CLARKSVILLE — Long-time, and legendary, Providence High School football coach Gene Sartini was laid to rest Friday.
The man who guided the Pioneers, and shaped the lives of countless young men, for four decades passed away Saturday at the age of 88.
Friday was a celebration of Sartini’s life and the three things he cherished the most — faith, family and football. It was also a farewell to a man affectionately remembered as “Dad,” “Nonno” and “Coach,” who was part icon, part institution at the Catholic high school in Clarksville.
“There’s never going to be another Gene Sartini. He was one of a kind,” current Providence head football coach Larry Denison said earlier this week.
On Friday morning Denison, who played for Sartini in the early 1980s and later coached with him, served as one of his pallbearers. He helped wheel the casket carrying Sartini’s body onto the field that now bears his name. On that field former players (some wearing their old jerseys) and coaches from the Sartini Era formed a human tunnel and aided in the procession that went from one end zone to the other. It was then that many said their final goodbyes to a coach remembered fondly.
“So many things of the person I am today are because of him,” 1993 PHS graduate Chris Gunther said earlier this week. “The team, the morals, the character, everything that I stand for came through Coach Sartini and has come through football. It’s definitely changed from the times where he was grabbing your facemask and calling you a knucklehead, to forcing us to be a good man. It wasn’t only about being a good football player, it was about being a good man. I remember so many times when I’ve used things that he taught me off the field more than on the field.”
The downfield march was followed by a prayer, then one final “breakdown” by members of the current football team.
After that it was on to St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Parish for the funeral.
Greg Hublar, a former All-State player under Sartini, helped open the service by reading “It’s All In the State of Mind” — a poem that the coach passed out to his players every year — before closing with a personal sentiment.
“I love you Coach,” Hublar said.
Later, Sartini’s son, Gino, delivered the eulogy.
He remembered his father’s early life while growing up in “The Region” of northwest Indiana. While most of his friends went off to work in the steel mills after graduating from high school, Sartini ventured to Louisiana State University on a football scholarship.
“They said all that was required was the date he graduated high school. Dad said, ‘That was the SEC [Southeastern Conference] for you,’” Gino recalled to laughter.
He reminisced about his father’s brief stay in the bayou, his days as a player at the University of Louisville (where one of his teammates was future NFL Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas) and his early coaching days, all leading up to his arrival at Providence in 1971.
“Well, we all know what happened after that — faith, family, football. Dad loved God. He loved his family and he sure as heck loved football,” Gino said.
Sartini had a distinguished career with the Pioneers, guiding them to five sectional titles and a pair of state runner-up finishes (in 1973 and ‘93) in 40 years. He also provided fodder for an endless number of anecdotes, many of which were retold over the past week, with his coaching tactics and antics.
“He always had the whistle and he would hit you in the head with it if you were out of line,” Gunther remembered Monday. “When I try to think of Sartini stories, maybe two weeks ago it would’ve been different, but today all I can think about are the times where he picked me up and forced me to keep going when I was tired and hurting. Or on the sideline when I didn’t want to have my helmet on and he made me put it on because that was discipline, that was character — those are the things that are coming to mind when I’m thinking of him right now. Just how good of a man he was.”
He was also a fairly good dancer and card-player, especially when it came to euchre, according to his son.
“You always wanted to be on his team, because he’d cheat more than anybody,” Gino said with a laugh.
Sartini was also a lover of music, and his Italian heritage. So it was no surprise that the Frank Sinatra classic “Fly Me to the Moon” played as Sartini’s casket was pushed down the aisle after the service.
On the back page of the program for his funeral was a copy of the letter that Sartini sent out to every parent of his players every year before the season started. The last sentence of the letter read: “I sincerely feel that your son’s contribution to the football squad will be far overshadowed by the football team’s contribution to your son.”
It’s Sartini’s contributions to football, Providence and Southern Indiana in general, though, that will likely loom large for years to come.