Editor’s note: During the summer of 2012, the New Haven Register ran a New Haven 200 series to commemorate its 200th anniversary. GameTimeCT.com will share high school related stories from that series periodically throughout the summer.
To gauge just how influential Ray Tellier Sr. was as a high school coach, look no further than the scores of former players who followed him into the profession.
In a 1999 retrospective, former Register columnist Tom McCormack estimated there were close to 50 Tellier products who went on to coach in the high school and college ranks. That’s quite a turnover for a 28-year career that lasted until his untimely death from a heart attack in 1977 at age 52.
“We all felt Ray’s influence as players and saw how much he enjoyed coaching,” West Haven football coach Ed McCarthy told McCormack. “I know when I got my first job (at St. Joseph High) I patterned much of what I did from what I learned from Ray.”
Tellier got his start coaching football, hockey and baseball at Wilbur Cross — his best team the 1953 football team that included future Canadian Football League Hall of Fame lineman Donato Luzzi along with Johnny Esposito and Charlie DeMartin. But he is most closely associated with Notre Dame-West Haven, where he spent 20 years coaching football and baseball, winning a football title in 1962.
“For many years Tee was Notre Dame,” Joe Tonelli, Tellier’s successor as athletic director, once told the Register. “His spirit is still a very important part of the school. He’s sort of our patron saint.”
Tellier grew up on State Street in New Haven, attending St. Boniface Grammar School and Commercial High (now Wilbur Cross). He was a versatile athlete who in 1941 was named to the Register’s All-State football team and won Connecticut’s high school fencing championship. After graduation, he signed a baseball contract with the New York Giants, his five-year minor league career interrupted by two years of military service during World War II.
One of Tellier’s favorite stories from his pro career was the time he was pitching for a Triple-A farm team in Jersey City and faced Giants great Mel Ott in an exhibition game. Ott was famous for his high leg kick, which was used to time opposing pitchers. Tellier thought he might throw Ott off by going into a double-pump windup.
“I gave him this,” Tellier would say, mimicking his windup. “He gave me this (picking his leg up high, setting it down, then doing it again) and I gave it this (turning his neck and watching an imaginary baseball sail over the fence.)”
Tellier went 13-9 with a 3.93 ERA in 1948 at Ogdensburg (N.Y.), his best season. He attended Milford’s Arnold College in the offseasons. When his minor league career ended, he played football and baseball for the college team, with relaxed eligibility rules in the post-World War II era making it legal. He teamed with Andy Robustelli, later a Hall of Fame lineman for the New York Giants, in the fall and became the team’s ace pitcher in the spring.
Chick Genovese, a scout for the Giants, unwittingly offered Tellier a contract after watching him beat Seton Hall.
“Are you kidding me, Chick?” Tellier laughed. “I pitched for your Jersey City farm team for two years.”
As a coach, Tellier was a natural teacher who had a knack for connecting with his players through a complex combination of tough love, ego stroking and a genuine concern for the lives of each.
“Rarely has one man been so incredibly capable of castigating, cajoling and congratulating in one breath,” Register columnist George Wadley wrote in 1977.
He also had the odd ability to take on a different form based on the season. Bill Guthrie, sports editor of the New Haven Journal-Courier, once wrote that Tellier weighed 245 pounds while coaching football one fall early in his career, but was 155 pounds for baseball season in the spring of 1973.
“When his football and baseball seasons were in season, so was his poundage,” Guthrie wrote. “His stomach systematically would revolt and Tee would compensate as the season ended.”
Through it all, his teams won. Between Cross and Notre Dame, his baseball teams enjoyed 16 successive winning seasons prior to handing the reins to Tom Marcucci, another protegé. Tellier won 157 football games, an average of nearly eight per season in an era when the schedule was never more than 10 games long.
Among his most enjoyable experiences was coaching his son, Ray Jr., after unsuccessful attempts to persuade him to attend Hopkins. The boy, in the admissions process, told his interviewer he didn’t want to attend Hopkins. He wanted to play for his father at Notre Dame. He became a two-time Register All-State running back who, surprise, surprise, got into coaching. Ray Jr. spent 14 seasons as head coach at Columbia.
When Ray Sr. died suddenly in 1977, scholarships, awards and pee wee leagues were named in his honor. On the five-year anniversary of Tellier’s death in 1982, Wadley summed it up this way:
“It is fitting because of all his life’s work, Tee first and foremost regarded himself as an educator, as a man whose mission in life was to be a positive influence on the lives of the young men with whom he was associated.”