, maybe they ought to fire the players.

“He’s a man of conviction. His way is the right way; it’s just his nature. You learn from him. When it really comes down to it, the guy is a winner.”

Crist adds, “He’s not just drilling football players; he grooms young men, too. He’s not just a football machine.

“He’s not really that hard to understand. He’s a man who, loves football.”

Sanfilippo is not one to dwell on himself. He’s a doer, not a talker.

“Football is my life, year round,” he says succinctly. “I think I get more out of it than I put into it.”

His approach is fundamental: “If you block, you’ll score. If you don’t block, you can have the best backs in the world and you’re not going anywhere.”

Explaining why he sticks to his traditional methods, Joe quips, “You dance with the girl you take to the dance.”

The code of conduct for his players is anything but outlandish: “We insist on traveling jackets… no jeans… Actually, we don’t have a formal dress code.”

An earlier Jamestown coach had insisted that all his players have short haircuts. Such excess is not part of the Sanfilippo system. Joe says, “I wouldn’t play for a coach if I had to cut my hair off.”

He is a man of action, not of rhetoric. “Excuses,” he says, “are for losers.”

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