Remembering Frank ‘Coach’ Crisafi
The people of the East Haven sports community were deeply saddened when they heard the news that legendary Yellowjackets’ coach and athletic director Frank Crisafi passed away at age 95 on May 19. Crisafi, known as “Coach,” was a founding father of East Haven High School sports who coached its football, boys’ basketball, baseball, and golf teams for a combined 84 seasons from the 1940s through the 1980s, achieving tremendous success along the way.
Crisafi recorded more than 700 victories and won multiple championships during his tenure as a coach with the Easties. He also made a big difference in the lives of the people who played for him and worked with him. A 1941 graduate of East Haven High School, Crisafi’s impact as a patriarch of Yellowjackets’ athletics is still being felt to this day. The Frank “Coach” Crisafi Memorial Scholarship Fund was recently established in his honor.
“This town, and no other town, will see anything like this again,” said 1981 graduate Mike Luzzi, who played basketball for Crisafi. “It just doesn’t happen.”
On the Gridiron
Crisafi didn’t play football at East Haven, but he played basketball for his mentor John Maher, who was the first coach of the Yellowjackets’ boys’ basketball team. After playing college ball at Arnold College (now the University of Bridgeport), Crisafi played semi-pro basketball for the Wallingford Vets, and then began his career as a physical education teacher at East Haven High School. In 1948, Crisafi started coaching when he stepped onto the sidelines with the Easties’ football squad.
“He never played football, but football was his most prideful sport,” said Crisafi’s son, Ed Crisafi, who is head coach of the Yellowjackets’ softball squad. “He took football coaching clinics and was very successful. He never played the sport, but he learned.”
Right away, Crisafi showed that he had a knack for getting the most out of his football players. In his 30 years coaching the team, Crisafi amassed a record of 181-63-8 and led the Easties to their only undefeated season in program history in 1952. Crisafi’s squads succeeded behind a smash-mouth style of football that was predicated on a ground-and-pound attack.
“You know the old saying, ‘Three yards and a cloud of dust.’ East Haven was known for its power running game,” Ed Crisafi said. “He always had great backs. He wasn’t a flamboyant passing-oriented guy. It was always run, run, run. If you couldn’t stop it, he’d jam it down their throats.”
Hank Luzzi and Mike Zito were among the many running backs who thrived under Crisafi’s guidance. Luzzi graduated from East Haven in 1956, while Zito was a member of the Class of 1967.
“I miss playing for him dearly. We formed a relationship playing. It was like a father-and-son relationship,” said Luzzi, who played football, basketball, and baseball for Crisafi. “Players refer to others as ‘Coach,’ but there is no other coach. He guided me in so many ways, through injuries and successes. We’ve been friends since I was 15 years old. I’m going to miss him. He’s going to be missed by everybody. Anyone who came in contact with him is going to miss him.”
Zito also played basketball at East Haven, but he made his biggest impact on the football field. Zito says that Crisafi’s knowledge of football, coupled with his system, simplified things for his players and increased the Yellowjackets’ chances of emerging victorious every time they took the field.
“‘Coach’ influenced each and every one of and made us better men and certainly accounted for any success we had on the football field. We were a small team, but ‘Coach’ got so much out of us. Every time we strapped on a helmet, we knew we had the background and coaching to succeed. We trusted in ‘Coach’ and outdid our expectations, largely because he was so damn good at what he did,” Zito said. “He was a smart guy and knew what he was doing. He had a gentleness to him and a level of expectation that demanded nothing less. The last thing I wanted to do was let him down, because he meant so much to me.”
Crisafi also had a hand in establishing East Haven’s Youth Football program. The Yellowjackets’ original football field was dedicated in Crisafi’s honor on Sept. 15, 1973. The new field at the high school was rededicated to him on Oct. 14, 2005 and is still named “Coach” Frank Crisafi Field.
Out of all of his accomplishments in East Haven, Crisafi saw his greatest amount of success on the basketball court. Crisafi coached the boys’ basketball team for 33 years, posting a record of 525-196 that featured six state titles, a New England Class B championship, and 12 Housatonic League championships. He was also a founder of the Sal Tinari Biddy Basketball League.
“He was more prideful for football, but basketball was his passion,” Ed Crisafi said.
One of Crisafi’s crowning achievements came when he guided the Easties on a 77-game winning streak that spanned from December of 1953 through March of 1956. Hank Luzzi played for Crisafi during that historic stretch, which saw the Yellowjackets win Class M state titles in 1954 and 1955.
“The players and the coach, everyone was very close,” Luzzi said. “Everyone cooperated, everyone worked together, nobody missed practice, and everyone practiced hard. We had quality players, but you have to mold them to work together, and that’s what he did.”
Crisafi also won state titles at East Haven in 1957, 1960, 1963, and 1980. His final year with the basketball team came in 1980, and so it was a special season for both “Coach” and his players. Crisafi was named the National Basketball Coach of the Year that year.
“I tell people all the time that night we won the state championship was the greatest night of my life, mainly because we knew he was going to retire and follow [daughter Sue Crisafi’s] career at college. I mean, before that 1980 season, all of us players knew that was going to be it for him,” said Joe Carfora, a 1980 graduate. “We tried our damndest and we succeeded, because we wanted to do it for him. That’s how much he was loved by his players. It’s always an honor carried through inside me. It’s 38 years now and I’m still damn proud that I played for him and I’m damn proud that we won the state championship not only for ourselves, but for him. We wanted him to go out as a state championship winner, because he deserved it.”
Carfora said that Crisafi motivated his athletes by setting high expectations for them, while also displaying great compassion. Carfora knows this approach helped shape people like him and his brother, 1976 graduate Al Carfora, into great basketball players.
“I was so fortunate. Myself and my brother Al both played under him. It was a great honor to play for that guy. He was like a second father to me,” Joe Carfora said. “He tapped every ounce of your talent out of you. That’s what was so good about him. He was tough, but you knew deep down the guy loved you to death like his own kid. That’s why I bonded with him. He would ride you, but he would ride you because he knew you had the talent, and he’d get it out of you. That’s what made him so successful.”
Another reason why East Haven’s athletes liked playing for Crisafi was because he made sure the players on the floor were the ones who had earned their time out there. There was even a running joke between Crisafi’s sons, Ed and Fran, about how they didn’t receive as much playing time as they thought they would while competing for their dad.
“Playing for him was unique, because he didn’t play favorites, and we never really talked that much basketball when we got home,” Ed said. “I actually didn’t start until halfway through my junior year. My brother used that as a joke at his eulogy. We didn’t start, but I learned so much from him.”
Ed Crisafi also had the privilege of coaching basketball alongside his father at East Haven. He started in 1977 and says the experience significantly increased his knowledge of the sport.
“I learned so much. He was so intellectual about the game of basketball,” he said. “Teams always feared when they played a Crisafi-coached team, because they knew they were in for a crazy night. That’s something he was always proud of. He knew teams feared playing us.”
Crisafi’s 525 victories put him in eighth place on the state’s all-time win list for high-school boys’ hoops. Crisafi is a member of the Connecticut High School Hall of Fame, the New Haven Tap-Off Club Hall of Fame, and the New England Sports Hall of Fame.
Working with Him
Crisafi coached East Haven’s baseball team for nine seasons and compiled a record of 66-20. He was also the golf coach from 1968 through 1977 and served as the Yellowjackets’ Athletic Director (AD) from 1960 to 1983.
Dave Augustine took over as the golf coach after Crisafi and has held that position ever since. Crisafi and Augustine are the only two people who’ve ever coached the East Haven golf team, and Augustine feels honored to be part of that conversation.
“He truly was an inspiration to me. I watched him coach and, when he was the AD, if issues would come up, I was a young coach at the time and I took my leads from him,” says Augustine, a 1968 graduate. “He was very helpful in terms of leading me through and telling me what to say and how to approach situations with parents. He was absolutely an inspiration and I always looked up to him.”
Augustine remembers how nervous he was during his first season, when he not only began his coaching career, but also had to follow in Crisafi’s footsteps. Augustine said that Crisafi did whatever he could to support him every step of he way.
“At the beginning, I was terrified. First of all, I couldn’t believe I was being offered this job. I just wanted to do the right thing by being a really good coach and emulate him,” Augustine said. “I couldn’t have been happier to be able to do that, and he gave me all the support and help I needed to be successful. He didn’t want me to fail. He wanted me to do a good job and pick up the program right where he left it.”
Augustine added that Crisafi was also an excellent athletic director. Augustine said that Crisafi always found a way to take care of what needed to be done, regardless of the circumstance.
“He was extremely helpful. Anything I needed, if I went to him, he always made it happen. I’m sure that was the case with the other coaches, too, but somehow, he always made it happen,” Augustine said. “He was just a really good AD. He made sure the athletic programs were funded correctly, we had what we needed, and that’s what he was all about. He always made things happen, no matter what our needs were.”
There’s no secret about what Frank Crisafi achieved as a coach and athletic director in East Haven. The people who knew Crisafi describe him as a great family man, as well. On April 24, 1948, Crisafi married Gloria Gallo. The couple settled in East Haven and never left. Together, they had three children: Ed, Fran, and Sue. Gloria passed away in 2004.
Crisafi always made sure that his kids were nearby when he was coaching, so he could bring everyone closer together.
“I really started going to games when I was five or six years old. For football, I was the waterboy and his manger right up until I went to high school,” Ed Crisafi said. “For basketball, I’d keep score and work the clock. I went to practices and was at all the varsity games. I did that at a young age, before I started playing for him. I was always around and I think that’s probably the main reason I got into coaching. I was around it all the time and I just enjoyed it.”
Mike Luzzi was another regular in the locker room when his father, Hank, coached with Crisafi. Luzzi said Crisafi was like a second father to him and everyone else who played for him.
“He influenced my life. It’s amazing how many people would come back and visit him around the holiday, but to me, he was a legendary figure in my life since I was six years old,” said Luzzi. “I was a tag-along since I was very little. When Susie and I were in grade school, we were at every basketball practice and would go to the games on Tuesday and Friday nights. He’s been a figure in my life throughout my life. There weren’t many decisions in my life that weren’t run by ‘Coach.’”
The number of lives that Frank Crisafi impacted was reflected by the immense outpouring of support in the aftermath of his passing. As people came together to reflect, there were nothing but positive sentiments.
Zito appreciates how big of an influence Crisafi had on him. He said that Crisafi always had a smile on face, right through his final days.
“I’m not alone. We can talk to a lot of players that played for ‘Coach.’ He changed the trajectory of my life unlike any individual,” Zito said. “The last few days, I had the opportunity to visit. He was very limited, but when I walked in the door, his face lit up. It was a joy to be in his presence. When I was able to see him in the hospital a few days before he died, his family, the support, was unbelievable. The three kids, spouses, and grandchildren were all by his side. There’s no better way for a man to feel the worth of his life and contribution. I can’t tell you how much I miss him.”
Like so many other people, Mike Luzzi said that he, too, felt incredibly emotional when he found out that Crisafi had died.
“I think when someone who is meaningful in your life passes, it makes you reflect on those times when you had exposure to them. For ‘Coach,’ they went back so far. He meant so much to my father and for me. I’m 55, so it was 45 or 50 years of reflection of a man who was so important to my life,” said Luzzi. “It was very emotional for me. We’ve been a part of each other’s lives for so many years. When you’re that close to someone and the family, it’s very emotional.”
To honor Crisafi, his family has created the Frank “Coach” Crisafi Memorial Scholarship Fund that will recognize two Yellowjackets’ athletes every year. Last month, graduating seniors Ryan Spano and Julia SanGiovanni were named the first two recipients of the $500 scholarships. The Crisafi family will continue issuing the scholarship each year as a way to keep “Coach’s” legacy alive in East Haven.
“It’s amazing. I looked the other day, all the people that wrote, you can tell all the people he touched,” Ed Crisafi said. “Ex-athletes, ex-opposing coaches, even people that had nothing to do with sports—it’s just amazing all the lives he touched. He was a great coach, but more importantly, a great guy and a great family man.”
To donate to the Frank “Coach” Crisafi Memorial Scholarship Fund, please make a check payable to East Haven High School, c/o the Frank Crisafi Memorial Scholarship Fund, and mail to Sue Crisafi, 123-7 Cosey Beach Ave., East Haven, CT, 06512.