Even at 55, nearly three decades after he helped lead the Cincinnati Reds to the world championship, Rob Dibble still calls him “Coach.”
When it comes to John Fontana, Dibble, one of major league baseball’s famed Nasty Boys, remains one of hundreds of Southington boys who have nothing but reverence for the high school legend who died Monday at 84.
“More than a coach, he was a second father to me,” Dibble said Friday. “I just saw this on Facebook and it’s right: John Fontana was Southington.”
Dibble said he met Fontana in the seventh grade.
“My older brother played for Coach,” Dibble said, “and my oldest brother played in the Legion program. So I saw Coach a lot before I got to high school.”
Folks have visions of future major leaguers starring from their freshman year. Southington is a big school. Southington is a big school with a big baseball reputation. Fontana helped groom four major leaguers and nearly 200 who went on to play in college. He was old school. You earned your spot.
“I was a shortstop-outfielder, a backup my sophomore year,” Dibble said. “Coach worked more on my hitting than my pitching earlier on …”
Dibble stopped in mid-sentence. A sports talk-show host on 97-9 ESPN, he knows how to grasp his own narrative.
“Look, being the head of Connecticut High School Coaches Association, Coach would ask me to come speak when he was coaching Little League coaches,” Dibble said. “He would bring in coaches to speak to coaches at Wesleyan or Trinity, different schools. He’d have a thousand coaches there from across the country. He was so good at teaching the craft of teaching kids.
“I was always around him even when I was young, attending clinics. In high school, he was bringing in pro scouts. He was bringing guys like in Dick Teed and Buzz Bowers, whether they were cross-checkers, bird dogs or top scouts. If he saw something in you, he wanted you to have the best coaching available.”
It wasn’t only baseball, Dibble insisted, it was football, basketball, girls softball, etc. John Fontana knew just about everyone.
“People really have to understand how he helped so many kids who weren’t even athletes get scholarships,” he said. “People talk about the wins with Coach Fontana and that’s great, but it pales in comparison to how he cared about getting kids educated and getting them to college. He always wanted that for every kid. Anyone he could help.”
A coach for 41 years, a guidance counselor for almost that long, executive director of the CHSCA from 1988 to his passing, Fontana touched many lives and many voices have eloquently spoken about him since he suffered a stroke Sunday at the Giants game at Met Life Stadium. I was hoping to find one voice to give some fuller texture. Dibble, the two-time All-Star and 1990 NLCS MVP, would prove a good choice.
“I had the best of both worlds, because I also had him as my guidance counselor,” he said. “I saw him year-round even when I was playing other sports. We always had a relationship way more than baseball.”
Throughout his career, Dibble was known to be — how should we put this — unbridled, a tad volatile.
“Coach helped me navigate my adolescence, my formidable years and long after I left high school,” he said. “More than a coach, more than a guidance counselor, he was family for 40 years. He saw me grow up, get married, have kids. And that’s the same as hundreds of other kids he coached or counseled.”
Fontana amassed a 669-157 record from 1962 when he took over for his Uncle Joe until 2002. Those 669 wins left him fifth all-time nationally at the time of his retirement. He went to eight state finals and won two state titles, the first led by future major league pitcher Carl Pavano in 1994. He coached 18 players who went on to get pro contracts, including Mike Raczka and Chris Petersen, who joined Dibble and Pavano in the big leagues.
“At his wake (noon to 4 p.m. Sunday at DellaVecchia Funeral Home) and his funeral (10 a.m. Monday at St. Thomas Church), I think what people are really going to talk about is how he helped so many decades of us growing up in Southington,” Dibble said. “He knew your family, he helped us become good adults and citizens. That’s the part we’ll miss the most.”
That doesn’t mean Fontana was a softy to play for.
“Oh, geez, he was harsh,” Dibble said. “He was tough to play for. He was a perfectionist. Fundamentals, self-accountability, things I hold dear today. You see a whole generation of athletes — not just baseball players — that don’t have self-accountability.
“We won a game one time, I mean we’d be like 20-3 or 21-2, always good, but he was so upset at how poorly we played and we ran sprints in the dark. I’ll never forget that, and it carried over to my professional life. You hear about Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan working out after games. That’s the way I was. You can never work hard enough or hold yourself accountable enough.”
Fontana was a Division I college basketball referee for more than 20 years. Dibble said he’d be out playing soccer at Southington High and there was Fontana working out.
“I’m out there at 16 thinking, ‘Look at this old guy out here running,’ ” Dibble said. “Honestly, it made me up my game. It made me work harder. That became my edge. I’d always work you death, because I had a great role model in coach Fontana.
“You see your coach working hard for a second job. My dad (Walt) did that. He was not only on-air news guy, he was at Connecticut School of Broadcasting, worked three-four jobs. I saw what a real work ethic was.”
When Dibble got to pro ball, Fontana made sure Dibble had a place to work out and throw during the offseason.
“Southington High was my house, my hangout,’’ Dibble said. “I ran the stairs. I’d run the hallways with the wrestlers. I’d throw against the wall in the basement right outside the wood and metal shops. Coach would tell the teachers that I would be there after school around 4, make sure you announce yourself when you’re coming around the corner.”
Fontana made the state playoffs 40 out of 41 years. In 1987, no less than the New York Times did a story how Tom Garry had pitched a no-hitter in Fontana’s first victory, Dave Buzanoski threw for his 100th, Jim Koeller for his 200th and Mark LaRosa for is 400th.
Dibble threw a one-hitter against Bristol Central for Fontana’s 300th. The Times had Dibble allowing a double in the first inning and retiring every hitter the rest of the way. Dibble remembers it differently.
“People always wondered why I hated guys who bunted,” said Dibble, who once was fined for throwing a ball at the Cubs’ Doug Dascenzo after a squeeze bunt. “I would have had a no-hitter for coach’s 300th win if that little so-and-so hadn’t bunted for the only hit of the game.”
The truth? As the great line goes in the movie “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” when legend becomes fact print the legend.
“I was always proud we were able to get coach his 300th win,” Dibble said. “I was always upset we never were able during my time to get him a state championship. The man pushed me. It was, ‘Listen, don’t mess this opportunity up. You really got to go hard.’ I absolutely would not have made it without my father and coach Fontana pushing me.
“I love him, love his family, (his wife) Dot. There was never a time when you sat down and talked with him that he wasn’t happy about something. Happy a coach got a promotion. Happy a kid got drafted. He loved life.”
And Southington loved him.