When Sam Pagano is inducted Wednesday as part of the 25th Hall of Fame class of the Colorado High School Activities Association, it will be the recognition of a long career that included wins aplenty, three state titles and a remarkable impact overall on the state’s football scene.
The values he taught to his players to be used later in life just seemed to come with the territory.
Talk with any of those former Fairview Knights, and they’ll tell you that Pagano was a fiery mentor with a knack for wanting to get to know you. And for Pagano, building relationships was a driving force in getting his players to buy in.
“I was big on relationships, relationships with the kids as individuals and as a group,” Pagano said. “You build those relationships, you get kids to play better for you.”
And boy, did those Knights play in the 25 years that Pagano was the Knights’ head coach, from 1969-1994. One hundred sixty-four times, the Knights walked off the field victorious, just 62 total times (including four ties) did they not. In 1978, 1979 and 1987, Fairview emerged as the champions of big-school football.
In all that time, Pagano said he tried to stick to one basic principle.
“I don’t know if I would call them values, but myself and my staff, we just always wanted to give the kids a good, solid program and we gave them a chance to be successful and to win games,” he said. “We coached them up and gave them all the important things in preparing them in practice.”
Those practices, though. To put it bluntly, they were war-like.
“If he didn’t like the way things were going, you always knew where Sam stood,” said Barry Remington, who played from 1979-81. “He always had the philosophy that you play the games like you practice during the week, and we had a lot of good football players on our team. So it was always spirited competition.”
“I had people tell me they could always tell it was a Tuesday because they could hear the pads hitting two and three blocks away,” added Eric Rutherford, a lineman who went on to captain the Navy football team in the early 1980s. “Those practices were tougher than games.”
Pagano is the first to admit he was blessed with a lot of talented student-athletes over the years.
But toughening up everyone on the depth chart was always the order of the day. When Pagano was in his later years, the intensity never wavered.
“There were a couple things that really stood out, and one was that he really believed in you,” former running back Chuck Snowden (1987-88) said. “His challenges made sense and you also always knew where you stood with him.
“And, everybody was a part of a team. It was a team effort all the way, and that was one of the things I really remembered and one of the things I tried to emulate as a teacher and a coach.”
“We had some outstanding, and I mean outstanding, student-athletes,” Pagano said. “Not all were all-state or all-American or all-whatever, but the kids — the 165-pounder, the 140-pounder that worked their tails off — getting all those kids to just buy in to our program. The program wasn’t made by the all-state or all-Americans, but by all the other kids that worked so hard to contribute.”
In just about every corner of the state, and even beyond its borders, are coaches who have been impacted by the way Pagano ran the Fairview program. Not the least of which are his two NFL sons, Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano and San Diego defensive coordinator John Pagano. Many of Pagano’s Fairview assistants went on to become head coaches at the high school level or assistants in college, and Pagano also said he was proud of the network that developed as a result of coaches working the Mile High Football Camp that he helped run for 36 years.
Hundreds of stories could be told among the thousands of athletes that Pagano had a direct impact on. For Rutherford, everything about his work like after college has boiled down to a few simple things, things he learned on the football field under a very influencial man.
“He never, ever told me to make every block or every tackle, but we he did tell me was for me to do my best, to be on time and to know my assignment,” Rutherford said. “Those three things are ingredients for success, and … every step of the way in my military service, law enforcement career and now in my own business, I remember those three things.”
Wednesday is a day for Pagano to always remember. Several of his players — men Pagano considers friends — are planning on attending the banquet at the Red Lion Hotel Denver Southeast. And, he will will be joining his mentor and friend, longtime coach and administrator Sollie Raso, in the Hall.
“I think he means a lot for Colorado high school football,” Remington said. “I’m sure a lot of coaches would tell you that, as well.”