Adam Dunivan / BoCoPreps.com
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It’s all come full circle for legendary Fairview football coach Sam Pagano.
The man who is known as the architect of a well-rounded Knights program was once a young buck just trying to get his feet wet in the coaching world himself back in 1965.
It was that year that the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame inducted its first class of personalities, and a young Pagano actually got the chance to go with his mother and father to see Jack Dempsey, one of his father’s sports heroes, get enshrined. Also in that class? Dutch Clark, a legend in is own right who grew up in Pueblo and now has the area’s largest prep stadium named after him.
The Hall gained more Pueblo Pride on Wednesday, as Pagano was part of the 54th class to be called in and honored for their work in sports in the Centennial State.
“It’s unbelievable, and you really just never think of things like this happening to you,” Pagano said earlier this week in a phone interview. “It’s a big deal and it really feels good. And what a class to go in with.
“When you sum it all up, I grew up loving the sport … and what football has done, it’s allowed me to go to the University of Denver, to eventually coach at two great high schools, to guide outstanding athletes, to go coach in Europe, and to own a camp. All of it has been amazing.”
People who know Pagano well would tell you he’s the classy one — a coach who did things the right way, first as an assistant at Boulder High and then for a long, long time at Fairview where he accumulated a 164-58-4 record and three state titles.
In this case, the numbers can only say so much.
“He was a great leader of young men, and he was comfortable in that position, but he also knew how to surround himself with guys that worked hard,” said Rick Carollo, who coached alongside Pagano from 1977 through about 1983 and helped bring home two of those championships (1978 and 1979). “He understood talent and he understood motivation — he was a great motivator. He did everything first class.”
Added Doug Hatfield, who played for Fairview from 1978-80 and returned to help coach from 1983-89: “Sam’s a very loyal person, and what you see here is a product of that loyalty. He demanded hard work and loyalty to the Fairview program and I think that carried on through life with a lot of us who played for him. We were all honored to be a part of his life and be part of what he built at Fairview.”
Pagano’s guidance of Fairview into one of the state’s most formidable programs may bring a lot of recognition, but it was the Mile High Football Camp founded by Pagano that will also be fondly remembered for growing the sport in the state.
Back when camps weren’t an every-other-week venture, the Mile High Football Camp brought exposure for youth players and young coaches alike for 36 years.
As Pagano went from coaching Fairview — he retired from that position after the 1989 season — to eventually finding his way back to the sidelines in Europe from 1994 to 2002, the camp was seen as his top priority year in and year out.
For players, the chance to learn a few things from NFL veterans was prevalent, as was being able to work directly with prestigious high school and college coaches.
And for coaches, the networking was something else.
“You wouldn’t believe it,” Pagano said. “It became an annual event and a lot of the same guys worked together for 20-something years. It’d become a coaching clinic during the afternoon in the beer room, and then we’d play a lot of poker at night after the kids went to sleep. A lot of jobs were competed for right at that camp.”
It seems safe to say football has never betrayed Pagano, and he’s certainly never turned a cold shoulder to it. Even last year as his grandson, Mariano Kemp, was playing his senior season for FHS before heading down to play at CSU-Pueblo, Pagano and his wife didn’t miss a game at home or on the road. Another grandson, Carlo Kemp, is playing for Jim Harbaugh at Michigan — Sam was there every step of the way for Carlo as he was molding himself into one of Colorado’s top recruits in 2015-16.
Sam also helped mold two other brilliant football minds — those of his sons Chuck and John. Chuck Pagano coached the Indianapolis Colts for the past six years, while John Pagano has 20 years as a defensive coach in the NFL.
Both were in town to see Sam inducted on Wednesday.
“Growing up in a football family, I was really blessed to be around the sport, and to see how Dad did it and watching him in the early years it was all about relationships with people,” Chuck Pagano said. “Commitment, toughness, teamwork, competing … I took all those things as I learned as a kid and had a great foundation based on the principles of what Fairview football was all about.
“Whenever I got into a deal that I got sideways with something, I always went back and thought, ‘OK, what would Dad do in this situation?’ What an amazing life, an amazing legacy and an amazing career, and I feel fortunate to have had a front row seat to it.”