NEW HAVEN >> Former players, coaches, dignitaries and friends alike came together Sunday afternoon at Wilbur Cross High to honor the winningest boys basketball coach the Elm City has ever known.
The gymnasium at Cross was officially named The Robert H. Saulsbury Gymnasium after the legendary coach who won 493 games and nine CIAC state championships in 28 seasons (1966-94) on the bench. But he would be the first to tell you – and very often at that – the reason for his great success.
“I’ve been truly blessed to have so many fine athletes and that’s the main reason why we are here today<” Saulsbury told the audience. “As a coach, it’s very painful to only mention a few players when every player deserves some recognition for their contribution in one way or another.”
Mention players Saulsbury did during a tribute in the school’s auditorium that lasted nearly two hours before the actual gym dedication took place. In fact, at the end of his speech, Saulsbury, now 84, asked all of his former players in attendance to come up on stage and join him.
There were a couple of other moments that stood out as well:
Saulsbury receiving a congratulatory letter from President Barack Obama.
Former player Earl Kelley, who went onto star at UConn, weeping on Saulsbury’s shoulder after finishing his speech.
“I played for a lot of coaches when I was younger and professionally all over the world,” Kelley said. “He was the only coach who instilled the words student, athlete. It wasn’t vice versa.”
Kelley mentioned that Saulsbury would check academic progress of students often – like every single day.
“Education was entirely the focus every day,” said former player Alphonse Paolillo, now a New Haven Alderman and former president of the Walter Camp Football Foundation.
Keynote speaker Billy Mecca, the senior associate athletic director at Quinnipiac University, once was the head men’s basketball coach at Quinnipiac. Like Saulsbury, a North Haven resident, he has gotten to know the former coach more after both of their coaching days ended.
“A lot of us have commitment, but only the special ones have the will and the courage to match it,” Mecca said. “The purpose of life is to matter, to count, to stand for something, to have it make a difference that you have lived at all. Coach Saulsbury, you have accomplished that each and every day of your life.”
Saulsbury referenced his start when he applied for the vacant assistant coach’s position at Cross in 1962 under Red Verderame, a position he didn’t want at first.
The pinnacle of his success was the 1974 team that finished No. 1 in the nation, a team featuring Bruce “Soup” Campbell and Jiggy Williamson. He was inducted into the Connecticut High School Hall of Fame in 1985.
“I wanted my players to realize this was a privilege and not a right, that they were representing their schoolmates, their parents sand the city of New Haven and most of all, Wilbur Cross High School,” Saulsbury said.
And all of that success was recognized Sunday, summed up by another former standout player, Maurice Willamson, who went on to play at LSU and is currently an assistant at Cross.
“It’s truly an honor that’s been long overdue, long overdue,” Williamson said.