John Fontana, a longtime championship baseball coach and guidance counselor at Southington High School who led the Connecticut High School Coaches Association for three decades, died Tuesday. He was 84.
Fontana died of a stroke suffered as he attended the New York Giants’ game vs. Arizona at Met Life Stadium on Sunday, according to the Record-Journal of Meriden, which first reported Fontana’s death Tuesday.
“It’s a great loss for high school baseball,” said North Haven’s Bob Demayo, Connecticut’s All-Time winningest baseball coach with more than 800 victories. “He was a baseball icon, not only as the Southington coach, but with his leadership in the Connecticut High School Coaches Association. He was just a nice guy.”
A Southington native, Fontana played baseball and football for his uncle, Joe Fontana, and took over for him as head baseball coach at Southington in 1962.
“He pulled me aside before I started to coach and told me this was the best advice he could give to me.” John Fontana recalled in 2011. “You, and you alone assess your talent. And be your own coach.
“With these building blocks in the back of my mind I proceeded to build a program that I wanted to not only be the best in our town and state, but to be known nationally.”
John Fontana went on to coach the Blue Knights for 41 years, winning 669 games and two state championships (1994 and 1999) in eight state final appearances.
Southington reached the state playoffs in 40 of his 41 seasons as head coach.
He coached four eventual major leaguers during his tenure: Carl Pavano, Rob Dibble, Mike Raczka and Chris Petersen. Eighteen of his players went on to sign professional contracts. Nearly 200 of his players went on to earn scholarships at college baseball programs.
“I had the privilege of being one of the few guys to play for him for four years,” said Brian Rinehart, who was drafted by Red Sox and played on Fontana’s 1999 state championship team.
“He demanded the best and was so well-respected. When you think of him, you think respect, a winner and just a good human being.”
Rinehart remembered the day he was told that he was going to play for the varsity. He was called to Fontana’s office in the guidance department for the first time in his freshman year.
“When the Godfather wants to see you, it was: Oh God, what did I do? Am I clean shaven? Do I have an earring in my ear or do I have a hat on? When you went into his office, you had to have it all together. But he looked at me with that grin he had and it was like he could see into your soul without saying a word. He had a way with people and he could see I was nervous. Then he asked me if I thought I was good enough to play with the big boys.”
“He was a great role model,” Dibble said in 2011. “He motivated you to motivate yourself.”
Fontana’s teams won 24 conference titles. He retired after the 2003 season with an .810 winning percentage (668-157), good for fifth nationally at the time.
“It was my belief that the better baseball players would be noticed and go on to bigger and better things, such as a college education and for some even professional baseball leagues,” Fontana said in 2011. “My players knew that academics were part of baseball, as well as training during the off season, which helped make my job easier to deliver a first class youngster to the next level.”
In his later years he was best known for serving as president of the Connecticut High School Coaches Association, organizing all-state teams and all-star games and advocating for coaches and high school players across Connecticut.
“John Fontana was a friend and mentor,” Hartford Public football coach Harry Bellucci, the chairman of the CIAC’s football committee and a CHSCA football committee member, posted on Twitter. “Thanks for all you’ve done for CT coaches and interscholastic athletics in CT. You will be missed by many …. Your legacy is a great organization that championed all CT sports.”
John Fontana was a friend & mentor. Thanks for all you’ve done for Ct coaches and inter scholastic athletics in Ct. You will be missed by many. Thank you for opportunity to be part of a great organization CHSCA. Your legacy is a great organization that championed all CT sports
— Harry Bellucci (@coachbellucci) October 22, 2019
A member since 1978, he served as the executive director of the CHSCA from 1988 until his death. He was inducted into the CHSCA Hall of Fame in 1987.
“John Fontana is legendary,” Ledyard athletic director and assistant principal Jim Buonocore said on Twitter Tuesday. “A terrific human being who did so much for high school athletics in our state. I will miss his weekly phone calls and his passion for student-athletes in CT.”
John Fontana is legendary. A terrific human being who did so much for high school athletics in our state. I will miss his weekly phone calls and his passion for student-athletes in CT. Rest in Peace John. You will be dearly missed by all. #CHSCA https://t.co/vZOKE7257v
— Jim Buonocore (@ledyardsports) October 22, 2019
Fontana, whose name adorns Southington High School’s baseball field, helped organize the Southington High School Sports Hall of Fame and was inducted in 2012, following his uncle, who died in 1995.
Fontana is also a member of the National High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame and earned the NHSCA’s prestigious Dwight Keith Award and was that organization’s president in 1992-93. He was also the 1993 American Baseball Coaches Association’s National coach of the year and a member of its hall of fame.
Fontana was a 1957 graduate of American International College in Springfield, Mass., where he played baseball for coach Henry Butova and basketball for coach Bill Callahan.
Dave Phillips contributed