MERIDEN — There were more than a few “The Day I Met John Skubel” stories going around Monday.
Hartford Public football coach Harry Bellucci was telling how, back in the early 90s, when he was a greenhorn assistant at Bulkeley, he ran into Skubel while scouting a game.
This is back when Skubel, with his three state titles at Middletown High, had long established himself as one of the state’s best high school football coaches.
“Where are you from, son?”Skubel wanted to know.
“I’m from Bulkeley.”
So Skubel started talking about all the standout players Bulkeley had had over the years, all the while making sure the young assistant took note of the key details unfolding on the field. Did you see that play, Harry? Did you notice that?
“I’m just some little peon JV coach and he’s John Skubel, but after that every time I saw him it was always, ‘How are you Harry,” Bellucci recalled Monday. “When I came away from that first game I was so impressed I was following Middletown High after that. Hey, that’s John Skubel.”
The day Tom Ryan met John Skubel the encounter was far sterner. This was 1972, well before Ryan got his hands on the Platt football program, back when he was an assistant at Springfield College handling recruiting in Connecticut.
Ryan was pursuing a tailback at Middletown High when he paid a visit to Skubel, then a Middletown assistant, but already the guidance counselor he would be throughout his career.
“I walked in and here was this guy, this guy with this look and this jaw, this look of steel about him,” Ryan recounted. “He looked right at me and I can’t remember the particular words, but I remember the intent: If you’re going to recruit this guy, you’re going to recruit a human being and you’re going to do everything in your power to make sure he succeeds athletically and as a student.
“I knew I was dealing with a man of integrity,” said Ryan. “I also questioned his sense of humor.”
Ryan, other coaching colleagues, friends, former players — anyone who knew him — could have used a touch of comic relief after learning Skubel had passed away Saturday at age 73 after a nine-year battle with cancer.
The Meriden resident won 137 games coaching football at Woodrow Wilson and Middletown High. He took teams to six state championships and won three of them. His 1984 Middletown team was voted No. 1 in the state. He was Connecticut’s coach of the year on four occasions.
Impressive numbers and feats, but those who knew him were taking a different measure Monday.
“We lost a good man in John Skubel, I tell you,” said Mike Falis, the long-time assistant coach at Maloney. “They don’t make them much better than him. Every time I spoke to him he’d ask, ‘How ya doing?’ And his next question was always, ‘How’s Rob (Szymaszek) doing?’
“He was one of those guys who was genuinely concerned,” Falis continued. “That’s what I remember about John. His championships and great years at Middletown High, that’s great stuff. More importantly, he was just a classy guy, a real gentleman.”
Skubel was much like Szymaszek, the Maloney head man who, in 2007, also succumbed to cancer. Both were guidance counselors who commanded an enduring love from players and colleagues. Both were coaches for whom X’s and O’s were not the half of it.
“You played so hard for him because you knew he cared about you. He cared about you and all the players as people. That’s one major thing I learned from him,” said Sal Morello, who played for Skubel in the 1980s hey-day of Middletown football and now coaches the Blue Dragons. “As a player, he was such a role model. He was a man of God and his family always came first. Now that I look back, I always remember, whether it was a win or loss, Mrs. Skubel was right there, always the first one on the field.”
Another Middletown player from that era, Derek Bortz, who now coaches the Connecticut Panthers in the semi-pro New England Football League never forgot how Skubel preached character, how he defined character as “who you are when no one is watching.”
Skubel, Bortz said, backed that up with action in the fall of 1988. Middletown went into that season ranked No. 1 and won its first two games by matching 42-13 scores.
But then it was discovered a Middletown player had erroneously been given academic credits that weren’t warranted. The ineligible player was a backup who had hardly played in either game. That was academic. Skubel self-reported to the CIAC knowing full well he’d have to forfeit the two wins and that the resulting losses would probably keep his team out of the postseason.
“A lot of people would try to bury that and just kick the kid off the team,” said Bortz. “Not Coach Skubel. Coach Skubel preached doing the right thing and he did the right thing. He told us, ‘I’m not going to apologize for what I did; it was the right thing to do.’ That rubbed off on a lot of us.
“We didn’t make the postseason,” Bortz added, “but we beat up everybody who did.”
Skubel stopped coaching Middletown football in 1995, but he never really left. He was a high school football fan, and the Blue Dragons were always high on his list of games to catch. Last fall, on a rain-swept night that saw most state games postponed, Skubel took in Maloney at Middletown.
By then, his one-time captain, Morello, was the head coach. Emulating the work ethic he’d learned from Skubel, Morello had built Cromwell into a state champion and, in only his third year at Middletown, had the Blue Dragons regaining state renown.
By then, Skubel’s name was a permanent part of Rosek-Skubel Stadium.
“I know he was football guy, but from a personal point of view it was special,” Morello said of seeing Skubel at his games. “He was interested in all the kids. He had former players on the sidelines. It was just special that he was watching over it.”
Depending on your faith, you might argue Skubel will continue watching.
“Absolutely he will be,” Morello replied. “We’ve got the stadium right here. It’s got his name on it. He’ll always have his imprint on this program.”
Long lasting: That’s fitting, because friends and colleagues say Skubel was, if anything, consistent. He was even-keel. He didn’t ream players out. He’d pull them aside and tell them what they should have done.
He was a gentleman’s coach. Ryan, once he got to Platt and got past that steel jaw of Skubel’s, would scrimmage Middletown every year because he knew Skubel played it the right way.
“He wouldn’t try to outfox you,” said Ryan. “He understood scrimmaging was to prepare your kids as safely as possible for the upcoming season. John Skubel was a guy I totally trusted.”
And got to know quite well. Each year Ryan and Skubel would head up to Storrs to watch UConn practice. They’d make the rounds to high school games.
They took in UConn’s game at Michigan a few years ago, and when Ryan’s suitcase burst open on an airport luggage carousel en route, Skubel busted out laughing. That’s when Ryan knew that while Skubel’s integrity hadn’t changed a jot since the day he met him, his sense of humor had.
Ryan and Skubel grew even closer in the last half year or so. Ryan would visit Skubel two or three times a week, whether it was at the hospital or at Miller Memorial.
The visits stopped abruptly when Ryan’s wife Jackie fell ill in July. Skubel was sent home from Miller Memorial about the same time, and for the last time. He called Ryan up, his voice raspy from the cancer that would not stay away.
“I can still hear his voice. How’s Jackie? That’s the last conversation we had.”
Ryan stopped by Skubel’s house on Kenmore Road not long after. Maybe they could make another itinerary, find a UConn practice to take in. Skubel’s son Eric met Ryan at the door and it was clear there was not going to be another season for Coach.
“We are losing a great guy out of our lives. A great guy to be around, a great guy to have conversations with,” Ryan said. “Unquestionably, a great coach. And a great man. And a pal.”