Wethersfield High School football founder and legendary head coach Joe Cottone
In a normal year we would be entering state championship weekend in high school football. In a normal year the boys of fall would be getting ready to put a big bow on another season on the gridiron. In a normal year, local high school football would dominate the headlines.
However, this certainly isn’t a normal year. So this week we present the third and final installment of the history of Wethersfield High School football by taking a detailed look at the founder of the program, Joe Cottone.
The following was written by Mike DellaRipa, a WHS’71 graduate and a proud “Cottone Boy”
All of us in our journey called life are truly fortunate, and lucky, when growing up we have as our teacher a person who lives a life of integrity, finds joy when “giving back” and teaching students, inspires them to give 100% in all they do and encourages them to continue their education after high school. One such teacher was Joe Cottone, who taught at Wethersfield High School for over 15 years.
Cottone was born in Hartford, lived through the tough years of the Great Depression and his values were learned through his devotion to his faith in God. He became a great three-sport (football, basketball and baseball) student athlete at Bulkeley High School and later at Dartmouth College where he graduated. He then served honorably as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Medical Corps during WWII.
Cottone later met and married the love of his life, Lillian June Echenique, nicknamed “Nicki” and they raised a family of five children. The Cottone family eventually settled down in Wethersfield where Cottone taught as a physical education teacher at WHS.
Coach Cottone started junior varsity football at WHS and 1960 was the first year of varsity football. Cottone taught players to be student athletes. This meant you were students first, athletes second, and were expected to always do well in class, graduate, always give your best effort and show good sportsmanship while playing football. He inspired his players and taught them the importance of teamwork.
His motto was “football is the game of life, you will get knocked down many times, but always be sure to get up right away and get back in the game”, a lesson his players never forgot, that led many to their success after high school.
From 1960 to 1973, his football teams went on to win five conference titles, 72 games and developed many All-Conference, some All-State, and one All-American player. His exceptional coaching ability was recognized when he was selected to coach in the Nutmeg Bowl, featuring the state’s finest football student athletes. More importantly, Cottone was a mentor to students and athletes, and made everyone feel important.
One compassionate story of his caring was one day he noticed a student who seemed depressed, and he pulled the student aside and assured that student his life was important, had meaning and not to give up. That student went on to graduate, and later told Cottone had it not been for his encouragement, he probably would have dropped out of high school.
Cottone’s trademark smile and optimism became known to all who knew him. After a few years teaching and coaching at WHS, he became affectionately known to everyone simply as “Coach”. While other coaches are known to sometimes use coarse language with student athletes, with Coach Cottone, true to his values, belief in God and setting a good role model for players, he would only use the words “Jeepers Creepers” when disappointed or upset, and players always paid attention and showed respect when he spoke.
He and his family opened their hearts and home with hospitality to many students in high school. Sunday afternoons watching football game films as a team at the Cottone home became a tradition with football players.
Cottone gave much of the credit in his career to the support and understanding he received from his wife Nicki. Their children became used to the front door of their home being like a “carousel” for current and former students coming over to see “Coach”. Stories of the Cottone family hospitality quickly became legend in Wethersfield, as did the impact on student athlete’s lives.
Bill Casey, WHS ‘63, football quarterback, stated “growing up without a father, I was lucky to have Coach (Cottone) in my life at this most important time”,
Two exceptional student athletes, Kevin Duffy and John Heaton, both WHS ‘63 went on to graduate from Indiana University and played football there. When Indiana faced the University of Southern California, led by O.J. Simpson, in the Rose Bowl, many remember with pride Duffy introducing himself on national television saying he was from “the historic town of Wethersfield, Connecticut”. Heaton went on to serve honorably in the U. S. Army in South Viet Nam. He always remembered how he was encouraged by letters he received from Coach while stationed overseas.
Two of Coach’s sons, Marc Cottone, WHS’63, a quarterback on the only undefeated WHS team in 1962, and Jay Cottone, WHS’67, another WHS quarterback, both went on to graduate from college and lead successful lives.
Marc Cottone graduated from Central Connecticut State University and worked for 10 years at American Airlines. He later moved to Florida to become the Personnel Director for Gulf Stream Thoroughbred Race Track, and then worked as Operational Manager at Global Security.
Jay Cottone graduated from Norwich University. He was commissioned in the Army Medical Service Corps and served honorably in the reserves. He became the head football coach at Plymouth State College for five years where he was the second winningest coach in the nation. As the saying goes ‘the apple didn't fall far from the tree’. Jay was also a quarterback coach at UMass Amherst. He then came back to Wethersfield to become the Athletic Director for WHS.
The WHS teammates of Marc and Jay Cottone, both who were taught football by their father since they were youngsters, regarded them as WHS football’s finest quarterbacks and team leaders.
Mike Cancelliere, WHS ‘64 football team captain, graduated from Trinity College where he also played football. He earned college All-League honors and was awarded the Trinity team MVP (Most Valuable Player) award in 1968. He later became an assistant coach on the 1970 WHS conference title team and then went on to a successful business career. He says he saw Coach as comparable to WHS Football as Vince Lombardi was to the NFL Green Bay Packers.
Bob Pandolfe, WHS ‘64 star player until an injury sidelined him, became a successful businessman, and spent much of his later years in life giving back, helping others overcome addictions.
Don Johnsen, WHS ‘65, was an exceptional running back for WHS, earning All-State recognition and received Honorable Mention as a Parade Magazine All-American. After WHS he attended Dartmouth College.
During the 1970 football season, Coach was hospitalized for an illness and could not be there for the football season opening game in September. His team became motivated to win for him. After beating his arch-rival Conard, the players immediately went to see Coach at Hartford Hospital, a moment they learned one of his values of working hard for a greater goal besides personal recognition.
Ned Lipes, WHS ’71, was a 3-year varsity football player and class academic salutatorian. Lipes went on to graduate from Harvard Business School and became a successful Group President of a Fortune 500 company. Lipes has said the important lessons of teamwork he learned from Coach contributed later to his successful career in business.
There are many other stories of how Coach taught and inspired student athletes, but all their stories cannot fit into this one article.
In 1974 Joe Cottone passed away, to the sadness of the many hundreds of current and former students and players who he had inspired and encouraged during his lifetime. At his funeral procession there were more cars than the eye could see.
Later, an archway was built at the entrance to the WHS football field, with the name Joseph F. Cottone Field across the top. It has, and always will be, an inspiration to all coaches and players to honor Coach’s values, which are always do your best, never give up, and show good sportsmanship. Many coaches and players now say they can still feel Coach’s influence every time they go through it.
The archway also stands as a legacy to one of WHS’s best teachers, Joe Cottone, who placed a high value on seeing all students get a good education, always do your best in class, graduate and continue your education after high school.
Shortly thereafter, many former football WHS football players, started a group called the “Cottone Boys”, made up of former football players on Coach’s football teams from 1960 to 1973 who wanted to see the legacy and values of Cottone live on, through acts of caring, compassion, support and encouragement.
The importance of giving back taught by Coach continued as the Cottone Boys have stayed in touch with each other since then. Once they purchased a car for a former player who was going through hard times. Many have been there just for encouragement to each other when one player became ill or being there for a grieving family when a member passed away
When the WHS Alumni Athletic Hall of Fame was later established, Coach’s five conference title teams were voted into the Hall of Fame.
For the 44-year period, 1974 to 2018, the WHS football program continued Coach’s influence of excellence on and off the football field with either an assistant coach or former player from Cottone’s tenure, on the football team coaching staff. Joe Klinger and John Hegenbart were two good coaches during this time.
Another good coach was John Campanello, WHS’73, football team captain and Cottone Boy. After WHS he went to Central Connecticut State University, played football there and graduated. From 1989 to 2004 he was an assistant football coach at WHS and then became the head coach from 2005 to 2018. Using the lessons taught to him by Cottone and his influence, his teams went on to win 83 games, four conference titles and make the state playoffs three years.
In 2009, a gifted student athlete and football player at WHS, Tyler Murphy, went to on Boston College where he played football. He then went on to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and is now assistant quarterback coach for the Miami Dolphins.
In 2017 the CT Board of High School Football Officials awarded to the WHS Football Team, players and coaches, the Outstanding Sportsmanship Award, something Coach would have been proud of.
In 2019, Matt McKinnon, a former assistant coach at WHS became the new head coach. McKinnon’s first season showed a record of 8-3. The winning tradition lives on.
Michele Cottone Kriticos, WHS’72, and Coach’s daughter, shares she remembers that to Coach, “every player was like his son”. Every one of his former football players would also say “Coach (Cottone) was like a second father to every player”.
The name and legacy of Joseph F. Cottone will always be remembered as one of the greatest teachers and coaches at WHS. Forty-six years after his passing, the values of Coach still influence WHS players and coaches. His values live on and are honored today by all who were fortunate to have known him and all who pass through the archway at the WHS football field bearing his name.
Article contributions from Michele Cottone Kriticos and Cottone Boys (in alphabetical order): John Campanello, Mike Cancelliere, Jay Cottone, Marc Cottone, Bob Fitzgibbons, Steve Kelley, Ned Lipes, Charlie Settino, Charlie Viani
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin