Two football powerhouses, two great coaches
Their reverence for the old days comes honestly. That's because they are the old days. They are the personages, authors, illustrators and executive producers of the blue-collar backbones of the high school football programs they built.
They could have retired to their rocking chairs to ponder the sunset long ago. But that's not Jim Buonocore Sr., the once and future king of New London. That's not Bill Mignault, the face of Ledyard - town and school - for the 44 years he coached there.
Buonocore Sr. and Mignault won 530 games and eight state championships between them. They coached against each other for 30 years. They have been guest speakers at each other's banquets. They are husbands, fathers and grandfathers for whom high school football has always been a narcotic, running like a current through them, to their souls.
And they are why swells of technological contraptions will surround the football field bearing Mignault's name during the Saturday Morning Showdown, the latest rendition of the Ledyard-New London rivalry, later this week. The game coincides with The Day's foray into live video coverage on theday.com that will have the look, sound and feel of a network broadcast.
How ironic, indeed, that Buonocore Sr. and Mignault are the foundation for such gadgetry when their programs were never about anything but simplicity: Find a few plays that work and employ the monotony of everlasting repetition. No glitz. Red meat, boiled potatoes and state championships.
"When the game starts," Mignault was saying Monday, "what happens on the field is up to the kids. It's what they know. Not what the coaches know. So we always kept it as simple as possible."
That's why Ledyard-New London games became annual reflections of their coaching values: varying bouts with discipline and diligence. And in the case of this rivalry, finding a place to stay dry.
The long-range forecast calls for sunny skies and highs in the 50s Saturday. Just don't blame the Buonocores if they look for storm clouds.
"The thing I remember most about Ledyard-New London," Buonocore Sr. said recently, "is the day of the game I would call Bill and it would be pouring in New London. I'd say, 'Maybe move the game to tomorrow?'
"Bill would say, 'It's not raining here, coach. The sun is shining and the band on the field,'" Buonocore Sr. said. "I'd say, 'OK, if you say so.' We'd get there and it would be pouring. I'd say, 'Bill, it's pouring!' He'd say, 'It's just a cloud, it'll pass.' So we played in the rain. But we always had a good game."
Buonocore grinned, suddenly awash in the old days. Like how the visitors at Mignault Field didn't have (and still don't have) a locker room, but a garage area off the field to dress and make halftime adjustments.
"If it rained hard enough the garage would fill up. And of course, my coaches - Timmy (Riordan), Gil (Varjas), Jack (Cochran), Tommie (Major) - would get the kids all pumped up," Buonocore Sr. said. "Look, they put you guys in a garage! No respect! I'm trying to get things calm, 'take it easy fellas, we have a game to play.' But when they'd come out of that garage, I've never seen a bunch of guys so fired up."
Buonocore Sr., 78, coached the Whalers for 30 years. He remains an assistant coach under his son, Jim, who led the Colonels to the state championship game last year. He won 209 games and four state football championships at New London, turning the Whalers into the region's marquee program.
Buonocore was born in New London and played high school ball in the city before attending Ventura Junior College in California and Livingston College in Alabama. He played for the semi-pro New London Pequots and the Providence Steamrollers, the former farm team of the New York Giants.
He played some form of football from 1948 to 1967, retiring to begin raising a family and a coaching/teaching career. He's the father of four, married to Candy for 54 years. And now while the son, Jim, the Ledyard coach, pulls out his hair and barks at officials, the father coaches from the press box, merely makes suggestions, managing a sinister smile at watching his son experience the same emotions as he did.
"My father had a way to meet the need of every single player in the program. That's what I find the most amazing," Buonocore Jr. said. "He worked with kids of various backgrounds and made them feel like they were the most important player on the team. I also find it amazing he did it for 30 years. It's a grind. He's still going strong."
Indeed, he hasn't lost his fastball. He's as passionate now as the day he walked into New London for the first time.
"When I started (in 1969) I told (the players) if there's one thing we're going to get, it's the respect of the teams in this area and the teams around the state," Buonocore Sr. said. "They're going to recognize us as 'the' school. And we did."
Coaching his grandchildren
Mignault, 83, is a volunteer assistant coach at the Coast Guard Academy, but he still attends Ledyard games. His day last Saturday: Coast Guard game at noon, church with his wife (of 59 years), Patricia, at 5; Fitch-New London game at 7.
He began coaching at Waterford High School in 1958. He went to Ledyard in 1963 and coached 44 years there, retiring in March 2008 with his health, the most wins in state history (321), 10 league championships, four state titles and the respect of the fraternity.
"My father didn't win 321 games," said his son, Brian, who played for his dad and later coached with him. "He won his first game 321 times. Every game was the most important one to him."
Mignault was born in Killingly and played football for Killingly High School and UConn. His first coaching position was in the U.S. Air Force, where he fielded his first football team on a base in Germany with fellow lieutenant Don Klosterman, who later became the general manager of the Baltimore Colts and Los Angeles Rams.
Mignault set the state record for coaching victories in 2001 with grandsons B.K. and Patrick playing for him. He won his last game in 2007 when grandson Marc caught the winning touchdown pass in the state championship game.
Mignault finished his career two wins shy of owning the record for coaching victories in New England. He belongs to the Connecticut High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame, earned a Gold Key Award from the Connecticut Sports Writers Alliance in 2005 and received the Red O'Neill Award from The UConn Club as a former UConn athlete who has distinguished himself in a chosen career.
"Bill Mignault," longtime New London assistant coach Tommie Major said, "is a great man."
Come Saturday, two great men get to watch the very best of the programs they fostered. And in a way never seen before around here.
"It's always been a tremendous rivalry," Buonocore Jr. said. "Anywhere you go you can ask about Ledyard and New London. And people will know they have great programs."
Saturday Morning Showdown
New London vs. Ledyard at Ledyard High School
Watch the game live on www.theday.com beginning at 10:15 a.m.
Videos, photo galleries and articles: www.theday.com/showdown
Saturday Morning Showdown
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