MILFORD >> Derrick Lewis’ first meeting with the Law football team lasted all of three minutes. The newly-minted head coach kept his speech short and to the point.
“I introduced myself and said, ‘It’s the dawn of a new day. Get your sneakers on, get something comfortable on, we are going to lift weights. See you in the weight room in 15 minutes,'” Lewis said.
Said senior quarterback Giovanni Marzullo: “He laid down the rules and we went right to work.”
And with that brief speech, Lewis made the official start to his second varsity head coaching job. His first was at Bassick, lasting three seasons (2011-13) and winning four games.
While that is a very small number, consider Bassick once had a 67-game losing streak in the previous decade. Also consider the Lions play in arguably the state’s best conference, the FCIAC.
Lewis lost his first 14 games as a head coach until a win over Harding in season two. The other three victories came last season, beating Trinity Catholic, Bridgeport Central and Bullard-Havens. The Lions lost three other games by 10 points or less.
“Winning three games there is like barely getting the eighth seed into the (state football) playoffs,” Lewis said. “It was a place that has no facilities, that has a stretched budget, that has a very transient population like Bridgeport does, for us to maintain and graduate 22 seniors from the program last year is probably as good a feeling as any win I’ve ever been a part of. … My patience ran very thin a lot of times, but something would always happen during the course of week that would remind me what we are doing is making a difference.”
Lewis, now 32, noted how he would talk with the kids long after practices were completed. Discussions about “life stuff” that had little, if anything, to do with football. That helped build bonds between coaches and players.
“I think Derrick’s strength is bulding relationships with players. He did it from the first day he was here until the day he left,” Bassick athletic director Craig Bruno said. “He was classy and an excellent role model for the kids.”
Lewis had many discussions with Bruno, the former longtime Bunnell coach who won a pair of Class L state championships (2006-07) and is now in his second year at Naugatuck.
Lewis also kept in contact with his two former coaches: West Haven’s Ed McCarthy, where Lewis was a two-time Register All-Area selection and where he served as an assistant coach (2008-09) and Rich Cavanaugh, the former longtime Southern Connecticut State University coach. Lewis was a dominant offensive lineman for the Owls, helping lead them to their first NCAA Division II playoff berth in 2005.
Lewis, who is director of behavior support for special education students in the Bridgeport school system, also credited several other coaches, including Notre Dame-West Haven’s Tom Marcucci, New Canaan’s Lou Marinelli, Staples’ Marce Petroccio and Darien’s Rob Trifone with providing any assistance when he came calling.
So despite times where he second-guessed himself during his three years on the job, Lewis said he told the interview committee for the Law position that he was happy to stay at Bassick. He views himself as a program builder and he hopes to do the same thing at Law.
“I have another opportunity to build another program in an area that reminds me a lot of where I came from,” Lewis said. “Coaching has nothing to do with playing. You can be a great player and an awful coach. I felt I owed it to myself on a professional level, just like any job. So why sit back and wait?”
Why wait? That is the team motto at Law now. Why wait to improve in the SCC? Why wait to make an impression right from the opening game against Harding, a team that beat the Lawmen in last year’s season opener?
Lewis, who has been an ordained minister at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Bridgeport since 2006, had shirts made up with the slogan on it for the players to wear.
“When you are waiting around, someone else is working hard,” said Sean Rice, a tight end and defensive end for the Lawmen. “Almost with the snap of a finger, we were straight down to business.”
Lewis was quick to acknowledge the schedule – a fair one at that, he said. Law’s Division I crossover games are against Wilbur Cross and Hamden.
“Mark (Robinson, Lewis’ predecessor) did a very good job for a very long time,” Lewis said. “We don’t forget the ’07 team (that went 9-1). Mark left the program in great shape.”
He and his family have moved from West Haven to almost within walking distance from the school.
Law is changing offenses from the triple option to the multiple spread. He brought over some assistants from Bassick, including former West Haven standout Desmond Lymon. And he brings his own style to a new program.
“The approach is very similar. It’s playing the game the way it was meant to be played with passion, with intensity with recklessnesses but controlled, while building brotherhood,” Lewis said. “Kids really have no problem trusting in the situation as long as they see results.”
Said Bruno: “I’ll be his biggest fan, rooting for him. He will maximize the talent they have and most importantly, he will be very good for kids. The community is very lucky to have him because he will become involved and do a lot of good things.”