Oct. 9-15, 2003
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Legendary Notre Dame High School coach ‘bringing together past, present and future’
UTICA — When legendary coach Ben Rizzo returned to Notre Dame High School in Utica to lead the Development and Alumni Affairs Office as well as return to the sidelines as a coach, he sought to “bring together the past, present, and future.” Sitting in the athletic director’s office at Notre Dame, it is easy to see that Rizzo, along with the school, is in the process of doing just that. His career in football has been ideal. Rizzo was a captain on the Miami Hurricanes football team during the George Mira Sr. era in the early 1960’s as both an offensive lineman and a defensive lineman. He played in both the Liberty Bowl (1961) and the Gotham Bowl (1962).
Rizzo also played in the North-South Shrine Game of December 1962, in which he was a defensive captain. After playing for the Hurricanes’ storied program, Rizzo was drafted by the Houston Oilers as well as the Philadelphia Eagles. The newly-formed Miami Dolphins hired Rizzo shortly thereafter, but a knee injury ended his playing days. “I made it to the big dance, but never danced,” Rizzo said. Rizzo found his way back north to the Utica area in pursuit of a coaching career. He originally applied at his alma mater Thomas R. Proctor High School, but the position went to another candidate.
After accepting the position at the helm of the Notre Dame Jugglers’ program, he never lost to Proctor High School at any point in his career. He defeated Proctor eight times and Utica Free Academy on seven occasions. During his career, Rizzo amassed a 79-11-2 record. Asked why he loves Notre Dame so much, Rizzo jokes, “Because everybody else hates us.” As a head coach from 1968 through 1976, two of his teams were ranked in the top 10 in New York State, and that was before classification. His 1969 team was ranked third in the state and his 1973 team finished ranked seventh. In 1981, Rizzo returned to the Jugglers’ program as an offensive coordinator when his son, Ben Rizzo Jr., was under center and one of his former players, Terry Stanimer, was head coach.
During that stretch, the Jugglers claimed the state championship in Class B in 1983 playing mostly against Class A schools such as the Utica area’s public schools. They finished the 1982 campaign ranked ninth in the state as a Class A school. Rizzo is a member of the Greater Utica Hall of Fame, the Proctor High School Hall of Fame, and the Notre Dame Hall of Fame. During his career as both a head coach and an offensive coordinator, Rizzo coached a number of NCAA Division 1 caliber athletes. He finally retired from coaching “for good” in 1985, but Stanimer notes that he has always remained around the program. “He’s always been around … every fall he stops in and we have discussions about what we’re doing,” said Stanimer, who is still the head coach 20 years after the team’s first state championship. “I can really never say he’s been away, but it’s nice to have him back.”
Stanimer went on to relay a story in which Notre Dame was locked 0-0 with perennial power Whitesboro going into the fourth quarter under the pouring rain. Rizzo came down out of the stands after having watched the game and said, “You’ve got to run this one play.” Notre Dame did not have the play in its offense, so the Jugglers had to call a timeout to install it. On that play, Juggler tailback David Brown trampled down 47 yards of water-logged earth for a touchdown and Notre Dame won 6-0. “It’s just a credit to the way he observes the game and watches the game from afar without even being involved in it,” Stanimer said. “Nobody had to ask him, but that’s just his association with us at Notre Dame. He’s been away from us for a while, but he’s never been far away.”
Athletic Director John DePerno was on the roster for Notre Dame’s state-championship team. He said that having Rizzo back around the program has been “wonderful.” “It’s been great … I played for coach in the early (1980’s) and he hasn’t changed a bit,” DePerno said. “He’s gotten a little grayer, but he’s still as intense as ever and we love having him back. The kids love him and he’s a wonderful football mind that we’re lucky to have with us.” For a number of years, the Jugglers have run a wing-T offense, which is currently the vogue in high school football along much of the east coast that emphasizes misdirection and is popular because a team can get away with having smaller players.
An old-school coach, Rizzo is very familiar with the wing-T, but prefers the I-style of power football. He’s enthusiastic about installing more option plays in Notre Dame’s offense. Rizzo’s son was an option quarterback for Notre Dame during its halcyon days and the coach feels that sophomore quarterback Brian Devins has the kind of athleticism demanded of an option quarterback. Overall, the Jugglers are a young team with slight number, but Rizzo believes the program can be rebuilt to its former glory. In his role as both a football coach and director of development, Rizzo is trying to bring together the past, present, and future of Notre Dame this homecoming weekend. At 7 p.m. Friday, the Jugglers will host Cooperstown and at halftime, a period will be set aside to honor the great teams from 1969, 1973, 1982, and 1983. Following the game, a cocktail hour and reception will be held at the school. Saturday, participants will be able to attend an informal golf outing and a Mass will also be held at the Notre Dame Chapel beginning at 5:30 p.m. From 7 to 11 p.m., a dinner will be held to honor the four teams at the Yahnundasis Country Club off of the Seneca Turnpike (Route 5) in New Hartford, N.Y.
Sunday morning, participants will be able to attend Mass. Those seeking more information regarding the event may call Coach Rizzo at 315-724-5118 or visit www.ndjugglers.org.