September 17, 2010

Burning desire: After 40 years, dedicated coach continues to promote values of faith, family and football

Our Lady of Providence High School football coach Gene Sartini gives instructions to lineman Austin Richards, a junior, during an early season practice. In his 40th season at Providence, Sartini has developed a winning football program that is also strong on faith and family. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Our Lady of Providence High School football coach Gene Sartini gives instructions to lineman Austin Richards, a junior, during an early season practice. In his 40th season at Providence, Sartini has developed a winning football program that is also strong on faith and family. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

CLARKSVILLE—Laughter roared through the coaches’ office as Larry Denison shared his second favorite story about Gene Sartini.

The story was from the not-too-long-ago days when even a silver-haired Sartini routinely jumped into a play during football practice at Our Lady of Providence Jr./Sr. High School in Clarksville—the school where Sartini is now in his 40th season as the head varsity football coach.

Licking his lips and drawing from his experience as a college football player in the 1950s, Sartini stepped into one of his players’ positions to make a point. Yet when the play unfolded on that memorable day, a player drilled Sartini, sending him flying.

“He just got run over,” said a smiling Denison, a 1986 Providence graduate who played for Sartini for four years and has been an assistant coach for him for the past 17 years. “He jumped back up immediately and said, ‘Is that all you got? You’re going to have to hit a lot harder than that when we play this week.’ ”

When the laughter from that story faded, Denison shared his all-time favorite story about Sartini, a serious one that shows the heart of a hard-nosed competitor.

“My younger brother, Todd, played for Coach, too,” Denison recalled. “He graduated in 1988. He was diagnosed with leukemia in 1991. He was in the bone marrow unit, and one of the first people to come see him was Gene. He brought Todd his jersey. If you know anything about Coach, he treats those jerseys like gold. He gave Todd the jersey and asked to talk to him privately.

“Afterward, when we came back into the room, Todd’s spirits were 100 percent higher. Todd wore his jersey through a lot of his treatments. It shows how much Coach cares about his players, not just while they’re playing for him.”

‘Being Italian’

Those stories capture the essence of Sartini, who lives by the motto “Burning Desire”—the motto that has guided all his teams in a coaching career that now extends 52 years.

His emotions even ran deep during a newspaper interview. As he talked about his life, his family and his career, he was moved to the brink of tears several times. He attributed the emotional reactions to “being Italian”—a phrase that he shared proudly.

Indeed, the core of his beliefs and his approach to coaching and life can be traced to his childhood years during the Great Depression of the 1930s when he grew up as the third of four children born to two Italian immigrants.

“It was a time when your family extended out to your neighborhood, where everyone helped one another with food, clothing, even bills,” he said as he sat in his office. “My dad was a bricklayer, but there wasn’t any brick work. He’d go around the neighborhood and sell produce. Most times, he’d give it all away. Those were rough days. But anytime anything got hard, you had to make a good thing out of a bad thing. It’s just a heritage that started with my parents.”

He grew up in Hammond, Ind., part of a tough area called “The Region,” where faith was strong, fights were common among children from different ethnic backgrounds, and football became his ticket to a new life.

“I was a decent athlete at Hammond Tech,” Sartini said. “Everybody I grew up with was going into the steel mills to work. I was geared to work in the steel mills, too, until I got a scholarship to LSU [Louisiana State University]. It was back in the ’50s during segregation. I didn’t like that one bit.”

He played at LSU for one year, served in the Army for two years during the Korean War and then finished his college career at the University of Louisville. After 12 years of coaching high school football in Kentucky, he interviewed for the head coaching position at Providence before the start of the 1971-72 school year.

The interview essentially came down to one question, Sartini recalled.

‘Faith, family and football’

“They asked me if I could beat New Albany,” said Sartini, a member of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Clarksville. “They had played them 10 times and only won once.”

Sartini’s first team at Providence beat New Albany High School. So did this year’s team in a 47-46 overtime thriller when Sartini decided to go for a two-point conversion that made the difference.

Winning games is obviously a key if a coach wants to have a long career, especially at one school. And Providence has a record of 264 wins and 156 losses under Sartini’s leadership—with two of his teams advancing to the state championship game.

Sartini regards himself as an aggressive person, and he coaches his teams to be the same. He plays to win. He loves to win. But he also believes there’s a right way to do it.

Consider what happened after a memorable victory against Clarksville High School.

“They’re our big rival,” recalled Ed Jackson, an assistant coach for 27 years at Providence. “After we beat them, we’re on the bus leaving their school property. The bus passes a couple of Clarksville guys wearing their jerseys. Some of our guys start giving them a hard time. Gene stops the bus. He brought the two Clarksville players on the bus and made our kids apologize to them. Gene apologized to them, too. He told our guys they had worked hard, too.”

Jackson let that story sink in before he added, “I’ve always felt like he’d get the most out of every kid. He’d get them to play above their capabilities because he believed in them.”

That assessment is shared by Spencer Corrao, one of the senior leaders on this year’s team.

“He’s a great guy. He’s pushed me harder than anyone ever has. He’s the reason I’ve been as successful as I have,” said Spencer, the team’s leading running back. “He also helps me off the field, reminding me to be a good person. His big thing is ‘faith, family and football.’ He really lives by that.”

Senior quarterback Anthony Denis noted, “I really like him. He relates to us really well. I’m glad I’ve had him as a coach for four years. I’ve learned a lot about football from him, and also [about] life. He really stresses the character of his players.”

Sartini also has the ability to surprise people.

Unexpected highlights

Gary Rosenberger may know Sartini better than anyone, having been an assistant coach at Providence for the past 39 years. He knows Sartini is loyal to his family, his friends and his players, past and present. He knows Sartini is a devout Catholic who has a deep commitment to Providence High School and Catholic education. He also knows that Sartini is a disciplinarian.

So Rosenberger thought he knew exactly how Sartini would react when a football player told a few assistant coaches that he would have to miss a preseason practice because he had an appointment with a hair stylist to get highlights in his hair. The assistant coaches told the player that he would have to check with Sartini if he wanted to miss practice.

As the youth went into Sartini’s office, the assistant coaches gathered nearby, expecting Sartini’s old-school reaction. Instead, he stunned them by giving the player his approval.

The assistant coaches now see that moment as a prime example of how Sartini has continued coaching for 52 years: While his values haven’t changed, he has been able to adapt to the changes in young people through the decades.

“That’s what has kept him young and kept him successful,” said assistant coach Jackson.

Jackson also marveled about the conversation he once heard between Sartini and one of the custodians at the school, a man who loved square dancing.

“Coach carried on a 15-minute conversation with him about square dancing,” Jackson noted.

Friends say that Sartini loves to get out on the dance floor. He certainly prefers dancing around any questions about his age.

“Between you and me, I’m up there,” he said with a smile. Still, when he started telling stories about growing up during the Great Depression and serving in the Korean War, he realized that he was sharing details that offer more than a hint about his age.

Those years have brought the usual share of heartaches and challenges. Sartini has been a widower twice. He also endured a heart operation in 2007.

Right now, he says, he has a clean bill of health from his doctors. He also exercises regularly. And, best of all, it is football season again. Time to coach. Time to compete. Time to connect with another group of players.

‘I want to keep coaching forever’

To celebrate Sartini’s 40th season at Providence, the school is honoring past teams at home games this year. Members of the 1973 and 1993 semi-state championships teams will be recognized at the Oct. 1 game. All of his former players have been invited to the Oct. 15 game against Clarksville.

Sartini appreciates the sentiment, but his focus on game nights has never wavered. Even now, quarterback Anthony Denis describes Sartini’s attitude during games in this way: “He’s intense. He’s real serious. He’s a competitor.”

A glimmer of that passion surfaced during a Wednesday afternoon practice early in the season. An hour before the practice, Sartini sat in his office and answered a question about how he is different as a coach from when he started coaching.

“I still holler at them. I still get after them. I’ve probably eased up a little. I’d jump in the drills before. I can’t do that now. But I can still holler.”

That afternoon practice session began with Sartini joking with one of his linemen, asking the player if he looked good for the photos that a reporter was taking. Yet 10 minutes later, he was in the midst of the action, demonstrating to another lineman the right way to block for a certain play.

Standing nearby, assistant coach John Day smiled.

“He’s one of the few people who can honestly say they’ve done all their lives what they’ve wanted to do,” said Day, who played for Sartini from 1972-75.

Sartini is in no hurry to have his coaching career end.

“I love it here,” he said. “They’ve treated me real good since I’ve been here. I love the kids, the families and the Catholic school system. I want to keep coaching forever if they’ll let me. It’s just in my blood.”

The desire of Gene Sartini continues to burn. †

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