He has known final victory and final defeat on the field. It is as much a part of CIAC executive director Glenn Lungarini’s resume as his various degrees and teaching and administrative career.
In his last college game, Lungarini, an All-New England cleanup-hitting first baseman, exalted in Eastern Connecticut’s 16-1 rout of Montclair State for the 1998 NCAA Division III national baseball championship.
Four springs earlier, as an All-State player at Holy Cross-Waterbury, Lungarini felt the sting of an extra-inning loss to Plainville in the CIAC Class L championship. It was his last high-school game and, after a quarter century, his coach Jim Harris’ last one, too.
Glenn Lungarini is the man who stood in front of all the cameras and all of Connecticut on March 10 to announce that the state high school’s tournaments for winter sports were canceled for thousands of kids because of the coronavirus pandemic. It was not a pleasant task.
The CIAC’s decision rings clear and appropriate to everyone now, save fringe deniers and social media trolls. Yet, at that point, the decision was still one day before Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus and the NBA changed all the rules in immediately suspending play. It was two days before the NCAA called off its tournaments. In the rapid-moving coronavirus news cycle, 24 or 48 hours is a lifetime.
The morning following the CIAC announcement — spurred on by a petition signed by thousands — 500 protesters, students, coaches and a few athletic directors showed up at CIAC headquarters in Cheshire. They chanted “Let Us Play!” Some surrounded Lungarini as he tried to speak to the media and he was escorted back inside. A few cups, plastic bottles and an egg were thrown at the building. Yet in the end the protest will be remembered as young people expressing their heartbreak for what had been ripped from them.
“Looking back, as a high school kid in the moment, I probably would have felt the same way our student-athletes felt,” Lungarini said when I asked him to put himself back to his senior year at Holy Cross and imagine the baseball tournament canceled. “I can appreciate and fully understand the emotion they felt.
“I absolutely anticipated it. When we made the decision, we made it clear we understand the disappointment that kids, parents, coaches and even some administrators would feel. Nobody takes pride in making a decision to cancel tournaments that we know is going to negatively impact kids. Nobody. Hopefully, what our kids learn from this is that strong leadership means at times making the difficult decision and sticking with it when you know it’s in the best interest of the health and safety of our students and community.”
It was tough to read social media after the announcement. The stuff directed toward the CIAC and at Lungarini … hysterical overreaction … zero leadership … crooks … buffoons … resign now! … idiots … Lungarini was that kid who was bullied by athletes and this is his payback … Yeah, the CIAC and Lungarini got unfairly trashed.
Lungarini took the fire for a lot of superintendents, principals and administrators. He didn’t complain. Not once did we see him react with anger. Not last week. Not on Wednesday after he announced the CIAC is not giving up on trying to save some part of the spring season.
“In any position of school or state leadership, you can’t take it personal,” he said. “One strength I pride myself on — and I have plenty of weaknesses — is my ability to separate emotion and look at the facts in front of us to make a decision. Athletics, music, and theater, those three extracurricular activities in school draw more emotion and passion from those who participate than anything else kids engage in. And athletics, at 43 percent grades 9 to 12, is the most widely participated.
“So when you’re making a tough decision like we had to make and the one we have to make with spring sports, we have to respect there’s going to be a lot of emotion around it. We have to remove our own emotion to have an unbiased look at the facts to do what’s in the best interest of student and community safety.”
Lungarini sounds clinical at times in his perspective and during a time of high emotion perhaps that is best. His composure, with people literally yelling in his ear, was needed. He taught and coached. He was an AD. He was an assistant baseball coach at Yale. He was principal at Seymour and Pomperaug before taking over at the CIAC. He talks how much of educational leadership is facing adverse situations and problem-solving.
“But,” Lungarini said, “I think it’s safe to say no one anticipates a worldwide pandemic.”
Ironic, isn’t it? After getting trashed for panicking, the CIAC and Lungarini are now universally praised for getting out in front of a deadly situation. I’m waiting for someone to start another petition, this one to thank the CIAC.
“By the end of the week, the NBA, NCAA and the various leagues and conferences saw and acted really in the same manner we did,” Lungarini said. “In all the conversations we had, it was clear to us keeping people away from each other, the idea of social-distancing, was the thing we could do that would most greatly contribute to stop the virus from spreading.
“For us, it was clear sooner, I think, because of how much input we had from various stakeholders (state government, education leaders, etc). We understood quickly how many schools were going to end up closing, facilities closing, because of this. Once you were able to break down that information it was the most proactive and appropriate step we could take.”
The CIAC initially got hammered for not playing the tournaments in front of no crowds. If you’re not closing schools, why stop sports? That is a moot point now. Yet early last week — pre-Gobert — it didn’t sound absurd. Just lacking in foresight. They weren’t going to safely, securely sneak in 170 events over two weeks with this fast-moving disease.
The CIAC is a mini-version of the NCAA. Folks love hammering their mistakes or shortcomings. I get it. I’ve done it over the years. Only this isn’t a shot clock. This isn’t divisional realignment. This isn’t allowing coaching in the summer.
This is life and death.
“There was a very lengthy discussion (about no crowds),” Lungarini said. “We didn’t think it was appropriate. We were most concerned about students crossing borders. People already were working on and making decisions to close schools. At that point, they really were trying to understand and put into place how they were going to feed kids and provide distance learning not only for continuity but as a primary method of instruction long-term.
“So many deeper elements beyond sports. What they needed from us was clear direction on our tournaments.”
They got it.
So now the CIAC and Lungarini try to save the indefinitely suspended spring sports. No state schools are scheduled to return until after March 31 at the earliest and, let’s face it, it’s possible the rest of the high school year, like many colleges. could be on-line. No schools in session, Lungarini repeated, no sports. The CDC and Gov. Lamont obviously also will set the larger rules.
How much practice time? Shortened seasons? Shortened playoffs? Go into July? Nothing’s decided.
If state championships in four of five divisions were all that matter, Lungarini asked, does that mean the seasons of other 170-plus schools was for nothing. He answered his own question:
“No. The winter sports lost their ability to play for a championship. They did have the benefit of a whole (regular) season. These spring kids? We don’t know. We’re going to do everything possible we can to give them experiences. They’re in a state of unknown if there will even be a season. That would even be more unfortunate than canceling a state tournament. The time together is what matters.”
So they had a conference call Wednesday, superintendents, principals, ADs, league commissioners, legislators, a mayor, 67 in all. Never once, Lungarini said, did the discussion turn to calling off the season.
“We’re going to exhaust every possibility,” Lungarini said. “We’ll deal with each situation as time passes. At this point, I want our students to be hopeful. And the best thing they can do is practice social distancing. Be part of the solution. The sooner we can get back into a buildings the sooner we get back on the field of play.”
With that, Lungarini turned back to my question about how he would have felt in 1994 as a senior at Holy Cross or 1998 as a senior at Eastern.
“Looking back, there is not one game or one tournament in my athletic career, even the national championship, that I can say I remember more han any of the friendships, the relationship with coaches, the time spent with my mother and father in sports,” he said. “While the disappointment hurts the most, and we do not diminish the significance of the moment, being part of a team, the experiences and relationships developed in education-based athletic — that is what matters. In hindsight, I think the kids will appreciate that.”