In two years he spent in the college coaching ranks at Trinity, Mark Ecke learned two indisputable facts: He was and always will be a high school football coach. And he wanted to get back to being one as soon as possible.
He just might have found the perfect opportunity.
Nearly two years after leaving Cheshire, where he won 118 games and four state titles in 17 years before resigning, Ecke was named the next head coach at Danbury High School Monday.
In contrast to the one he left behind, Ecke is taking over a football program that hasn’t been to the state playoffs since 2003 and hasn’t had a winning season since 2004.
“It’s a great opportunity,” said Ecke, who will retire from his 23-year career as a Cheshire Police officer to take a full-time job as a special education tutor in Danbury. ”You take a look at Danbury, it’s the biggest high school in the state, it has proven success in a lot of other sports, so you know there’s athletes there. They’ve had success in football, they have a great youth football program, now we have to regenerate interest in football.”
According to Danbury athletic director Chip Salvestrini, the hire says the Hatters are serious about becoming a competitive football program.
“I’m thrilled about it,” Salvestrini said. “We really spent great deal of time focusing on our next football coach. Our program is in need of a jump-start. After a few down years, we wanted to get program back to where we needed it to be.
“I’ll be frank about this: We want to compete here. And by competing I mean we want to win the FCIAC championship. We want to win state championships. We have a shot now to compete with Mark.”
Ecke certainly has the pedigree.
A Cheshire graduate and a police sergeant in town since 1991, Ecke is a member of a prestigious coaching tree centered around Cheshire and Western Connecticut State University.
He starred an an offensive lineman at WestConn for former Syracuse and UConn coach Paul Pasqualoni and Chris Rippon, who has gone on to coach for a number of Division I programs.
Later, Ecke joined Cheshire’s staff in 1988 as an assistant under current Boston College coach Steve Addazio.
After winning a pair of titles and two No. 1 rankings with Addazio, Ecke took over the program in 1995 and continued Cheshire’s dominance of the 1990s. He presided over the final two years of the program’s state-record 49-game win streak.
Overall, Ecke was 118-65-3 at Cheshire, winning state championships in 1995, 1996, 1997 and 2009. His rookie team was voted No. 1 in the New Haven Register Top 10 poll in 1995.
Danbury, despite boasting Connecticut’s highest male enrollment of 1,846, hasn’t commanded that kind of football respectability. The Hatters had a run of good teams in the 1950s and 1970s, but its only state championship appearance was in 1990, a loss to Greenwich in the Class LL final.
“I didn’t want to go to a place and follow in another guy’s footsteps,” Ecke said. “I wanted to build a program from the ground up.”
It’s a much different school then the one he coached for over two decades. Over the last 10 years, Danbury has become a diverse mixture of Hispanic, White and Black students. The Hispanic population is the fastest-grown ethnicity in town, jumping from 15 percent to 25 percent of the population between 2000 and 2010, according to United States Census Bureau statistics.
“Since we had our last state playoff team in 2003, our demographics have really changed,” Salvestrini said. “I think we as a staff and a program didn’t keep up with those changes and, as a result we’ve had some really low football numbers the last few years. Everybody says you’re not going to win there, your population doesn’t work. I don’t believe that. Why can’t we bring a diverse mix of people together?”
Ecke believes he can.
“The city it self has grown dramatically since when I lived there,” he said. “There’s a lot of different ethnicities in very strong populations. So there’s lot of potential. You walk to halls and you can see there’s kids should be playing football.
“A kid told me for their Ridgefield game (on Thanksgiving), they had 27 kids on the bus. That’s a little rough. There are 1,846 kids in the school. There’s got to be 60 or 70 that can play football. I think Dan (Donovan) was doing a good job, but I think maybe a fresh face from outside is going to help.”
A lingering black mark on Ecke’s resume is how his career at Cheshire ended. He resigned under pressure in June 2012 a month after an incident during a Cheshire junior varsity lacrosse game at Glastonbury. Police were called to the field after Ecke yelled at referees over a call involving his son, Tucker, who had suffered a concussion on a helmet-t0-helmet hit.
Salvestrini wasn’t concerned about that incident, nor did he care about the Ecke’s reputation for sideline outbursts which ultimately contributed to his ouster.
“You know, in high-profile coaching there are often instances where things just don’t match up,” said Salvestrini, who said he received glowing recommendations from Trinity College’s coaching staff. ”Besides, I don’t really look at the past, I know just enough about the past to prepare for the future. So I’m not worried about what happened a few years ago.
“I’ll tell you, what we lack is that passion and that passion component that Coach Ecke brings to the game. I’m an old football guy, I can take that stuff. All we ask of our coaches is to be professional, to work with parents and kids and do all the things they need to do be run a successful program. Mark can do all of those things, and, to top it off, he’s one heck of a football coach.”
Ecke, too, isn’t concerned about the past. He says he’s too busy getting excited for the future.
“I read somewhere that life is about looking through the windshield and not at the rearview mirror,” Ecke said. “I loved what I was doing at Trinity, but having the opportunity to come back and be a head coach again, it’s great. For me, it’s a second career. It’s the best option for me. It’s something that I love to do.”