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Don't sell him short

By Mike DiMauro

Publication: The Day

Published September 16. 2013 4:00AM
Dana Jensen/The Day
Fitch football coach Jordan Panucci watches his team run drills before a scrimmage against Griswold on Sept. 6.

Rookie Fitch coach Panucci is earning respect

Groton - OK. It wouldn't be a Jordan Panucci story without short jokes:

He can see his feet in his driver's license picture.

Never has to worry about bumping his head on a ceiling fan.

The last one to know when it rains.

Or as his brave senior Devante Anderson says, "he shops at Baby Gap."

Funny, though, how everyone in the Fitch High School football family knows this: On the occasion of a bench-clearing brawl - heinous thought, yes - they'd all make sure to line up behind their new head coach, whose stature belies his power and influence.

Jordan Panucci, 26, is the new sheriff of Fitch football. All 5 feet, 6 inches of him. He never really saw this day coming, when he'd lead the program he once represented as an offensive lineman. But then there's nothing short about the accolades coming his way.

"You could see he'd be successful. He always got the most out of what God gave him," said former Fitch coach Mike Emery, a two-time state champion who coached Panucci and later coached with him. "His height never mattered. A roll-up-my-sleeves-and-find-a-way-to-do-it guy.

"He knew he wouldn't start as a freshman or a sophomore," Emery said. "But he hung in there. Those are the kids you build your program around."

Even in college, Panucci would forgo traditional Friday night merriment and come home for Fitch football games. He'd stand atop the press box with Bob Weiss, the coach of Fitch's first state champion in 1976, charting defensive calls. He became a full-time assistant under Emery while in graduate school at the University of New Haven.

This is called practical application of your craft.

"First and foremost, Mike Emery is about the relationships," Panucci said. "You can scheme brilliantly, but if you can't motivate them it's not going to happen. That's what I took from Mike. Schematically, I took a lot, too, but in a lifetime I probably could not know the schematics that Mike Emery or Mike Campbell or the other guys I worked beside."

Panucci's niche and path to developing the aforementioned relationships began with running the weight program. Panucci estimates he can squat 425 pounds, clean 260 and bench 365.

"When he's lifting, we'll joke 'Coach, do you want us to lower that bar?'" senior Jordan Green said. "But I hope one day I can do what he does."

What he does is not merely suggest his players should lift more, but actually teach them.

"It's not important that I outlift them, but it's more important to set a standard," Panucci said. "Seeing is believing. I think I brought them to another level in their work ethic."

Panucci's first game as Fitch's new head coach ended with the thud of a bowling ball falling off the kitchen table. But there's always this week and a shot at redemption. Fitch and Stonington play for the unofficial battle of the Mystic River at Dorr Field on Friday.

"Jordan has the respect of all those kids," Emery said. "It says something about someone who can command that kind of respect at such a young age."

m.dimauro@theday.com

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