DURHAM >> They are Connecticut high school basketball coaching legends.
The three of them – Wally Camp of Durham High/Coginchaug Regional, Art Kohs of Hale-Ray High and Xavier, and Jake Salafia of Cromwell High – have a combined three quarters of a century as head high school basketball coaches and have amassed nearly 1,200 wins. Kohs still coaches as he assists his son, Mike, at Xavier High School.
The three gathered at Sal Salafia’s eatery on Main St. in Durham for breakfast on Thursday last to trade stories of good times and not so good times, and to tell a tall tale or two. Camp, who has 509 wins and was celebrating his 84th birthday, laughingly admonished all that, “You can believe only half of what Artie says.”
Salafia, 85, is the dean of the group. He remains a fixture at area games, often taking in Cromwell High games at the gymnasium named in his honor. Salafia also attends Xavier games in the gym named after Kohs.
“I stay active,” Salafia said. “I get out to games and I get down to the YMCA and see some of my old friends. Fran Monnes [longtime Cromwell High baseball coach] is usually there along with others. I stay as active as I can.”
Kohs, 76, loves being in the game with his son, and agonizes a bit watching his other son, Tim, coach the Mercy girls.
“It’s fun coaching with my son and having a relationship with the kids,” he said. “But I can’t bite my tongue. When he does something I disagree with, I just say so. He tells me ‘be quiet dad’ but I say it anyway. I can’t help myself.”
At Tim’s games, he’s a typical dad in the stands.
“It’s different watching Tim,” said Kohs. “He’s a lot like me; we are both screamers. But the Mercy gym is so quiet, they hear him more than they heard me. Winning that title last year was unbelievable.”
Mercy beat Lauralton Hall in the Class LL finals last March on a last second 3-point shot by Maria Weselj after losing three straight title games.
Camp, like Salafia, is a one school guy. He started out at Durham High in 1957, and remained there when the school morphed into a regional school when Middlefield, which used to send its students to Middletown, joined with Durham to form Coginchaug Regional.
Camp has great memories, but he chose first to talk about a not so good one.
“My best team was in 1979,” said Camp, who listed his stars as Willy Hyland, his son Mike, John Hostetler, Dennis Prue and Gibby Ryan. Then he gestured towards Salafia and said, “Then this turkey beat me.”
Camp, after whom the athletic complex at Coginchaug is named, remembered the night well.
“They killed us in the tournament,” he said. “It was my worst loss.”
But Camp didn’t lose to a turkey. That Salafia team won a state championship. Salafia has seven of those, winning state titles from 1967-1971, then winning back-to-back titles in 1979 and 1980.
“We went to the finals 11 times in my 24 years,” said Salafia. “The 1970 team was my best team. We went 23-1 and lost only to South Windsor and Tom Roy [who went on to star at Maryland], 63-59.”
Salafia, whose career mark is 445-118, said the 1970 club was led by the Dlugolenski brothers – Ed and Dan – Al Weston, Peter Amenta and Keith Byrd.
“The Dlugolenski kids were big kids who could run,” Salafia said. “They played great defense and they didn’t give up rebounds. I would look at the stat sheet after the game and typically one would have 22 rebounds and the other would have 19. They were outstanding players and leaders. They both went to West Point.
“And of course, we had Al Weston.”
It was Weston [UConn] that provided Salafia with his biggest thrill.
“We were playing Nonnewaug for the state championship in 1971,” he said. “It was a low scoring game, one or two point difference all night. We got the ball with 30 seconds to go down by a point. Al dribbled the ball down to seven seconds and took a long jumper – there were no three-point baskets then — and he made it and we won 40-39.
“That was a super effort by our team. Nonnewaug was very big, much bigger than us, but we had people who could control the ball.”
Salafia also reminisced about the games his club had with Middletown in the late 60s and early 70s, when MHS was winning state Class B (today’s M) championships at the same time Cromwell was the scourge of Class C (now S).
“We had great games,” he said. “Especially that one in the Armory with our Don Lewis [Providence College] going against their Wilbur Pope and Ted Hathaway. Middletown won that one but it was close down to the end.”
Camp, although derailed by “that turkey” in 1979, already had his day in the sun when his Blue Devils stunned heavily-favored St. Thomas Aquinas of New Britain 49-48 in 1974 to win his only state title.
That team featured Don Carmichael, Pete Jones, Phil D’Acri, Joe Rioux and Dave Biel.
“We were big underdogs,” said Camp. “In those days, the parochial schools dominated Class S.”
Kohs started out in public schools in 1960. In his first year, he taught science and coached soccer at Hanover Park High School in New Jersey. He came to Connecticut the next year and taught at Nathan Hale-Ray in East Haddam and met with instant success.
Kohs coached both soccer and basketball. His 1961 and 1962 soccer teams were the state small school champions, and his 1962-1963 boys basketball team won the only Shoreline Conference basketball championship in Hale-Ray history.
Then Kohs made the move that made his career, as he got in on the ground floor when Xavier High opened its doors some 50 years ago.
“I was athletic director and anything else I wanted to be back then,” said Kohs, who spent 34 years at the Catholic school. “I coached soccer, basketball and baseball from the beginning. But in 1967 I gave up the others to concentrate on basketball.”
While Xavier had a sports reputation as a football school, Kohs had two terrific teams, both of which went to the state semifinals. In 1969, his club, which starred Ralph Wagner and current baseball coach Rich Magner, lost to a great Wilbur Cross team in front of a full house at Central Connecticut State.
His second semifinalist lost to New London at the New Haven Coliseum in 1975. That team featured Luke and Clint Gaffney and Tim Heffernan.
“I didn’t have Anthony Brown all season because of a football injury,” said Kohs. “If I had him – he started as a sophomore – I think we could have won the whole thing.”
Kohs’ favorite memory isn’t a tournament game, but a regular season game with the late South Catholic, which was coached by another state legend, Joe Reilly.
“It was 1967 and South Catholic beat us by 63 points at their place,” said Kohs. “When I came home from the game, one of our custodians, a guy from Poland who was a great guy who spoke broken English, looked at me, handed me his broom and said, ‘I coach, you sweep.’”
It turned out the custodian was put up to it by the Xavier principal, who clearly had a sense of humor. But it was a while before Kohs found that out.
So Kohs set out on a mission to avenge the 63-point loss.
“That’s all we talked about,” said Kohs. “I ran and worked those kids hard. I also got the whole student body pumped up about the rematch so we had a full house that night. The kids were really up for the game.
“It came down to the end and the game was tied. There was so much noise that when the officials called a foul at the buzzer, the refs had to ask the timer if it was before or after the buzzer. Now Pete Sipples was our clock operator and he immediately said it was before the buzzer.
“Joe Reilly went nuts. But our kid, Stan Marciniec, went to the line and made the free throws and we won. Reilly was so upset he left his overcoat in the office, got on the bus and went home. It’s my best memory.”
Like Kohs, Salafia coached other sports. In fact, Salafia has eight other state titles in his resume, seven in cross-country and one in outdoor track.
“I coached cross-country for 32 years,” said Salafia, who had a state open cross-country champion in Bill Young in 1964. “But I coached track for just the one year we won a title. But to be fair, the coach resigned just before the season so I just stepped in.”
At one point, Camp and Kohs got engaged in a discussion over the introduction of the zone press in the state.
“I was the first coach in Connecticut to use the zone press,” said Kohs. “I was on the west coast and saw John Wooden use it and brought it here.”
“No you weren’t,” said Camp. “Red Verderame at Wilbur Cross was the first. He brought me down to New Haven to show me how to do it. Like I said, believe only half of what Artie says.”
Kohs ignored him. “The next year Sports Illustrated did a spread on the zone press,” he said. “They printed diagrams and everything. I was [upset].”
At the end of the morning, each talked about the lasting joys of their careers.
“I have no regrets,” said Kohs. “If I had to do it all over again, I’d do it the same way.”
Camp said that his best moment was when he married his wife, but in basketball he had so many good memories, he couldn’t single out any one of them. “But it is the association with the kids that was the best,” he said. “They kept me young and I felt like I was accomplishing something.”
Salafia said much the same.
“My best memory is the closeness I had with the kids and their families,” he said. “You meet so many good people through sports, people you would never otherwise meet. I am Godfather to two children of former players.
“I think that sports are very important for kids. Their closest friends often come from sports. My closet friends came from the sports I played and coached.
“Through sports, you make friends for life.”
Like Camp, Kohs and Salafia.