Coach Kurzanski always told me if I had played for him 20 years prior that I would be running a version of the triple option offense. For those who do not know the game of football, this involves the quarterback taking the snap and reading off a defensive player close to the line of scrimmage while meshing with a running back. If the defensive player plays the running back, the quarterback keeps the ball and runs towards the next defender. When the QB approaches the next defender, he has a similar option, except this time to pitch the ball backwards to another back. The three options of the triple option offense are to hand the ball off, pitch it, or run it yourself. If there are double digit pass attempts in a game by a triple option offense, that is extreme. This sounds like zero fun for a guy who’s 40-yard dash was timed with a sun dial.
Coach Kurzanski saw what he had in his locker room at South and put his team in the best position to win games. He looked around the room and saw skill players that could run and catch, and a young QB who was eager to do anything he could to get better at the game. We went with 4 wide receivers and ran a fast-paced spread offense. Kevin O’Connell and Phil Stasiak flourished, both nearing 1,000 yards each a season. We had slot receivers like Mark Coppola, Sam Divita, Sam Hasan, Billy Jacobbi, and Tyler Krempa that were shifty and able to run intermediate routes. We set almost every single Western New York passing record over our 3 years together.
It sounds like a pretty obvious thing to do. Find ways to showcase your players talents. Coaches at every level unfortunately are unable, but more so unwilling, to adapt. Coach Kurzanski goes to coaches clinics and is always working at getting better as a coach. I admire that about him. He is always evolving.
I grew up with a very tight nit group of guys. We all played basketball, baseball, and football together. We went 12 months a year with some type of sporting equipment in our hands.
Take Phil Stasiak for example. He was the starting shortstop for the baseball team for 4 years. At the time of our graduation, he was the all-time leading scorer in Williamsville South history for basketball. He put up monstrous numbers on the football field at receiver. Football coaches, usually, want football guys to be only football guys. Coach K wanted Phil Stasiak to be the best Phil Stasiak he could be.
Many coaches now preach specialization. Coach Kurzanski would rather have his football players playing other sports such as baseball. He would rather an athlete be up to bat in a tie game with 2 outs, a 3-2 count in the bottom of the last inning rather than running routes 12 months a year. The pressure situations and competition from other sports will prepare you for football better than driving yourself into the ground by just focusing on football. His logic makes sense.
We had a core of guys who played both football and basketball together- Mark Coppola, Sam Divita, Kevin O’Connell, Dan Schaus, Phil Stasiak, Bobby White, and myself. At almost every single home game and most of our away games was Coach Kurzanski in his patented blue South quarter zip pullover. I can speak for our group and say that when we stepped on the court and saw Coach K there it put us at ease. We knew that he was on our side. He was with us. Coach Kurzanski was supporting us doing something that he knew we loved. The visual of him sitting on the top row of the bleachers with his arms crossed is powerful to me. It screams “I’m here for you.” That’s what 14-18 year old kids need.
When I got to college, guess who was in the stands on Saturday afternoons at UB Stadium? You guessed it, there was Coach Kurzanski with his blue quarter zip on. He clapped, screamed, and was very willing to battle any fan who complained about the kid from Williamsville wearing number 16 for the Bulls.
When I graduated from UB I had a stint with the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals. Naturally, Coach Kurzanski hopped in his car and drove to Ohio. He came to watch me practice. We played golf. We went to a Cincinnati Reds game and enjoyed a few beers together. When I got cut, I called him. He wasn’t mad or disappointed. He asked if I was ok. No matter the phase of my life, Coach Kurzanski is there for me.
Let me take you back to my junior year. The first game of our season was a win against Grand Island in which we broke the single game passing record for Williamsville South that had stood for over 25 years. The following week we blew out Kenmore East, throwing for over 200 yards in one half, and putting up 50 points on the scoreboard. The starters didn’t take a snap in the second half.
Thursday September 17th, 2009 (my sister Rachel’s 21st birthday) was our next game. Williamsville North was coming to Main Street. Before the game, James McCoy from the Buffalo News came to take a few pictures of me for an article that was going to be written on our record setting offense.
Time Warner Cable was there to broadcast the game. Coach K took me and a few others to their offices during the week to do an interview about the game. The questions quickly went straight to me about the numbers “I” was putting up. 16 year old me was flattered and answered the questions. I did notice that multiple times when Coach Kurzanski was asked direct questions about Joe Licata, he gave answers that involved names of the entire offense. He always spoke of everyone. It was never about one player.
Thursday night comes around. The stands are packed with everyone in Williamsville wanting to see the air raid South offense vs. a very good North team. We march up and down the field on them in the first half. They couldn’t stop us. It was like basketball on grass. We had 4 touchdowns, and around 350 yards through the air in the first half alone. Along with these 4 first half touchdowns, I also had 2 interceptions (one of which was a very bad decision on my part).
But still, over 300 yards and 4 touchdowns and we are up big at half against our rivals. The stands are packed. South fans are happy. As I’m jogging off the field, I see a sign that the booster club had purchased. “Buckle up, you are now boarding ‘South Air!’” There are young kids lined up at the field exit waiting to give us high fives as we jog off. I feel pretty darn good.
I take a seat next to Kevin O’Connell in front of my locker as I always did. Coach Kurzanski storms into the locker room like he was trying to evade the 1970’s Pittsburgh Steelers “Steel Curtain” defensive line. He then begins his antics. “Our quarterback. Our quarterback can’t stop turning the ball over in big situations. Everyone wants to talk about how good he is, but I can’t seem to get him to stop giving the ball to the other team in rivalry games.” I may have left out a few choice words, but your imagination can fill those in. Coach is pacing, he is red, he isn’t making eye contact with anyone as he is using his intimidating raspy voice attacking ‘his QB’ verbally. Kevin is tapping my knee as Coach K is going off, almost to say, “Is he talking about you? Did he not see you play the best half of football in WNY history?” That speech consisted of no X’s or O’s, no game planning, and no adjustments. He knew he could talk about me that way and that I could handle it. He always had an awareness of who he was speaking to. I have never forgotten that moment. It was Coach Kurzanski showing the rest of the guys that no one was bigger than the team.
Many men are afraid to express their feelings towards other men. My dad tells me he loves me. When my grandfathers were alive, they did as well. Every conversation I have with Coach Kurzanski, since 2008, has ended with him saying “Love you Joseph.”
Coach Kurzanski is the best storyteller. Before every game I played in, Coach K would tell us a meaningful story that wasn’t always about football. It could be about birds, flowers, baseball, or my personal favorite- the story about the wizard. Every story would circle back to one main theme he wanted to instill in us that night, usually about seizing the opportunity in front of us, or how we were prepared and ready to play. At the end of every speech he told us that he loved us. And he meant it.
Whether you loved the game of football or not, it didn’t matter. We all wanted to give everything we could to be the best football team we could be, because we had a coach who loved the game and most importantly loved us. Some kids in that locker room didn’t have a male influence in their lives. Some did, but that man would never utter the words “I love you” to them. In a testosterone driven, collision encouraged sport- there was our leader telling us he cared for us and loved us. Powerful.
As I have transitioned from player to coach, I realized that no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care. I try and make relationships with my kids before I ask them to make a tackle. I tell them I love them, and I hope they know I mean it.
When I graduated from Williamsville South, Coach Kurzanski gave me a black “Billies football” shirt. On the back of the shirt it read, “Make history, not excuses.” I cut the sleeves off that shirt and wore it underneath my UB jersey every game I played in. I needed something with me on that field that represented the High School I loved to play for. Looking back on my decision to wear that shirt makes me realize that it wasn’t just about the school represented on the shirt, it was about the man who gave me the shirt.
Coach, I love you.