Legendary Naugatuck Coach Taught Students to Succeed

© Republican-American, 9/25/2007

NAUGATUCK — Most people knew Ray Legenza only as a tough coach who demanded discipline and excellence from his players.But those who knew him well saw a softer side of the legendary Naugatuck High School football and baseball skipper who was also a longtime educator. He was also a long-time umpire in the Twi-Met and Tri-State baseball leagues. They’ll remember Legenza as someone who not only taught students how to win, but also how to succeed in the game of life. If ever one word was invented for one man, that word would be “legend,” and that man would be Legenza. And now the legend is gone. Ray Legenza, longtime Naugatuck High football and baseball coach, died Sunday at age 80.

His impact on his adopted community of Naugatuck almost defies description. An accomplished athlete in his own right who played football and baseball at his beloved University of Connecticut , Legenza arrived in Naugatuck in 1953 and the little factory town on the river of the same name was never the same again. “He was the perfect man for his time,” said Frank Johnson, a retired administrator at Naugatuck High School , and perhaps the man who knew Legenza better than any other. “There might be other coaches who come along who also amass great victories, but they will never do it like Ray.” The victories were numerous. There were the four state baseball championships, five awards of merit in football, and 13 NVL baseball titles. Remember too that for much of the 1960s Naugatuck was not a member of the NVL. And of course, there is The Streak, the 64 consecutive victories between 1970 and 1972, and a five year run, from 1969 through 1973, when the baseball team won 105 games and lost only twice.

Locals in high profile positions, many of whom Legenza inspired to succeed, recalled him fondly on Tuesday. “He had a genuine interest in helping all of the children,” said Naugatuck High School guidance counselor Joe Distasio, Legenza’s longtime colleague and the high school’s former varsity basketball coach. “At times, people perceived him as having a tough exterior,” Distasio said. “When I got to work in the guidance department, I saw another side of him and came to appreciate him.” Legenza coached the high school’s football team for 15 years and its baseball team for 23 years, winning four state championships. While he’s probably best known as a baseball coach, he is also fondly remembered as a great educator. He spent 22 years as a physical education teacher and 18 as the high school’s vice principal. Legenza was known as hard disciplinarian on the football field, so much so former players who saw Legenza at social events years after high school would hide their beer and put down their cigarettes when “coach” was near. Stories about him calling players the night before games to make sure they were home are legendary in the borough. “He did things his way, and he may have been misunderstood,” Distasio said. “But he always, always, always had the best interest of the student at heart.”