John Fiore has the look and demeanor of a gruff football coach, with a graying goatee, close-cropped hair and a loud, gravelly voice. He's 49 years old and a former college player for whom high school football has been his life's work.
His Montclair team went 12-0 in 2017, winning the fourth New Jersey state title in his eight years as coach. But despite that continued level of success, he's quick to admit it's never been harder to coach.
He says high school football coaches are still asked to win games, to inspire, to teach, but their methods are under increasing scrutiny. In New Jersey, Lou Racioppe, who started his 20th season at Verona High School this fall, is one such coach. He was recently placed on administrative leave after complaints from parents about his treatment of their sons prompted a Verona School Board investigation.
The probe asked players whether Racioppe or his assistant coaches had ever grabbed players' facemasks inappropriately, denied water breaks, made them run as punishment on hot days or pushed them to exhaustion in a way that was unhealthy, among other things in a 16-question survey. Based on its findings, which were made public, the school board acted.
The move was controversial, as several former players came to Racioppe's defense, praising his coaching methods and the positive impact he's had on their lives. While at Verona, Racioppe's teams won four state titles, including consecutive undefeated seasons in 2014 and 2015.
Greg Mascera, a lawyer for Racioppe, who declined through counsel to talk, says the coach denies doing anything inappropriate and taking any action not in his players' best interest. Coaches, he says, are being left in the dark about how to conduct practices and left to fend with school administrators who are quick to respond to parents' complaints.
"There's a new philosophy in many administrations and among the general public that tough coaching is no longer wanted," Mascera says. "And no longer acceptable. But there's no definition of tough."
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, the governing body for high school sports in the state, offers a coaches handbook. There is an essay on "The Successful Coach" and an outline of the "Coach as a Role Model."
It recommends coaches are well-groomed and dressed neatly. It suggests avoiding sarcasm and not using foul language. But the NJSIAA doesn't list clear-cut instructions on what disciplinary measures it finds reasonable. "Every facet of discipline," it reads, "is the coach's responsibility."
But it's clear, Fiore says, that the old-school coaching rubric has disappeared. There is a generation gap.
John McCarthy, an adjunct professor at Montclair State University, teaches "Coaching Principles and Problems." Each semester he asks his students how many had been cursed at or had their facemasks pulled inappropriately by coaches. Hands shoot up, he says, as they deride current high school players as being too soft.
"Here's what I tell my kids," McCarthy says. "Everything in life is subject to change, so why should coaching be any different?"
There are more difficult questions. Is it still possible to survive as a disciplinarian coach? How can a coach teach toughness without being too tough? And will the school administration support a coach who does so?
"You're losing a lot of quality coaches because they don't want to deal with this," Fiore says.
"I feel very vulnerable. We're on one-year deals. We could be fired for anything."
These questions, asked of the players on the Verona football team, were part of the inquiry by the Verona Board of Education:
1. During practice and or during film sessions, have you ever observed or experienced any of the following behaviors from the head football coach or an assistant coach?
a. Grabbing a player’s face mask in an inappropriate way. If yes, please explain.
b. Using inappropriate language, such as cursing at players. If yes, please explain.
c. Denying water breaks for players. If yes, please explain.
3a. Has the head coach or an assistant coach ever made a player run sprints for punishment? If yes, please explain.
9. Have you ever been intimidated by the Verona High School head coach or assistant coaches? If yes, please explain.
All such actions once, while not ideal, were not all that unusual. Not anymore. Fiore has seen the changes firsthand.
He played for John Amabile, a longtime coach in the state, as a senior at Neptune High School. Amabile, he says, grabbed facemasks and made the offense run for practicing poorly and losing to the scout team, among other disciplinary measures. He reveres the experience and the lessons it taught him about perseverance and overcoming adversity, but he doesn't resort to those same methods as a coach today.
He has changed his coaching style over 18 years as a head coach. In his first year, as the rookie coach at Spotswood High, Fiore ran triple sessions. A local police officer—a former Marine drill sergeant—started the day with physical training at 6 a.m.
Now he follows the state rules to the letter, he says, which allow for double sessions lasting no longer than five total hours. He tries to hold practices—which are open to parents—to around two hours. He doesn't grab facemasks. He yells and curses less, he says, and holds coaching meetings at the end of every season to review himself and look for improvement.
Last week, he brought in a sports psychologist to motivate his team the afternoon before its state title game and beamed as his guys enjoyed team-bonding exercises. The team played rock, paper, scissors in pairs until there was a winner, and the psychologist asked players to participate in a few games.
"My kids from Spotswood watch me coach. They'll tell every one of these guys I've turned soft," Fiore says.
McCarthy, who helps with the Montclair program, tells his coaching students to view their behavior through a different prism, to imagine that they are teachers and think about how their conduct would be received. Screaming at and ridiculing students would not be tolerated in the classroom, he says.
"Would you curse at a kid in your Spanish class?" he asks. "Would you hit a [student] in your Spanish class or your math class? Of course you wouldn't."
Of all the ways to discipline players, a reduction in playing time remains one of the most effective. Nunzio Campanile, the head coach at Bergen Catholic High School, a nationally competitive program, says that can change behavior.
But coaching through fear and intimidation, he says, is outmoded. As a football coach's son who played for his father, Campanile goes out of his way to seek feedback to make sure he's interacting properly with his coaches and players.
He holds exit meetings at the end of every season, from the freshman to varsity coaches, to self-evaluate. He meets with every senior as a group and individually. "What was this experience like?" he asks. "Was it what you wanted?"
He disputes that the complaints about how players are being treated have come because they have gone soft or are unwilling to handle heavy burdens. At Bergen Catholic, a sign hangs over the whiteboard in the middle of the coaches' room: "Hardest Working Team In America." Campanile holds his players to that. He says he's as demanding as he's ever been.
"We're going to be hard on them and coach them through it," Campanile says. "I think that hard work as punishment maybe isn't the best way to coach kids now. But hard work is a great thing. Them learning to fight through the challenges is great. How do you learn to fight through the challenges if there's no one there to push you?"
When Campanile worked as an assistant coach at a rival school, his principal asked why he thought coaches needed to curse. Campanile says they didn't, but they needed to be authentic. Coaching, he says, is a science and an art.
The art comes in knowing how to motivate and treat players. It calls for a highly customizable approach to each player. Earning trust is a primary concern.
A loud discussion breaks out inside the Montclair High coaches' locker room after a reporter asks if it's still OK to be a disciplinarian at a time when players' parents are more involved than ever. They harken back to their playing days. Discipline is still possible, assistant coach Anthony Maffucci says, but the "how" is important. When the players know coaches care, Jamie Bittner, another assistant, says, discipline is easier to instill.
"I don't think coaches need to curse, but I think they need to be real," Campanile says. "They need to be who they are. … I think kids respect people who are genuine."
Fiore believes you can still be tough and be a great coach by finding a middle ground. Players, he says, have changed less over the years than parents. He used to give out guidelines to parents at the beginning of each season about how best to communicate if their son had a problem that needed to be addressed, starting with the coach and working up through the school administration to the superintendent. Now, he says, that is no longer needed. Parents start at the top.
The boom in youth sports and the proliferation of pay-to-play travel teams that afford kids a chance to start and play, he says, have given parents unrealistic expectations about how much playing time their sons deserve at the high school level.
"High school coaches are the first ogres in a kid's life," he says.
Robert Ferraro, the chairman of the National High School Coaches Association, says athletic directors no longer provide coaches as much support as they once did. At many schools, he says, former coaches have been replaced by school administrators who are less likely to stand up for their athletic programs.
Fiore wants the New Jersey state senate to pass a law to mandate multiyear contracts for high school coaches. But even if that occurs, Fiore says the authoritarian coach is dead. What remains is a profession in transition.
"I tell the guys you don't have to love me or like me, but you're working for me right now," Fiore says. "This is a privilege to be a Montclair football player, and I'm the guy. Until they say different, I'm the guy."