BirminghamDecember 4, 2013
Perfection defines a legend
By Mike Moore
C & G Sports Writer
DETROIT — He’s been in this place before, celebrating this exact same way after seasons with exact same finishes.
But, at long last, this was something entirely different.
This was the final bow, the curtain call to a career that will never be matched.
For the final time, the sideline was his.
A head coach from 1960-2013, longevity set Al Fracassa apart.
Out on top
Had it been prearranged, a more fitting end would have been tough to script.
In 2011, at the press conference following a Division 2 state championship, Fracassa said he wanted to continue coaching football at Brother Rice but wouldn’t commit to anything just yet.
A year later, at the same press conference following another title, he said many of the same things.
Eventually, it was decided 2013 was to be his last season.
The goal for his players became simple yet complex — give the coach with the most wins in MHSAA history one more title, a three-peat into retirement.
First, they talked about it. Then, they backed it up.
A 9-0 regular season gave way to dominant and punishing playoff victories.
A team playing as if it were possessed faced one more hurdle — the same one it eclipsed a year ago, in fact.
On Nov. 29, Fracassa led his guys to Ford Field, a perfect 13-0 record thrown into the ring against a 12-1 Muskegon team seeking revenge for last year’s championship-game loss.
“They are going to get after us, no doubt about it,” Fracassa said three days before the final.
As soon as it began, both teams got after it.
Damaris Woods hauled in a 16-yard pass from Alex Malzone to put the Warriors up 7-0 less than three minutes into regulation.
After Muskegon tied the game on the ensuing possession, Grant Perry made a one-handed, highlight-reel catch for a 34-yard touchdown and a 14-7 Rice lead.
Muskegon countered with a score of its own with 1:09 remaining in the opening quarter.
Four possessions, four touchdowns and a 14-14 tie.
From that point on, it was all orange and black.
Malzone, who completed his first nine passes, threw to Perry on an 18-yard strike to give the Warriors a 21-14 lead with just 1:07 remaining in the first half.
After a scoreless third, Jason Allesi nailed a 36-yard field goal to begin the fourth, and following a Muskegon fumble, Corey Lacanaria scored on a 21-yard catch just minutes later.
Malzone capped Rice’s scoring with 4:33 remaining in the fourth, converting a fake field goal with a 24-yard rush and eventual 38-21 win.
“I can’t believe it,” Fracassa said about his final game. “I hoped I had one more. … But this was a great year — a great three years.”
Malzone, a junior who passed for 263 yards and four scores in the final, talked the week before about how essential it was to send Fracassa out on top.
After doing so, he struggled to put to words what it meant.
“It’s hard to describe,” he said about the win and the 14-0 season, which was Rice’s first perfect campaign since 1983. “He is such a great coach and a great man. To see the passion and leadership he has, it rubs off on all of us. He’s an inspiration.”
Fracassa spent most of his time after the game praising those around him.
First, his players.
Then, his assistants.
“They do most of the coaching,” he said with a smile. “I do most of the yelling.”
Responsibilities had certainly changed the past few seasons, with those assistants taking on greater roles, as far as managing and running the team from practice to game day.
But they learned from the best.
Fracassa’s career began as an assistant coach at Rochester High in 1958.
In 1960, Royal Oak Shrine named him its headman, and after nine seasons and a 44-19-5 record, Brother Rice became his final destination.
From 1969 through last Friday, he was the face of the Warriors, building the Catholic school in Birmingham into a state football power every single year.
He won more than a dozen titles in the state’s most competitive league, appeared in 13 state finals and won nine state championships.
He coached more than 300 college players — 15 who went on to play professionally.
He leaves with a 430-121-7 overall record.
So many games, more wins than anyone else, and still, so tough to walk away.
“I wish I was younger and could coach some more,” he said. “When you love something this much, it’s tough to leave it.
“(The reality of retirement) hit me the whole season,” he said. “When I went home at night, it hit me. It was something I tried not to think about too much. Football kept me busy. But it’s here now. It’s time for someone else to take over.”
Phyllis Fracassa, the coach’s wife of 57 years, rarely attended his games.
“She was always too nervous; she’d beat people up around her,” he joked.
But on this day, she was there, cheering nervously along with many others from the Fracassa family.
In fact, the stands behind the Rice bench were packed, nearly filling the allocated seats in the lower bowl of Ford Field.
They came to cheer for the team and pull for the man in his last game.
“I told myself that if we didn’t win it, I’d still be very proud,” Al Fracassa said. “Because of the great experiences I’ve had, I was prepared mentally in case we didn’t get this one. But to win, it makes it even better. I can be just a little happier.”
And with that, he walked back to the locker room as coach for the final time.
A career now complete, it was longevity that set him apart, but success that defined him.