Rob Cersosimo accumulated just about everything possible during his 30 years as the head coach of the Conard High football team.
He compiled a 186-118-3 record; was inducted in the Connecticut High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame; received the Distinguished American Award from the National Football Foundation’s Northern Chapter for making a significant contribution to the betterment of amateur football in the U.S.
Above all, he’s earned undying loyalty from his players and the utmost respect from his peers.
But there is one thing that, in light of his accomplishments, that remains shockingly devoid from Coach Cersosimo’s life: an ego.
Let’s be clear. It’s par for the course for a successful coach to step down from his or her post, offer a few platitudes about having great players and assistant coaches and then bask in the glow of the attention lavished by the school community.
Cersosimo, 63, is the rare, if not unique, breed who actually means it when he says, “I take very little credit for any success we had.”
Cersosimo, who is still employed as a teacher at Conard High, stepped down on Dec. 16, having served as just the second head coach in the history of the Chieftains’ football program.
He took over the program from Bob McKee, his father-in-law and the man Cersosimo primarily credits for any and all success the Chieftains have enjoyed on the gridiron.
“Coach McKee, this is his school,” Cersosimo said. “He made Conard High School. I feel like I’m just the tugboat commander leading the ship up to the dock. I can’t fill his shoes. He was too great a coach and too great a man. I’m an average coach doing the job.”
Cersosimo credits his long tenure at Conard to “a lot of persistence.”
It’s nonsense, of course. Not that Coach McKee doesn’t deserve credit or that Cersosimo didn’t have a yeoman-like work ethic.
But one doesn’t stay at a coaching job for three decades by being hardworking and mediocre.
His former players swear by him, even 30 years later.
“Coach C was easily my favorite Coach of all time,” wrote former defensive tackle Rocco Sanzo, who was on Cersosimo’s inaugural team. “One major take-away - among MANY others - the huddle/end of practice/pre-game break-off, ‘God, give us the strength, give us the power, give us the will...’ I repeat to this day.”
In a later interview, Sanzo repeated his admiration for Cersosimo, stating that his former coach was one of the reasons why Sanzo served on the Rocky Hill Town Council and coached youth football.
"Love that man," Sanzo said.
Still, despite such devotion and receiving so many accolades, Cersosimo would rather not talk about himself. He doesn’t dislike the media - he just doesn’t like talking to their members. It takes focus away from the work that needs to be done and shines it on individuals, including himself.
“Think of all the great kids we had at Conard,” said Cersosimo, who also coached wrestling, tennis and girls lacrosse. “I always felt that as a West Hartford educator, my job was to serve the youth of West Hartford. Whether it was serving in the classroom or athletics fields, on the mat, it didn’t make a difference. My focus was allowing them to become a better version of themselves. … to see what they could be, not what they are right now. … to see what they could attain.
“That’s the essence of what I tried to do.”
Cersosimo insists he’d rather coach practice than in a game, because wins and losses don’t truly measure character and success.
“The ability to get young people to work as hard to prepare and contribute is far more important than the outcome,” he said. “Whether you win or lose, they should be treated the same way, because the effort you put in when you win is the same as you put in when you lose.”
There is no one team that Cersosimo says he favors over another. Whether the Chieftains went 9-1 or 2-8, the takeaways were similar.
“Now, the goal is always to win the league title, and whatever happens after that is great,” he said. “But whether you go 9-1 or 2-8, those kids worked the same way. They didn’t change. The effort they put in, for the most part, is equal.”
Not that his teams went 2-8 very often. Despite the vagaries of high school athletics, where a football coach is lucky to get two, perhaps three, good years out of his best players before they graduate, Cersosimo averaged a little more than six victories a year for 30 years.
“There are so many variables, you aren’t always successful,” he said.
But his teams were successful, far more often than not. In typical fashion, Cersosimo credited his assistant coaches - Pete Pfeffer, Paul Phillippon, Jeff Redman, Bill Condon, Rich Mabey, Pj Foley, Steve Garneau, Ron Wziontko.
“All the awards and things I’ve been very fortunate to receive was based on a complete team effort,” Cersosimo. “I’ve had some of the greatest coaches with me. … All these great coaches helped our program grow and the kids in the program. The coaches are the reason the head coach receives awards.”
But more than players, more than fellow coaches, Cersosimo credits his wife, Debbie, for giving him the opportunity to do what has has for more than 30 years.
“When you realize Debbie has been to every game at Conard since 1957 - here she is a young girl going to watch her father coach, and she says, ‘I am so sick of football,’” Cersosimo said. “Then she marries a football coach who takes over as the head coach at Conard and [she] lives the life of a football coach’s wife. …
“Deb is the glue that keeps our whole family together. … She raised three children while I was coaching three sports. She did a marvelous job with all three children. I can’t credit her enough for her support all these years. It hasn’t been easy for her.”
And now it’s time for Cersosimo to slow down a bit and spend more time with his wife and family.
“She deserves it,” Cersosimo said. “At least until she can’t stand me being home and tells me to go back to coaching.”
Conard will not be devoid of a Cersosimo at the helm. Rob’s son Matt, who served as the Chieftains’ offensive coordinator in 2013, takes over as head coach in the fall.
Even though he’s Rob’s son and McKee’s grandson, Matt’s hiring is hardly a case of nepotism.
A former three-sport athlete at Conard, Matt served as an assistant football coach at Springfield College for two years and Harvard for another two years.
From 2006 to 2012 Matt was an assistant football coach at the University of Connecticut and was the head recruiter.
What advice does Rob have for Matt?
“Just be yourself,” Rob said. “Don’t try to be anything different. He’s already his own man. He’s working on his path to get there. He certainly has the education to do what he wants to do and the common sense to follow through with the plan. If Matt wants or needs my help, then obviously I’m there to help.”
As the football coach passes the reins to the next generation, he takes a moment to reflect on all of it. The wins. The losses. The work it took to get to either conclusion after 307 regular-season games.
“I’ve been probably one of the luckiest guys in the world,” Cersosimo said. “I’ve been blessed to work in West Hartford and blessed to work at Conard. I know that for a fact.“I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I wouldn’t change anything - even with the wins and losses. Let’s go to work.”