Joe Sikorski is the fabled figure from yesteryear, in many ways the father of New Canaan football, bringing the Rams from relative obscurity in the 1940’s to prominence in the '50s and '60s. Lou Marinelli continues to add to his growing legacy, as the current coach will soon start his 31st season in search of his 250th win and 9th State championship. Even so, if you ask any New Canaan old-timer who the most pivotal person was in Ram football history, the answer is almost always the same: Bob Lynch.
“If you want to pick a key figure it has to be Coach Lynch,” said Len Paglialunga, who was a star running back for Lynch while he was an assistant to Sikorsky in the late 1960’s. “I think Coach Lynch got New Canaan to the next level, which Coach Marinelli has taken to another level today.”
Lynch passed away on Feb. 6, Super Bowl Sunday.
A true football innovator, New Canaan garnered six consecutive FCIAC East Championships and three consecutive Connecticut State Titles during Bob Lynch’s tenure, first as an assistant coach to Sikorski, then as head coach of the Rams from 1970 to 1975. His overall record was 45-11-2, and his winning percentage of .793 is still the best in New Canaan football history.
“He had a West Coast offense before there was a West Coast offense,” said Kurt Horton, who was the Rams star quarterback under Lynch during the championship years in the early 1970’s. “I played at Notre Dame after high school, and I thought that the offense we had in New Canaan was as good or better than what we ran in college.”
The statistics back that up, as Horton teamed with the legendary Peter Demmerle to form possibly the most potent offensive attack ever seen in Connecticut. Horton’s 5,515 career passing yards currently place him 7th in State history, and the 37 completions and 599 yards he threw for against Rippowam in 1970 are still state records.
“The one thing that we always said about him was that he was way ahead of his time. That was number one,” said Paglialunga. “But the other thing was that he knew how to get the best out of everybody. Even though we had a very talented team, he knew how to get everything, the maximum, out of everybody, and he made it so much fun. He made everything that we did into a lifetime of happy memories.”
“The man was a winner,” said Bo Hickey, assistant football coach at New Canaan High School for more than 30 years, who played for Lynch when he was named the first football coach in the history of Stamford (now Trinity) Catholic. “But you know winning and losing, that takes care of itself. It’s the lessons you learned from him that mattered most. Next to my father he was the most influential man in my life.”
Hickey went on to play football at the University of Maryland, ultimately landing in the AFL where he was a Running Back for the Denver Broncos before beginning his long and storied high school coaching career.
“Everything that I got in sports I can attribute to him,” said Hickey.
“He always underscored how important it was to represent the town of New Canaan well on the field, not just playing well, but acting like gentlemen, carrying themselves well within the school as good students and contributors to the school,” Horton told Patch. “I think it was something that would be easy to carry forward for the kids, and I think they tried to convey a good image so that coach would be proud of them.”
By all accounts, Lynch was a master of instilling confidence in his football players. Oftentimes, the Rams would appear to be outmatched talent-wise, at least on paper. But that’s why you play the game.
Like his older brother Len, Dennis Paglialunga was a star running back for New Canaan, and is still the #2 all-time leading rusher in Ram history, behind only current Ram secondary coach Chris Silvestri, and just ahead of Len.
“Growing up in New Canaan, I had always dreamed of playing football for the Rams. I played Varsity football as a sophomore, and I don’t think I talked to Coach Lynch once,” said Paglialunga. “I played running back and linebacker as a sophomore, so my junior year I think I’m the feature RB of the year. And then in preseason I fumble, and I’m stinking the joint up, I’m not running the play right, I’m getting hit. Coach Lynch takes me to the side, looks me in the face. He says, ‘Denny…you are my running back. You are going to play there 9 games. Calm down, get in there, and run.’ And that was it. It was the first time he spoke to me, and I still have chills running down my spine. I couldn’t believe this guy told me I’m his man. What he said to me right there, fed off me for the rest of my life. I had confidence, and he gave it to me.”
“You’d be playing a bigger school and you’d be looking at the players on the other side were bigger, and it seemed like they were probably tougher,” said Horton. “He’d just come out there, and the way he just walked around, tall and straight, you just took that confidence from him, and he just projected it.”
An innate ability to take seemingly negative events and turn them into positives was another unique attribute of Coach Lynch. Kurt Horton recalled a time in practice when Peter Demmerle had a rare misstep that Lynch used to his, and the team's advantage.
“Peter could just catch everything, he would concentrate so much, he’d never drop them even in practice. But one time at practice he did drop one and everything just kind of stopped because it had never happened before,” said Horton. “Coach Lynch was on the sideline and he walked out there and took a look at that ball, flipped it up in the air, kind of spinning it as you would to get a spiral on it. Then he flipped it over to the fence, off the field, and he said, ‘Guys, it’s just a bad ball. It couldn’t be Peter,’ and we all agreed. He was kind of like that. He brought a lot of confidence to the kids out there.”
“He changed my life because he made me feel like I could do anything I wanted to do, and that nothing was going to stand in my way,” Len Paglialunga told Patch. “So when your coach gives you that much confidence, you can take it and run with it.”
Difficult to imagine now, New Canaan had a long dry spell for several years after Lynch’s coaching career came to an end in 1975. In 1976 and 1977, the Rams won only 7 games combined. Things got even worse, as New Canaan went 0-25-2 from 1978 to 1980. That’s when they turned to a young coach from Yorktown High School named Lou Marinelli. And although he was by then settled in as a Physical Education teacher at NCHS, Lynch still had an influence on Ram football.
“As a young coach, he taught me an awful lot,” said Marinelli. “We shared an office for about 10 years and some of those times for me were the most cherished times, because it was just me and him and I could bounce ideas off him and he was very willing to share his knowledge. He really taught me some great lessons as far as being able to pinpoint the right play for the right situation, and the right player for the right situation.”
Lynch continued to have a strong impact on students, even as a gym teacher. FCIAC Football Blog founder and former New Canaan Advertiser Sports Editor Tim Parry was a student at New Canaan in the mid-1980’s, and he recalls how Lynch had a soft side that people rarely had a chance to see.
“As rough and gruff as his exterior was as a gym teacher, he was a champion for the little guy”, said Parry. “My freshman year I was 5’3”, 98 lbs., and he'd have me be a captain against a sophomore varsity football player, someone who was kind of a bully. He'd say, "Timmy, you get three picks," I'd make my picks and then he'd say, "(other player), you get one." Losing captain had to do knuckle push-ups, so he'd mismatch the teams on purpose.”
Lynch’s greatness can best be measured by the loyalty and respect his former players had for him years after their playing days ended. The original 1959 Stamford Catholic football team still reunites every year, and Lynch was always a powerful presence at these luncheons.
“This has been going on for 15 or 20 years, and we’re talking about people coming from distances, like plane travel, to come to this luncheon once a year,” said Hickey. “And it wasn’t like we had 70 or 80 kids on the football team at Catholic. Bob only brought what you needed to play with, so we dressed maybe 30, 40 kids maximum for games. We had the core of probably thirty show up every year at that reunion from that first team and he was obviously the focal point of the reunions. He carried a lot of weight as far as the relationship we had, not with each other but with him.”
“I think he’s greatest coach New Canaan ever had,” Dennis Paglialunga told Patch. “I loved the guy. He was the greatest inspiration of my life, no question about it. It’s been so long, and you think about the days…the glory days…and he pops up in your memory. You had to play for the guy. You would run through a brick wall for him.”
“Probably one of the biggest honors I’ve had as a coach is to have his endorsement to coach his two sons, Billy and Bobby,” said Marinelli. “I’m sure he wasn’t 100% pleased all the time, but even before his sons came he kind of took me under his wing and was very willing to share his ideas and his knowledge, and as you can see from some of his former players, he was ahead of his time. And I think his record speaks for itself.”
For a man who lived and breathed football, the symbolism of his death occurring on the same day as pro football’s pinnacle game did not go unnoticed.
“I think the gods were looking down and said, ‘Coach you’re going to have to watch the game from up here today’," said Dennis Paglialunga. “Maybe he wanted to get a better look at the game.”