In 2005 I published a 400-page history of Staples High School. “120 Years of A+ Education” included interviews with many influential educators.
One of the most interesting was Paul Lane. The legendary football, track and golf coach died Tuesday, at 93. Here’s my 2004 interview with him, conducted at his Soundview Drive home.
In 1954 I was working in my family’s leather tanning business. But as the business declined, I decided to go into coaching. It’s what I always wanted to do.
I took Bob Carmody’s place at Coleytown Elementary School. I met my wife Pat there.
In those days interscholastic athletics was hit or miss. In football you made up your own schedule. We’d play Darien and New Canaan twice in one year. We’d play Stonington – we went all over the state. And we hired our own officials – that did affect the game! We fired our officials too.
You didn’t get paid to coach in the ’50s. It was considered an honor, and we fought to coach. And Doc Beinfield, our team doctor from the ‘50s through the ‘80s – he did it for love, not money.
As a phys. ed. teacher, I took all the sophomores. I tested them in the quarter-mile one day, and the softball throw the next. Our program was geared to the philosophy that athletes should be discovered in gym class, so we trained in the fundamentals there – football, soccer, track, basketball, volleyball.
Albie Loeffler and I ran the intramural program at night. We refereed it too. Kids worked their way from gym to intramurals to interscholastic sports.
The girls had 6-person, half-court basketball, but it was definitely a boys’ world – a football and basketball world. Football had the edge, because it started off the year. We had pep rallies before games, and dances afterward. It really brought the kids together.
Cheerleading was a big deal too. The bleachers at Doubleday only held 200, so fans stood all around the field. We only had 18 or 22 kids in football, sometimes hardly enough to scrimmage. The kids went both ways.
The athletes were also in the choir and student government. A kid like Tommy Dublin – football, basketball, track, head of student government. No one told him he couldn’t do one thing because he was in the other. And the school was big then, too.
That was after we moved to North Avenue. We felt people cared about us; we were no longer in a dungeon. But that first year (1958-59), we still did sports at the old school on Riverside Avenue (now Saugatuck Elementary School). The football field on North Avenue had a huge drain in it – it was a mess – and the track was a big bucket that held water. It took 20 years to get it right.
At the same time, we changed from a single-wing football team to a T-Formation. The FCIAC (Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference) was being formed. Our schedules and officials were handed to us. And at that time, the school was growing by leaps and bounds.
At that time, I helped build the weightlifting program. Parents made the weight racks. They also built the press box, and donated the scoreboard and filming equipment. We formed a Gridiron Club, which met every Thursday night to look at film.
We had a great team in 1963. The number of transfers was phenomenal. It hit its peak in 1964. John Bolger went on to West Point, Buzz Leavitt to Wake Forest, and Bill During to Syracuse.
In the 1970s the phys. ed. department grew from Albie, me and Jinny Parker to 11 teachers. But in the ’60s gym was still a foundation for our sports program. We had boxing, wrestling, tumbling – to teach athletes how to fall – track and field, including high jump and pole vault, weightlifting – with demonstrations at halftime of basketball games, to “sell” it to parents – and a great touch football program.
But the high school just didn’t work. The environment was so disruptive. Still, we were always rated in the top 3 schools in the country. But from day one, the facility was horrible.
Stan (Lorenzen, the principal) had asked us about smoking. We had coaches smoking on the sideline. But we told Stan to start the new school clean. He said he’d try an experiment for a month. He created a smoking plaza, with a custodian to clean up after the kids. It took 30 years to get rid of that.
Before Staples was built on North Avenue, we put in for a fieldhouse. The only other one at the time was in Florida. But that one had a clay floor, and people were worried it would get tracked through the school, so they didn’t include it in the plans. The gym, the cafeteria and auditorium were all built for 1,200 kids. We blew past that number quickly, and it was not enlarged for years.
That was the era when we started recruiting coaches: George Wigton for basketball, Chuck Smith as a line coach from Ohio State – he started the wrestling program too – and Frank Henrick for baseball. They were good coaches, who could also teach.
During the drug era – the ’60s and ’70s – kids were told not to buy into “the system.” Well, to have a good team you have to buy into the Paul Lane, Albie Loeffler or Brian Kelley system. The kids with long hair were thumbing their noses at us. That was a horrible time to try to coach.
Some coaches just let them run wild. Some tried to oversell “values.” I said they could have their hair as long as they wanted, but it had to be in their helmet. It’s a team. We give you a uniform so you can look uniform. Some believed it, some didn’t.
We had kids pass out doing their physical fitness tests, from drugs. There were 2,000 kids in the school, and hundreds were on drugs. A certain number of adults liked that freedom of expression. We weren’t all on the same page at all times. The ability of teams went down, especially in the suburbs. City teams started beating us then. Bright suburban kids were reaching out for another world, but the city kids kept playing sports.
Title IX – it was evident that girls were not being treated fairly in terms of the number of teams, things like that. By then Westport had come up with a complicated 10-point system for coaching pay. The girls’ coaches got less than the men – that was a time when all the athletic directors were men, many of them former football coaches.
Westport jumped on Title IX. They decided to equalize the numbers in gym classes, even though the law didn’t say they had to. We forced girls to play with boys, who didn’t want them and thought they weren’t capable. We cut out not only wrestling and boxing, but also Ann Rabesa’s, Judy Punshon’s and Jinny Parker’s fabulous tap dancing program. Boys’ and girls’ basketballs are different sizes, and the volleyball nets are different heights. So we started doing things in gym that had nothing to do with the sports we play. Boys used to run to phys. ed. class, because it was an outlet. Now they were going to play things like street hockey, but they couldn’t have physical contact.
The girls gained in basketball, but the boys stopped playing. It was a total waste of a gym period. We built big shower rooms, but no one sweated enough to use them.
But the good things – the FCIAC is a great league. It’s definitely improved the coaching. There’s been the introduction of soccer, hockey, skiing, lacrosse, wrestling, and about 10 girls sports. And there’s been the addition of junior varsity and freshman teams. And the facilities now – artificial turf, lights….
But the athletes haven’t changed. Sure, they know more now, because they see it on TV. The kids I coached in the ’50s, most of them hadn’t seen football. We had to teach them how to tackle and throw.
The best teams always stay together. They have reunions, and stay in touch. Success bonds them. That doesn’t change. There was no difference between my 1963 and ’75 teams. In the ’80s kids could throw and catch a little better, because of all the advantages they had, but a lot of success is the luck of who moves into town together.
One thing that was a real big blow for all sports was losing junior high interscholastics (when the 9th grade moved to Staples in 1983). That had been a real feeder program for us.
Let’s see – what else – well, uniforms in phys. ed. went out with the drug era. Gym classes became a lot less structured. They did away with mandatory showering. That was probably a bad policy; the lack of privacy was overdone.
The fieldhouse made a huge difference.
And I remember taking track teams to the Penn Relays and the New York Armory. That was tremendous for our kids. It’s probably the reason Laddie Lawrence is still involved in track!