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Football: After 36 years, Paganos take break from Mile High camp

Sam Pagano
John Leyba
Sam Pagano

Sam Pagano and his daughter Jennifer were still fielding several calls per day last week, as Father’s Day neared, from people trying to sign their kids up for the Mile High Football Camp.

The callers couldn’t comprehend what they’d seen on the camp’s website, that there would be no Mile High Football Camp in 2012 and to check back in 2013.

After 36 years of hosting what had become a Colorado institution for the young players and wide-reaching fraternity of coaches who loved to attend, the Pagano family decided it was time to give the operation a rest.

“It was a lot of fun,” Sam Pagano said recently.

But it was also a lot of work. And with Sam’s sons Chuck and John both engrossed this summer with new jobs — as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts and defensive coordinator of the San Diego Chargers, respectively — the timing for a break was right.

John Pagano, a firm believer in giving back to the state where he grew up learning the game of football, is adamant about resuming the camp as early as next summer. But for one year at least, rather than checking in campers on Sunday as had become his Father’s Day tradition, Sam Pagano, 74, spent the day simply enjoying family — the thing so many of those days at the Mile High Football Camp were about for the Paganos anyway.

“It means so much to us being a family and being able to do that,” John Pagano said of hosting the camp.

Sam was the mastermind behind the camp, which proved to be ahead of its time when he got it going in the 1970s and ’80s. But Jennifer and his wife Diane helped run the show, and Chuck and John were mainstays as coaches. John, in fact, made it every year, either as a camper as a boy or a coach working the camp.

And many of the college coaches who returned year after year grew similarly close ties to the event.

“I developed some of my best friendships that I met and continued on from the Mile High camp,” said UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, who worked the camp for much of the 1980s and 90s.

As Sam Pagano puts it, nowadays, “There’s a camp on every block,” and most college football programs hold their own as a way to attract top talent to campus for evaluation.

But in the 1970s, such events were rare nationally, much less in Colorado. While working at an Offense-Defense camp out of state one summer, Pagano — then building a legendary resume as head coach at Fairview High School — was intrigued.

“I thought, ‘I could do that,'” he said. “So we started one in Colorado.”

Pagano had run a camp in Boulder with CU Buffs great Bobby Anderson and had some experience. But the Mile High camp reached another level.

Originally called the John Ralston Camp, the title changed after two years when the Denver Broncos coach who helped start the camp left town.

The camp rotated through multiple locations over the years, from Colorado School of Mines to Colorado State to Northern Colorado back to Mines and then to Colorado Christian. At its height, it drew 500 campers from around Colorado and the West, eager to show off their talents. Often, as many as 50 coaches from the college and high school ranks would help out.

And the list of professional players who would coach or give motivational speeches at the events reads like a Pro Bowl roster: Peyton Manning, Steve Young, Barry Sanders, Tom Jackson, James Lofton, Jay Cutler, Charles White, Vinny Testaverde, and on and on.

Colorado wide receivers coach Bobby Kennedy was one of multiple Boulder High and Fairview products like Tony Boselli and Scott Lockwood who had the unique experience of attending the camp as preps and then later spending their summers home from college coaching at the event.

“We had a lot of fun,” Kennedy said. “We did a lot of the grunt work because we were the young guys. But we just wanted to be around those guys.”

“Those guys” weren’t only the likes of Boselli, Sanders, Young and Steve Beuerlein — a group with whom Kennedy once found himself in a lunchtime pickup basketball game — but also the many college coaches in attendance.

Kennedy knew early on that he wanted to get into coaching, and the networking opportunities for young coaches at the camp were seemingly endless.

“There were a lot of college coaches that went through that camp, and lots of them are pretty damned successful,” said Bob Cortese — a former CU player who made a name for himself building a powerhouse program at Mesa College in Grand Junction in the 1980s and who was assistant camp director for Mile High for more than 20 years. “It was a way of networking that was unheard of at that time.

“That camp probably had more to do with more people’s careers than you can shake a stick at.”

Mazzone can attest. The camp is where he first met Tommy Tuberville.

Cortese chuckles as he recalls sending a young Tuberville, a graduate assistant at Miami at the time, out to get cigars for the other coaches. But years later, when Tuberville had risen through the coaching ranks and was hired as head coach at Ole Miss and he was looking for assistant coaches, Chuck Pagano recommended he take a look at Mazzone and Joe Pannunzio, all of whom had worked together at the camp.

Tuberville proceeded to hire away from Minnesota Mazzone as his offensive coordinator and Pannunzio as tight ends and special teams coach.

The camp is also where Mazzone met Charlie Williams, now Chuck Pagano’s wide receivers coach for the Colts and godfather of Mazzone’s son.

Such relationships were forged not just on the field at Mile High camp but during nine-hole golf getaways during lunch breaks, late-night poker games and after-hours chalkboard sessions in the coaches lounge, where ideas, plays and philosophies were swapped.

The coaches were drawn to the camp because of the talent they could evaluate on the field, sure, but also to see each other.

“I think it was one of the first ones,” Mazzone said of the camp. “Coaches would come from all over the whole country. We’d grind our butts off all week for 150 bucks. We weren’t coming to get rich. We were coming to spend time with the other coaches. It was a lot of fun.”

If the Mile High camp eventually lost some of its uniqueness as more and more camps popped up around the state and the country, its reputation has had staying power.

The Paganos decided to stop hosting high school players in the mid-2000s. But the camp has remained a hit with 8-14-year-olds, with many men who’d grown up attending the camp bringing their sons for the same positive experiences they’d enjoyed.

“It was a great way to help the community,” said Sam Pagano, whose favorite memories are of the thanks he’d receive from parents and players at the week’s end. “It was a great summer job.”

Follow Josh on Twitter: @JoshLindenstein

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