Sports talk in Ron Rossi's barber shop flows as freely as hair tonic and Barbasol.
From the folding seats along the north wall, facing the green leather, chrome-trimmed chair that is nearly always occupied by a customer, you could probably sit all day if you liked talking sports.
Rossi bleeds pinstripes, and the Yankee logo with its red, white and blue top hat hoisted on a bomber’s bat adorns all three walls on a pennant, banner and poster, but the Yankees are not the only sports team dear to Rossi’s heart.
Once a Knight always a Knight, and Rossi is among that fraternity who have donned black and red. It may have been more than four decades ago, but Rossi follows his alma mater the way Sooners stick with Oklahoma and Tigers hold tight to Clemson.
So it’s no surprise that one afternoon years ago, with a few loyal Le Roy fans in the shop, the talk soon turned to the Oatkan Knights and their new rookie coach.
He came from Livonia. This was the kid’s first head coaching job. Could he handle it? What did he know about football? Could he motivate the kids? Was he tough enough? Would he deliver championships?
The way Jim Rudgers remembers it, he was sitting in that barber chair with this banter going about. He happened to know the new head coach, and as a former Knight and an up-and-coming coach himself, he thought maybe the new guy was getting a bum rap.
“They were complaining about this new, young football coach,” Rudgers recalled. “Some of them said he didn’t know what he was doing. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Brian Moran walking down Mill Street. Now, I still have a towel wrapped around my neck, but I get out of the seat and go out and grab him. I knew Brian because his dad used to sell sporting equipment. I say, ‘Brian, come on in here, these guys don’t think you know what you’re doing.’ ”
Moran, tall, sandy-haired and built like a defensive end, entered the shop and Rudgers said, “Come on guys, here he is. Tell him he’s an idiot and that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. They were like, ‘uh, uh, uh.’ ”
Rudgers thinks that 26 years later, after more than 200 wins, 13 Section V titles and a state championship, the record has been set straight.
Brian Moran knows what he’s doing.
Development of a coach
There wasn’t a time in Brian Moran’s life that he wasn’t passionate about sports. With two older brothers, he had plenty of opportunity to play, compete and try to keep up. Football, basketball, baseball were all staples of young Brian’s life.
After high school, Moran attended Bridgton Academy in Maine, with its motto, “The Year that Makes a Difference.” It was a chance to continue his athletic pursuits in football and baseball as well as prepare for the rigors of college.
Though a prep academy, the football program exposed Brian to some top-notch competition. In an eight-game schedule, Bridgton played the freshman teams from the University of Boston, Umass and Norwich.
In 1983, he entered the University at Cortland as a physical education major. He also earned his teaching degree.
He played football all four years at Cortland, knowing that when his collegiate career was over, he wanted to coach high school kids.
“I really enjoyed being around athletics,” Moran said. “I really did. My career goal was to be a coach and in education just because I enjoyed being around that atmosphere so much.”
His first job out of college was teaching at St. Joe’s in Penfield, then he got a call from the University of Rochester to be an assistant under U of R’s legendary Pat Stark.
The next three years, he worked as an assistant coach at Livonia, his alma mater. In his third year, he was the head coach for JV.
His next job was as a driving education instructor at Wayland-Cohocton, where he also coached baseball.
Then in the Fall of 1989, just weeks before the school year was to start, he heard Le Roy was looking for a new head coach. He got an interview, then a second interview, then he was hired as head coach and athletic director.
“I grew up in a community similar to Le Roy and I knew the reputation Le Roy had as a football community,” Moran said. “It’s a privilege to coach, but as I said, I’m very lucky to have been hired and given the opportunity to coach in Le Roy.”
Talk with anybody about Le Roy football and sooner, always sooner rather than later, the word “tough” is dropped into the conversation.
To play Le Roy football, you’ve got to be tough.
It’s not enough to run fast, throw lasers down the field or stand tall and strong on the line. You’ve got to be tough.
Football is a mental and emotional game, and physical ability will only get a player so far.
If the players need to be tough, the coaches need to be tougher.
“We have high expectations for our football team,” Rossi said.
The skepticism Rossi’s customers felt that autumn day in 1989 was real, but it was nothing personal. Nobody knew anything about Brian Moran. Here was this young guy coming into the community to coach their football team and his only prior experience was as an assistant and a head JV coach.
Was he tough enough?
“When you come into a program like this that has always pretty much been successful,” Rossi said, “and you’re a new guy and nobody knows a lot about you, there’s going to be apprehension as to whether he can handle the situation.”
Moran was replacing Jim Laemlein, the coach who brought Le Roy its first sectional title and first 10-win season (1984, the last year in the sectional era ((and before there were state titles)) that Le Roy went undefeated).
“He had big shoes to fill coming in after a guy like Laemlein,” Rossi said.
Taking over a storied program
That first year, Moran says he was blessed to come into a program poised to win. The Knights went 8-2 in 1988, losing a sectional title game.
“I was very fortunate,” Moran said. “We had the nucleus of a good team, a team that lost by a touchdown the year before to Clyde-Savannah. It was a great situation to be in. We were 8-2 and we played Livonia in the sectional finals. It was bittersweet to coach for a title against my old school, but we were a pretty good football team in 1989.”
The 26-12 win brought home the first Section V trophy for a Moran-coached team.
Then Le Roy hit a rut, going 1-7 in 1990, then 4-4 in 91.
That ’91 team, though, is one Moran believes to this day could have won it all if they had back then the playoff format used today.
“That third year, I thought we had a great football team,” Moran said. “If they had let eight teams in (to the playoffs), that team would have won it all. That’s how good we got by the end of the season.”
As if to prove it, the Knights went 7-1-2 the next season and cinched Moran’s second Section V title.
Through Moran’s first six seasons, the Knights were 33-21-2 with three Section V titles.
There were few people left in Le Roy who questioned whether Moran could uphold the Oatkan Knights' tradition of winning football, but the best was yet to come.
Moran says, “we went on a little bit of a run.”
From 1995 through 2008, Le Roy did not suffer a losing season. The team’s record through the 13-season span was 136-20. There was a state championship in 1995, appearances in '96 and 2004, and 10 sectional titles. Le Roy has only played for a sectional title twice since, in 2012 and 2013, losing both championship games.
Winning a state championship is a big deal. There’s nothing easy about navigating through the post season. The waters are choppy for even very good football teams as they advance through each round.
The best teams are always much better than nearly all of their regular season opponents. You’re only going to lose to bad luck or to that one team you might meet during the year that is also on a championship romp through the league. When post season arrives, Class B teams are no longer piling up wins against Class C and D teams in league play and the C teams are no longer playing D teams.
The class system — based on school size — is used throughout New York State.
There are no playoffs to determine conference champions. The post season is strictly a matter of the best teams playing the top teams in each class. On any given Friday or Saturday, a top-seeded school can find its season terminated by a last second score.
(more after the jump)
The difference between winning and losing isn’t ruled by the action on the field. It’s a matter of players staying focused and motivated and coaches developing successful game plans.
As Moran often says, games are won and lost in practice the week before. The practice is based on the plan, and the plan is developed by the coach and his staff.
How much of Moran’s life is turned over to football during the season?
“All day, every day,” Moran said, “just ask my wife. I’m constantly watching film early in the week, trying to watch teams a week ahead. Then I start thinking about what we’re going to do offensively and defensively. Constantly. It’s not like I’m sitting down constantly and writing things down, and I’m not watching film constantly, but it’s a thorough process that really takes up your time. You really have to think to be successful.”
Linemen might refine their footwork, receivers their cuts, quarterbacks their time. Practice is about fine-tuning the skills needed in the game.
Teams learn the schemes and plays coaches think will work best against the coming opponent.
“One week at a time” is every successful team’s mantra.
One thing Moran excels at, according to former players, is motivation.
“It was about teamwork,” said Brian Fulmer, a senior tight end in 1995. “He was motivational. We all had buy-in. It was just the way he carried himself. Everybody just bought into teamwork.”
Fulmer skipped football his sophomore year to play in basketball tournaments, a decision he now says he regrets, even though he went on to play basketball at a Division I university, Cornell.
It’s a basketball memory that Fulmer used to illustrate Moran’s ability to motivate his players. There were a couple of game periods where Le Roy’s basketball coach was away and Moran was the substitute head coach.
Before one game, going over the game plan, Moran really got into Fulmer’s head.
“ ‘There’s no reason you shouldn’t dominate this entire game,’ ” Fulmer remembers Moran telling him. “He was like, ‘yeah, you’re going to go out and kill this guy.’ I thought, ‘yeah, you’re right.’ He knew how to push the right buttons. He cared about us.”
Family is also important to Head Coach Brian Moran.
He and his second wife, Wendy, married for 16 years together for 20, enjoy their home in a well-wooded lot near Nunda. He likes to tinker in the garage when he isn’t watching game film or playing golf.
His children are all grown. Brendon, 31, played for the Knights in 2001 and was part of the team that won the 100th game for Moran and was defensive player of the year for Section V. Casey, 29, also played for the Knights. Shane, 26, works for a landscaping company and attended Livonia, and his daughter, Kaitlin, 23, also attended Livonia and just earned her teaching degree.
Moran is also proud of his brothers. Tom is a State Supreme Court judge. Sean lives near Conesus Lake. Patrick lives in St. Louis and works for General Motors.
Perhaps the proudest person in the Moran family is the coach’s mother, who still attends most of her son’s games at age 82.
“She’s a big supporter of all of us,” Moran said.
In the late Summer of 1995, it was starting to look like the unthinkable might happen: there would be no football season.
Mired in budget woes, the school board was considering drastic cuts in spending.
Coming off an 8-3 season that ended in a regional playoff loss, the players and coaches thought they might have a pretty good team, but they also wanted to play.
“The board was considering a real austerity budget,” Fulmer said. “We didn’t even know if we were going to have any sports that year. We had a great group of guys, a talented, talented group. A lot of us went on and played sports in college. A lot of us probably would have gone down the road and played at a different school if they cancelled the season.”
Players, parents, fans all packed a critical board meeting. The board heard the pleas to save sports and voted against the cuts.
“We promised the fans we will bring home a state championship,” said Adam Higgins, a member of the 1994 and 1995 teams. “If not for them, we would never have had a chance to play.”
Moran had no premonition of a state championship. The season, as they all do, unfolded one game, one week at a time. The way they should, in coachspeak.
“I always say weeks four, five and six are really crucial, because it gets to the point where if you’re not getting better, you’re almost getting worse,” Moran said. “If you don’t practice well, by the time you get the end, you may not have reached your peak. You want to get to that peak performance by the end of the season.”
Moran’s praise for the 1995 team: “They got better every week through very hard work. I like the way they practiced.”
Team chemistry was a big reason the team performed so well, Fulmer said. The players didn’t just play and practice together, they had meals to together, they hung out together and they supported each other.
They didn’t put their individual issues ahead of the team.
Higgins said Moran instilled the team-first attitude through hard work and discipline. It shows, he said, by the way Le Roy teams enter the field before before games. Two silent lines, like a military platoon, walking onto the field.
“Walk, don’t talk,” was the rule, Higgins said.
It was the same procession players are expected to take leaving the practice field, and after one hot August pre-season practice, when the team thought they were out of earshot of Moran, a couple of players started cutting up. The team — the whole team — spent an extended practice running laps.
“You do everything as a team,” Higgins said. “If one messes up, all mess up. He and Andrew (Paladino, defensive coordinator) just really instilled that in us and it showed.”
Higgins was the starting QB throughout his junior year, helping the team to a sectional title in 1994, and started the season at the top of the depth chart as the field general, but before the third game of the year — which turned out to be the only loss of the season, to archival Cal-Mum — Higgins lost his starting job to a sophomore.
“It was a big, traumatic event,” Fulmer said, but how Higgins handled it really set an example of team before self, he said.
“To his credit, he didn’t externally show a lot of emotion,” Fulmer said. “He was an awesome defensive player and he just went out and played great defense. I know he was hurting inside and I hurt for him, but he shut his mouth and went out and played great defense the rest of the year.”
It was a big deal, said Higgins, who is now a high school coach himself. He spent 10 years as an assistant at Letchworth and now coaches girls swimming. To this day, he counts Brian Moran as among his best friends. They talk frequently. He’s known Moran pretty much his entire life. His best friend from elementary school is the son of Moran’s wife, Wendy.
“He brought me into his office and I could tell he was upset,” Higgins recalled of the meeting where he learned he had lost the starting QB job. “It was hard for him to tell me. I looked at him and said, ‘I’ll do whatever I can for this team.’ ”
Quarterback controversy settled, the Knights started to gel. They won their next six regular season games, then crushed East Rochester 19-0 for the Section V Class C title. They beat Eden 19-0 for the Far West Regional title, won 12-0 over Dogelville in the state qualifier and faced Saranac Lake for the state championship.
The promise to the fans who saved the team was fulfilled by a final score of 37-27.
The 2014 season, Moran’s 26th and last as head coach, has been another great run for the Oatkan Knights. All but one game has been a blowout, and that game, in the end, wasn’t really very close. It’s the year in which Moran became the fourth head coach in Section V history with 200 career wins.
After each victory, Moran gathers the team around them and shares the same message that makes these points.
“I’m proud of you.”
“Get your rest, stay hydrated.”
“We have another game next week. Stay focused. Come to practice Monday ready to work.”
“Enjoy the victory, but don’t do anything stupid.”
“Do the right thing in school.”
“I love you guys.”
The precise words may change each week, but the message remains consistent.
The idea that Moran loves the kids on his team isn’t just morale-building rhetoric. It’s not hokum to con a bunch of kids into conformity. Moran gets a little misty eyed when he talks about his players, and the lifelong bonds that develop, the mutual loyalty, the commitment and devotion that develops, are strong evidence that Moran’s heart is what leads his head.
Moran doesn’t take a lot of credit for his 201 wins. He credits the kids and the community, but it’s not even the most important thing, he says.
“This is high school athletics,” Moran said. “The wins are nice, but we need to be sure we’re teaching them the things they’ll need to know to be successful in life.”
The great thing about athletics is it teaches kids that discipline and success go hand-in-hand. The lessons that lead to winning championships also carry over into careers and families.
More important to Moran than trophies are the kids who come back to the school year after year and can proudly recite for him their successes in life.
At the start of this season, five members of the 1995 championship team came to a pep rally at the school, some flying from as far away as Minnesota and Texas, to cheer on and encourage the 2014 team.
To a man, they shared how much they learned from Moran and how playing for him changed their lives.
“The things I learned from coach that helped me is don’t cut corners in your work,” Fulmer said. “It’s all about teamwork. Show respect. Don’t ever disrespect somebody in public. Certainly, my Dad’s a big influence, too, but that’s the kind of stuff I learned with Coach Moran. He showed me the best example of teamwork I’ve ever been a part of and that carries with me to this day.”
Hundreds of kids have passed through Moran’s programs at Le Roy — not just football, and not just winning teams — and many can tell similar stories.
Tim Spezzano was part of the 1-7 squad in 1990. He later coached at Le Roy, starting with seventh-graders and eventually working four years as head basketball coach for boys varsity. He now works for Tompkins Insurance and holds Moran in the highest regard.
“He was always very well prepared in his approach to coaching and that’s certainly something I take from him,” Spezzano said. “One of the things he preached at great length is do the little things well. If you do the little things well, big things will happen for you. Generally, I think of myself as somebody who is properly prepared. I think a large part of why people are successful is they are prepared.”
Life lessons, thought, don’t come wrapped in brightly colored paper with pretty bows tied on top. They come through hard work, persistence and reinforcement.
In other words, the teacher dolling out the gifts needs a firm hand and a loud mouth.
Moran knows how to get in a kid’s face when he needs to.
“What’s most important to Brian is what happens to these kids 10 years from now,” said defensive coordinator Jim Bonacquisti. “Are they better men, are they better husbands, are they successful? That all comes from Brian demanding the best from them. It’s not a touchy-feely world. It’s not about everybody getting ribbons, everybody getting an award. It’s about making yourself better.”
The one thing, though, you’ll never see Brian Moran do, says Bonacquisti, is embarrass a kid during a game or in front of his parents.
“I can recall once when I got after a kid during a game,” Bonacquisti said. “The kid was a sophomore, and Brian turned me and said, ‘we’re going to need this kid the next two years. Let’s not beat this kid down. Stay positive.’ That’s what he always reiterated, ’stay positive.’ "
Andrew Paladino, the defensive coordinator who was coaching at Le Roy five years before Moran became head coach, will also retire at the end of this season. He said Moran has always treated him well and given him the freedom to run his own squad.
Paladino said he’s sure the love and appreciation players have for Moran is genuine, honest and hard won.
“He can be a hard-ass sometimes, but he truly likes the kids and he cares about the kids,” Paladino said. “A lot of people don’t understand that, a lot of times it’s tough love but when it’s all said and done I think the kids appreciate it.”
They do, said both former team members Brian Fulmer and Adam Higgins.
Fulmer, who played Division I basketball, said Moran was the best coach he ever played for at any level.
“I won Athlete of the Year my senior year and Brian spoke at the awards ceremony,” Fulmer said. “He spoke about how hard I worked and how I was always the first guy on the field and the last guy off the field. He got a little emotional about it. I never forgot how he got a little emotional about what I did. It was the coolest moment in my life. I’d run through a wall for that guy.”
It was also the moment that an award was handed out that is a deeply imprinted memory of Moran for Higgins as well.
“I was named Best Defensive Player for the Section V championship and I was standing right next to coach when they announced the award,” said Higgins, the kid who earlier that year lost his starting QB job to a sophomore. “He looked right at me and said, ‘I was hoping and praying that you would win that award.’ That was just the bond we had.”
Moran doesn’t remember the wins nearly as much as he remembers the individual players and their big moments: Fulmer knocking down a pass in the end zone during the championship game; Justin Ausher with a key two-point conversion in that game, beating people to the goal line; Joe Miller in a title game against East Rochester running a fullback trap 53 yards for a touchdown; Tony Mason with a seven-yard run in another game against East Rochester that combined with a PAT by Kevin Price gave Le Roy a 7-6 victory.
“There are so many great memories of kids making plays that even surprised me sometimes at how well they performed,” Moran said.
The coach also remembers the non-starters, the kids who just wanted to be part of the team. He remembers the kid with Asperger's syndrome who made the team and the kid with autism who became the team manager for a couple of years.
Moran has always had a soft spot for the kids who might have some disadvantage, Bonacquisti said, whether it’s something like Asperger's or autism, or they just don’t have any money or a lot of social grace.
That comes from being picked on as a kid. Moran said he had two older brothers who always gave him a hard time.
“That’s the way life was then,” Moran said. “Nobody worried about bullying. I was always trying to keep up with them.
Every kid deserves a chance to succeed, Moran said.
“When you look at our kids here today, you don’t know where they come from sometimes,” Moran said. “You don’t know what their home life is, and really, when they come to school, it might be the brightest part of their day.”
Working with the kids who might have disadvantages is also a powerful lesson for the rest of the kids, Moran said.
“It helps them understand the issues in society,” Moran said. “Not everybody is born perfect. Some kids struggle with whatever they have. I have a granddaughter who is very handicapped and it’s tough. I want these kids to understand that they have a lot of benefits that they don’t even think about.”
The fact Moran is so inclusive is part of the reason the football program has been so successful, Spezzano said.
“It’s evident in the numbers of participants in the program,” Spezzano said. “Look at the number of the kids on the sideline. “That doesn’t happen if the focus is only on the top 11 or top 12 players.”
Yeah, Moran may be a hard-ass at times, practices may be rough, but he thinks the community and the parents understand what the larger goals are, and that it isn’t necessarily to win championships. Winning is something that is an outcome of turning boys into men.
“I’m fortunate to work in this community,” Moran said. “I get after our kids pretty good sometimes, and in other places, I don’t think they would be as accepting as we are now. When you work in a place for 26 years, I think people understand you have their kids' best interest at heart.”