Tom Fujitani, one of the giants of FCIAC football coaches who guided Wilton’s football program for 32 seasons and was responsible for the school’s two state championships, died unexpectedly during a fishing trip at Candlewood Lake early Saturday morning. He was 73.
Fujitani was a Greenwich native who starred as a back at Greenwich High School and played football at the University of Bridgeport under his former Greenwich coach (and eventual Cleveland Browns coach) Sam Rutigliano. Fujitani began his coaching career at Wilton in 1966 as an assistant under Nick Zeoli, the program’s founder and future athletic director.
“He was like my brother,” Zeoli, now retired and living in Vermont, told the Hour of Norwalk. “I felt that close to him. He and I were the best of friends and professionally we liked each other, too. He was one of the best assistant coaches I ever had and I think he was a better head coach, too.”
Zeoli hired Fujitani as head coach in 1969. Fujitani immediately introduced a wishbone offense, for which his teams would become famous over the next three decades.
“It’s a big loss to the Wilton sports community,” former player and Wilton resident Kevin Wall told the Darien Times. ”There have been only four head coaches in the history of Wilton football — Nick Zeoli, Tom, Tim Eagen and now Bruce Cunningham. Tom was a pillar.”
He amassed a 163-147-10 record over 32 seasons and coached seven New Haven Register All-State football players including DavePapenfuss, former Duke and current Bryant lacrosse coach Mike Pressler, Mark Wittenbauer, Mark Cowper, Bill Bryant, Dan Kerr and Andy Flick.
“He was everything a high school coach should be,” said New Canaan coach and friend Lou Marinelli. “He taught discipline. You had to do it his way otherwise weren’t going to play.
“You would play him and, win or lose, go out with him next day or night. There were no grudges ever held or anything like that. He was a real gentleman. You don’t find too many guys like him any more. He was one of a kind. I’m devastated.”
The Warriors joined the FCIAC in 1971 and Fujitani proved a worthy adversary for many of the all-time great coaches of his era, including Greenwich’s Mike Ornato, Trumbull’s Jerry McDougall, McMahon’s Jack Casagrande, Staples’ Paul Lane and Stamford Catholic’s Joe Anselone.
“In those days, those teams were all tough and he fit right in,” said current Wilton coach Bruce Cunningham, who got his first job out of college coaching with Fujitani in 1987. “He taught great life lessons. He taught being tough mentally and tough physically and about overcoming adversity. He’d teach that message even to this day. His teams were that way. No matter what record was, they played certain way. They played his way, or they didn’t play at all.”
“I’m gonna miss him.”
Fujitani’s teams played in six FCIAC championship games. After narrow losses in his first three appearances in 1978, 1984 and 1985, Fujitani’s 1988 team finally won its coveted league title over his alma mater, Greenwich, 19-7.
Wilton returned to the FCIAC title game twice more under Fujitani, but lost both times to Rob Trifone’s McMahon teams in 1994 and 1995.
Fujitani had more luck on the state stage. He coached the Warriors to four CIAC state championship games and won two. Wilton defeated Newtown 17-7 in the 1978 Class L final and defeated Hall, 21-3, in the 1985 Class L-II title game, just four years after the team went 0-9.
Wilton also lost to Hand, 14-7, in the 1984 M-I championship and to Brookfield, 21-7, in the 1995 Class M championship.
Fujitani’s 1976 club, which just missed qualifying for the CIAC’s first state championship round despite an 8-1 record, was also one of his best. That team, which starred defensive lineman Papenfuss, shut out five opponents. Papenfuss, who went on to play lacrosse at the University of Pennsylvania, made a then-state record 37 sacks in one season.
“He was an excellent tactician as far as coaching that option offense,” Marinelli sadi. ” Truth be told he was probably a better defensive coach than offensive coach, and his offense was pretty good.”
Fujitani retired as head coach following the 2000 season and was succeeded by longtime assistant Tim Eagen. Following his retirement, the football field at Wilton was renamed in his honor. He had also served as a hockey and basketball coach and taught physical education at the school.
Fujitani remained active in Wilton’s athletic scene, Cunningham said. He had co-founded the school’s Lt. John G. Corr Memorial Award for athletic and academic excellence. It is named in honor of the Wilton standout who played at Bridgeport with Fujitani and was killed during a tour in Vietnam.
Nine years after his retirement, the 67-year old Fujitani joined Eagen and former Wilton assistant Bruce Martin on the football staff at Bethel under head coach Jason Gill. He remained an assistant coach for the Wildcats until his death. Employing the same wishbone offense as Fujitani’s old Wilton teams, Bethel has reached the state playoffs three times since.
An avid fisherman, Fujitani took fly fishing trips to places like Florida and Montana with his fellow FCIAC coaches during the offseason. Fujitani, who once cited triple bypass heart surgery in 1996 as a factor in his eventual retirement, had been battling through more heart troubles in the months leading up to his death.
“It’s been a rough couple of days I can tell you that,” Cunningham said. “He was one of the greats. He loved football. He just loved it. I’ll be eternally grateful for everything he’s done. That’s why these last few days have been so hard.”