They started together at Amity a young coach and a one of his star runners. Almost four decades later, they’ll leave together as great friends.
Bob Orgovan officially retired as Amity’s boys cross country coach after 39 seasons and countless regional and state championships. With him will go Thom Jacobs, who has been at his side as an assistant while coaching Amity’s track and field teams for a majority of the last three decades until resigning last year.
Orgovan, 69, had been Amity’s boys track and field coach since 1977, when he took over for coach Roy Rodrigues. Jacobs began running for him two years later and was the captain of Orgovan’s team in 1981. Just five years later, Jacobs began coaching alongside his mentor and the two became fixtures in the statewide track and field scene.
So when Orgovan decided to hang up his whistle for good, Jacobs figured it was time for him to go, too. “Amity Cross Country for me is Bob Orgovan,” Jacobs said. “I just couldn’t imagine coaching the team without him. He’s an institution at Amity. That’s the perfect way to put it.”
The two announced their decision at a team meeting Monday after school during which the team was honored with by the Amity Board of Education for winning back-to-back Class LL championships last fall for the first time in program history.
“It’s a huge loss for Amity and a huge loss for the state cross country as well,” said Paul Mengold, Amity’s former and athletic director who presided over the majority of Orgovan’s and Jacobs’ tenure before retiring in 2014. “They’ll leave a legacy that will be very, very tough to follow. They built the program and have meant so much for the sport at Amity and the state.
“I mean, everybody knows Bob and Jake. They’re highly respected in the way that they carried themselves. They’re humble. They don’t flaunt their success, and they’d share their knowledge with other young coaches across the state. They’ve touched the lives of so many kids over the years. They’ve taken kids who basically didn’t really believe in themselves as athletes and fostered a mentality in them that they could be successful. They’re role models for what coaches should be. They really are.”
For Orgovan, it was simply time. “Everybody has to do it at some point,” said Orgovan, who lives in Ansonia with his wife, Patricia. “It seemed to me that this was the right time. I’ll be 70 in June and we had a really great season so I thought it was a good time to go out.
“I didn’t make the decision until I’d gone to Florida (after the season) and thought things out. I found that the last couple of years, going to practices and meets were OK, but I wasn’t as excited as in year’s past.”
Orgovan grew up in Danbury and graduated Danbury High School in 1964. “In fact, it was the last class in the old building before they moved to the one on the hill,” he said.
He earned a teaching degree at Danbury State College (now Western Connecticut State) and attended graduate school for chemistry at Purdue and ultimately finished at Northern Michigan. In between, he was drafted during the Vietnam War and served as a laboratory technician in the Air Force in Michigan.
When he returned home, married and with with children, Orgovan had a choice between teaching Windsor Locks High School, Westbrook High School and Amity Regional. He chose Amity since it was closer to his home in Danbury.
Orgovan never ran competitively in high school or college. But Rodrigues, Amity’s boys cross country coach at the time, noticed the young teacher loved to run in his free time. He brought Orgovan on as an assistant and groomed him as his replacement. “He told me, you’re going to be the next coach,” Orgovan said. He took over in 1977.
“(Rodrigues) showed me what to do as a coach and, after that the kids showed me what to do,” Orgovan said said. “And, just like anything else, you turn around and suddenly you’ve been doing it for 20 years.
“It became my major identity. I started as a school teacher and people knew me as a school teacher. But as time went on they knew me much more as a coach. I think that’s probably because I had a greater effect as a coach than as a teacher.”
Jacobs joined the cross country team as a sophomore in 1979. They’ve virtually been together ever since. While Jacobs would help Orgovan during cross country season, Orgovan would help Jacobs during the outdoor track and field season.
“Bob’s style was being a quiet type of leader and, over the years, became more of a fatherly figure to the kids,” Mengold said. “Jake was more of the vocal leader, more like an older brother. They both set the bar high for excellence, but neither of them ever showed disappointment or said anything negative if any of the kids didn’t reach those expectations. They drew self-confidence from the kids. They they all got equal treatment — the No. 1 runner was treated no differently than the No. 30 runner. And the kids loved them for that.”
Orgovan’s boys teams won seven state championship meets, including the last two Class LL championships, and participated in 29 State Open championships, including a a runner-up finish in 2005. Amity also won six Southern Connecticut Conference Championships, 19 SCC Housatonic division championships and, before that, six Housatonic League championships.
Amity participated in 16 New England Championships, including 10 consecutive times from 2003-2012. Amity won the New England Championship in 2005 and was runner-up in 2008.
“After having worked with kids for 32 years, I’ve run across a lot of people in education,” Jacobs said in 2014. “I have never met anyone who reads kids better than Bob Orgovan. He knows distance running inside and out, but it’s not the reason he’s a championship coach. He knows when to push, when to pull back, when to motivate through encouragement, he knows when to motivate by pressing…and sometimes pressing hard. Talk to any alumni and they will concur, his influence runs deep.”
In 2014, Orgovan was named the National High School Athletic Coaches Association’s Coach of the Year at a ceremony in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
“I try to remind people that it’s not the coach doing the great things, the kids are doing the great things,” he said. “I don’t have a magic pill to give them. I don’t have to tap them on the head. They do it themselves.
“I just try to coach each kid to help the get the most out of the experience. Some kids just want to be a part of a team and learn things that way. Or some kids want to be the best they can be and want you to push them harder. So you push them harder. That’s really what a good coach does: provide kids with the tools to help them achieve what they want to become.”
Orgovan is a certified USA Track and Field official and will continue to to stay involved at events. He and Jacobs brought on Jon Faitsch from Guilford as an assistant this season. Jacobs expects the team will be in good hands, especially if Faitsch takes over.
“Who knows how the hiring process will go,” he said. “But the hope is that there’s a nice, solid transition.”