The GMW Interview: WHS Warriors’ New Football Coach–”It’s a Privilege to be Part of this School”
One of the clearest signs of approaching fall is the appearance of Wilton High School football players practicing every afternoon on the field at Veteran’s Memorial Stadium. But this year, for the first time in almost a decade, the man leading those players onto the field will be someone different.
Meet the new head coach of the Wilton Warriors, E.J. Dinunzio, who says he’s bringing a much-needed dose of positivity to the football program. He sat down for a Q&A with GOOD Morning Wilton shortly after on the field practice started on Aug. 13.
GOOD Morning Wilton: I’m sure you’ve been excited to get started.
E.J. Dinunzio: Our first official date was Aug. 13, but we’ve been working in the weight room pretty much three days a week [since April], and probably 25 to 30 kids pretty much every day for the last three months. It’s been a great turnout. Freshman to seniors, I was very impressed with the enthusiasm and the work ethic.
GMW: You know a lot of these kids because you coached them as freshmen last year.
Dinunzio: I worked with the freshmen as well as with the varsity. I’m very familiar with [this year’s] sophomores. We had a very good season. We were 7-2, which was kind of impressive for us. We were always the smallest team on the field, but always the toughest.
With the varsity I was in the booth, so I know those sophomores and juniors that are going to be juniors and seniors now. It’s just a great bunch of kids. We have 65 guys right now. A bunch of them are seniors and these kids have played with each other since fourth and fifth grade. Everything that I’ve given them, every challenge, there’s no pushback. They just want to keep working. They like it when it’s hard so they just work harder. And they want to win. And they are winners.
They’re great kids, so my job here is I’m not going to reinvent the wheel. All I’m going to do is push and pull as much as I can to get them to where they want to be. That’s my role.
When I first got the job, I tried to meet with everyone individually and ask, “What did you like about last year? What did you not like? What can I do? If you were the coach, what would you do?” They really didn’t seem to have that much fun last year. They’re in class for six, seven hours. There’s no reason why they can’t learn football and still have fun while learning. So I hired a staff, well respected guys who know football. But I told them, “The most important thing to me is you have to be energetic. You have to wanna have fun. We’re not out there yelling and screaming at the kids. We’re out there encouraging.”
The kids have really adapted well to it. They’ve enjoyed it. I’ve gotten several texts over the last five days about how much fun they’re having. That’s the most important thing to me. Anybody can coach football, there’s a lot of good coaches out there. But the key ingredient is when you can coach them and they enjoy coming to practice. And they want to be at practice. They want to learn. That’s when you know that your program’s headed in the right direction.
GMW: Who are the coaches on your staff?
Dinunzio: For the freshman, we kept Jim Sexton and Coach Bleier. Coach Sexton still is the head coach. He does a great job being a liaison between 8th graders coming into 9th grade, which is tough learning a whole new offense, a whole new defense. And then they have school.
Ron Lienhardt, the defensive coordinator last year is still here. Then we brought in Joel Geriak, who’s the basketball coach. Schools have asked him to coach football for the last I can’t tell you how many years. And he keeps saying, no, no, no, no, no. So when I asked him, he was like, “Well, I don’t wanna tell you I’m gonna take the job, and then at the end of the season not be able to be there because of basketball.” I said, “Listen, if you can get me through October and you still gotta do your stuff, just help me with these kids for the next two or three months, and I’ll be thrilled.”
And we brought in my high school buddy, Anthony Cesarini. We actually made a deal years ago–whoever gets to be head coach first at whatever school, we’ll be an assistant. He was an Eastchester police officer for 22 years. He’s coached for about 10, and he’s had a blast. He loves it. I tell everybody about the kids, “Listen, these kids are different. They’re special. After practice, they’re going to walk up and shake your hand and say thanks.” And then to see it actually happen! He’s texted me almost every night how much fun he’s having, how he can’t believe the student athlete that we have here.
I’m sure you’ve heard, but one of the things when I took the job was, “Oh, the parents at Wilton, the parents at Wilton, the parents at Wilton.”
GMW: I’m glad you raise it, because it was going to be a question.
Dinunzio: When I was with the freshmen, I had not one problem. Those parents were really great. They appreciated my effort, how I was coaching and teaching the kids, so I never saw that.
I kind of have a different policy than most coaches. There’s no difference for you as a parent–your son is struggling in a class, right? As a good parent, you’re gonna say, “Okay, Johnny. What’s the problem?” Johnny’s going to say, “Well, either I’m not grasping it or the teacher doesn’t like me.” You as a good parent are probably gonna make a phone call and say, “Listen Mr. so-and-so, can we get together? I’d like to chat.”
To me, there’s no difference between the classroom and the football field. If I’ve got a parent whose son is not happy–who’s not happy because he’s not playing, not happy because he feels he’s always being slighted, whatever–I’ll listen. You come on in, we’ll chat. I’ll listen, but then I’m going to give you my honest answer back. So if your son may not be good enough right now, I’ll tell you. “He’s just not good enough right now, he needs to work on XYZ, and maybe in a few weeks he’ll be better, and he can get more playing time.”
Wilton parents have a real bad rap. I’ve never had an issue. I’ve never seen a problem. Listen, every high school has their problems. For some reason, we’ve had a few that have been one after the other, kind of close together.
But I have to tell you that it’s been a pleasure. We had the booster barbecue, and there’s 40, 50, 60 parents out there making cheeseburgers, hot dogs, helping. It was great. Does everybody love me? No. Everybody thinks their child should play, and there’s gonna be an issue when somebody says, “My son deserves to be playing.” So I know not everybody’s gonna love me. But at the same time, as a coach and as a teacher it’s my job to listen to you and to communicate what we can do to make your son better. That’s all.
And I will get the kids out there on the field. When I sat down one-on-one with the kids, the other issue was there were very few kids that got into games. It was the 11 on offense, the 11 on defense and a few substitutes. If you’re out there at practice every single day working hard, there has to be a time where I can get you into a game. There’s no doubt about it. As long as you know what you’re gonna do. You know your playbook. You’ll somewhere along the line this year get into a game or games, and I think that has also encouraged them. It gets them motivated to do their very best during practice.
GMW: You’ve already started getting these kids advocating for themselves if they’re sitting with you one-on-one.
Dinunzio: I’ve told all of them, “Whatever issues you have, you let us know. You want to know what you can do to get better, we’ll tell you. We’ll show you. Before you go to Mom and Dad, come to us first. Let us know how you’re feeling. If we don’t answer your questions or you still think there’s a problem, then call Mom and Dad. We’ll have the conversation. No problem.”
But to advocate for themselves, that’s a learning lesson. They’ll use that the rest of their lives. That’s why I met with each one of them. I wanted them to realize that this was going to be different than the past. And I wanted them to have a share in how this program goes forward because, look at the youth programs–they’re always really, really good, so why do we fall off when we get to the varsity level? Kids leave, they go to other schools. Some kids stop playing. But if the kids realize, “Hey, the Wilton High School program’s pretty darn good. I want to be part of it,” then they’re more likely to stay and compete with us, instead of someone else.
GMW: Let’s talk about the season. Your first game is Sept. 7 at Brian McMahon.
Dinunzio: Our first two games are against teams that have brand new coaches. So that’s difficult because I’m not sure what they’re gonna do differently. I like to watch a lot of game film but this year’s a little tough. We’ll see their first two scrimmages at least, and then we can game plan off that. They have the same thing with us–I’m new, so they don’t know exactly what we’re going to do. It’ll be an interesting first two weeks for sure.
Last year we were 6-4, and it’s always the big four that we struggle against–Ridgefield, Darien, Staples, St. Joe’s. St. Joe’s may be our toughest game. We’ll be challenged again in those four games.
But I told the kids, one of the things I heard a lot that I wasn’t a big fan of last year is, “We don’t have the athletes to compete against certain teams so we’re gonna do things a little differently.” I see Wilton kids play lacrosse, I’ve seen them play basketball. We have athletes. So we’re going to challenge them this year. We’re gonna put them in positions where their athleticism has to show.
A few games last year we went in with the mindset of, “If we stay close, that’s a good thing.” That’s not our mindset anymore. Our mindset is, “We’re gonna win every single game we take the field.” Does that mean we will? Of course not, but there’s no reason why we’re not going to believe that we can.
We’re going to have some really good success this year. I guarantee you, we’re not going to lose any game 49-3 like we did last year. That’s not going to happen. We’re not going to let that happen. We’re going to protect our home field. That’s for sure.
GMW: You have a lot of seniors on the team this year.
Dinunzio: A lot. 28. It’s gotta be the biggest class, or close to it. Maybe not as big as Greenwich and New Canaan, because their numbers are so big. But I know that this year is one of the highest numbers we’ve had in a long time. I think it’s 91 total in the whole program–65 varsity, 26 freshman.
GMW: That freshman class, they’re an athletic class.
Dinunzio: I just got an email from one of the freshmen asking if they can use the weight room at 1:30 p.m. because their practice starts at 3:30 p.m.. That’s the kind of enthusiasm they have.
Our first freshman dinner, it’s like freshman orientation. You meet me, you meet my coaching staff, and we go to Outback, we have a nice time. There were 17 kids, and I told them, “Okay, now you can start using the weight room at the school. You’re official. So if you wanna come in it’s 8 o’clock tomorrow morning.” I figured if I can get five or six that’s good for freshmen. So I walked in and I got three walking in. I got another three come in. I have two more walking in. I have four walking in–16 of the 17 kids showed up. That’s tremendous.
It’s that kind of attitude and that kind of desire–they want to win, they want to compete. It’s great to see that. We’re blessed. There are so many schools that their numbers are down. Concussion, parents are afraid, there’s no doubt about it. A lot of kids play lacrosse, so many different sports they’re playing. So to have what we have here right now is really fantastic. It’s a privilege to be a part of the great school that it is, but also be surrounded by these kids and their parents, the booster club, the community.
GMW: I know it’s hard to single people out, but does anyone stand out?
Dinunzio: Well, it’s not singling out, but you can’t miss him when he’s on the field. [Sophomore] Matt Gulbin, he’s 6 ft. 4 in., 280 pounds. We were doing our workouts in the morning. He’d show up in the morning. Then we’d go in the weight room at night for those that couldn’t make it, and he’d show up again at night. One of those days where we had the two sessions going on until 2 p.m.. I’m walking up to the field, and going into the hut to do some inventory on what we have. There’s a guy in a green shirt running 20 yards back and forth, back and forth. Wow, it’s hot. Who’s out there running? It’s hot for anybody. Last thing I’m thinking it’s one of my kids. Sure enough, it’s Matt Gulbin running 20-yard sprints, sweating.
He has a desire. He loves football. He loves being on the field, and he is a Jekyll and Hyde because he is the softest, most sweetest kid in the world in school, but you put him on that field, you do not want to be there when he’s coming.
But, it’s all the kids. I told them, we talk about the world that we live in, and sometimes it’s tough, right? The kids will sometimes say to me, “We all love you, Coach.” Because with the freshmen we did that a lot. I told them, “You go home, you tell your parents you love them. Give them a hug. Say, ‘Thanks for letting me play football.'” I think that bond that we have now, this whole family bond, I think they really care about one another, and it doesn’t matter what grade they are.
GMW: What changes have you made? What will people see that’s different?
Dinunzio: On the defensive side of the ball, we have a new defensive coordinator, and I brought in a new coach, Dave Brennan, who used to be at Ridgefield. He was there for 10 years, so I’ll pick his brain. And we’re gonna be very aggressive defensively. There were games where we let the quarterback stand back there and pick us apart. We had no pressure on him. So we will be aggressive. On the offensive side of the ball, we will throw the ball a little bit more. We’ll get to the outside a little bit more.
GMW: People in the stands will like that.
Dinunzio: It’ll be much more exciting than it was last year. Listen, last years team, they averaged 28 points a game. We just struggled against the better teams. And when you run the type of offense that we run, when you get behind, it’s a challenge because it’s a lot of run, run, run, run. When you’re ahead it’s great because you can work the clock and you can control the ball. So we’ll have the same basic offense but we’re going to do a bunch of other things out of that.
As I told the kids, I think their parents in the stands will have fun too. I think they’ll enjoy it.
GMW: Ridgefield always looms over everything. And this year the Ridgefield game is at home.
Dinunzio: They are right after our bye-week. This year we’re not gonna hide behind the veil of the “22 year curse.” We’re gonna challenge the kids and we’re gonna push them as far as we can that week and we’re gonna compete and hopefully we can turn that around and start a trend of our own now. I told the kids, in the past it’s been, we don’t mention Ridgefield. Nobody wears orange. It’s a big thing. So I’m gonna wear orange while all the other coaches will have number 22 on their back. We want them to see it. We want them to feel it. We want them to say, “Enough’s enough.” We want it to be a big game. We’re not gonna overlook any other game, but that’s a big game for us. We’re neighbors. I drive to Ridgefield everyday, they’re great people. The town is great. I love driving through Main street and seeing them with their dogs. I love it.
But I wanna beat them. 22 years. Enough’s enough.
GMW: What’s your motto this year?
Dinunzio: “We believe.” Very simple. We believe that we will win every time we take the field. We believe in ourselves. We believe in our teammates. We believe in our coaches. That simple. And if we are struggling to get it done, we know that our teammate will help us. And we know that our coaches will put us in the right spot to make the right plays or be successful. So that’s our mantra this year, We believe.