Cochran returns to NL on Friday, but he's already back home on football field

Killingly — Jack Cochran comes home Friday, home to New London, to the high school football field where it began. Cannamela Field was hardly the turfed lawn it is today back in the 80s, but the shapes, sounds and forms will run like a current through the complex man for whom time's passage has changed everything.

Cochran, a football savant, is coaching again, a volunteer at Killingly, the Quiet Corner program making quite a racket, riding a 15-game winning streak into the 06320. Jack is back, coaching defensive backs and receivers, complete with the ever-present whistle and commanding voice, but a man humbled by his circumstances.

It has been five years since he's been on the field. The man who is 160-24 with state championships at Bloomfield, New Britain and New London, the man the state's governing body of high school athletics sanctioned and scolded regularly, enough to imperil thoughts of a rebirth.

Now Jack Cochran, who ran Recovery Room, a popular city eatery, has undergone his own reformation, proof all over again that if enough time passes, souls repair themselves and everything heals: bodies, hearts, wounds and minds.

This is the same Jack Cochran: What he sees, hears and teaches on the field still comes from what feels like a higher order.

This is a different Jack Cochran: He owns his past.

"This is the most fun I've had in a long time," Cochran was saying after Wednesday's practice, when he spent as much time laughing and busting a few chops as he did teaching the game he loves. "It was tough for a while. This has been rejuvenating.

"I missed being with kids. I love working with them. The camaraderie. Having fun at practice. You don't get that as a head coach. My favorite days were as an assistant at New London and (the University of) New Haven. I let things get way too serious as a head coach. Everything was win, win, win, win. I got possessed with it. It wasn't healthy. Especially at New Britain with so much pressure. Now I coach, go home and (head coach) Chad (Neal) has all the pressure."

Cochran grinned.

Funny thing, too, about Cochran's absence from the field. The man consumed with football and winning, not necessarily in that order, learned something: We're always where we need to be, regardless of whether circumstances make sense at the time. The thought of leaving the field for five years would have once spooked him. Turns out the time away was edifying.

"Good things happen from bad things," Cochran said. "Getting out when (his son) Casey was a sophomore let me be a dad, rather than a coach. It was very hard not coaching him, but in the long run, it was a Godsend. I needed to step back and let him play."

Still, though, football is Cochran's narcotic. It's that way with football coaches. So he called Neal in the spring. Cochran bears much respect for Neal, for whom patience and time have been equally enlightening. Losing seasons are mere prologue for what's become of Neal and his program, the defending Class M state champs.

Neal didn't have an opening, but maintained contact with Cochran, who was umpiring baseball in eastern Connecticut during the spring. When assistants Kevin Marcoux (became the school's athletic director) and Josh Fortin (military) left, Neal had the ultimate replacement.

Not all coaches, whose egos sometimes swell to the size of passenger's side air bags, would be comfortable with inviting such a big personality — who is a crisp 76 games over .500 — on staff.

"If you run a program or a business, you can't be afraid to get better," Neal said. "One thing you want to avoid is complacency. The last few years, we've been successful. But you don't want to rest on your laurels. For me, I want to provide my players with the best coaching there is. It's not about me, Jack or (defensive coordinator) Gary (Brine). It's about these kids and winning games."

And now with Neal, Brine (defensive coordinator on two state championship teams in his career) and Cochran, here's one to write down: The Redmen may lose, but they're not getting out-schemed.

"I was really excited when he got here," senior Matt Phelan said. "He's a historic coach in Connecticut. I've learned so much in this last month alone. I appreciate how much he loves football. His knowledge can transcend a team."

Cochran, no longer in the food business, is close to a landing a teaching job at another school. Meantime, he's a substitute at Killingly.

"From gym class, to the classroom, to being with the chickens at vo-ag," Neal said.

Not a bad guy to have on your sideline on Friday nights either. Cochran will coach Friday from the press box.

"The things that go through his mind," Neal said. "Everything is math with him. Everything is about timing. 'It takes that kid six steps to do this and it needs to take three.' So much is going through his mind, it's incredible."

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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