Fitchburg High AD Ray Cosenza Announces Retirement
FITCHBURG -- When the late, great Doug Grutchfield, the former athletic director for the Fitchburg Public Schools, pulled off what many who wear Red and Gray consider his greatest coup in the spring of 1989, it started a countdown that not many thought about when Ray Cosenza led Fitchburg to gridiron glory on several occasions in the 1990s and early 2000s.
But now as we grow deeper into 2019, three decades hence, that very countdown is in its final minutes, the sand grains in the hourglass trickling down to nothingness.
Cosenza’s 30-plus years of service to the city of Fitchburg and athletics within her limits will come to its inevitable conclusion following the school year, as he will retire from teaching and his position as athletic director.
The Fitchburg Public Schools announced his retirement on Twitter Friday afternoon.
The search for Cosenza’s replacement -- well, successor ... there’s no replacing a legend -- has already begun; the job was posted in March.
Speaking with the Sentinel & Enterprise Friday evening following baseball practice, Cosenza noted the last three decades offered “a great opportunity.”
“I fortunately got to coach some of the best athletes in the state, and work with some of the best coaches under the mentorship of Doug Grutchfield,” he said. “I mean, I had the best job going.
“What I know I’ll reflect back on is no one season or no one victory, but all of the great kids and the fellow coaches I worked with there, because that’s what it’s all about. I’ve been so blessed to coach not only the best athletes, but the best people. I see kids 10, 20, 30 years after they graduated; we won’t talk about games, but they’ll talk about what our program taught them.”
Cosenza’s time with Fitchburg technically began in the fall of 1988.
At that time, Fitchburg football was in a doldrums period: John Dubzinski Sr. had changed allegiances from Fitchburg red to Leominster blue three years earlier, and FHS had only beaten the Blue Devils once -- in 1984 -- since 1972, a Thanksgiving record of 1-15. In order to turn things around, the Red Raiders needed the right man for the job.
Enter Cosenza, who was a standout two-sport athlete -- football and baseball -- at St. John’s of Shrewsbury in the mid-1970s, and had come north to coach football and baseball at St. Bernard’s in 1985, taking over for the immortal Huck Hannigan the next year. The Bernardians in those days experienced a great deal of success on both the diamond and the grid; for instance, the Blue and Gold beat Fitchburg in three straight football contests from 1986-88.
That caught the eye of Grutchfield, and he recruited a Fitchburg grad on Cosenza’s staff to woo him over to Academy Street from the foot of Tar Hill. In fact, at halftime of the 1988 Fitchburg-St. B’s game, with the Bernies up 28-0, it was that Fitchburg grad, Mike Pelland, who said to Cosenza, “We’re going to go to that team and turn it around.”
“It first started that November,” Pelland recalled Friday evening. “After practice, I said to Ray, ‘Let’s take a ride.’ We went to Doyle Field for that Chicken Bowl. Fitchburg-Leominster impresses anyone. I said to him, ‘This is the place we want to be someday.’”
“It was off-hand,” Cosenza said. “There was nothing open. But later that year, I got a call from coach Grutchfield and (he) told me it was open.”
It would take time for Cosenza to transform the Red Raiders from doormats to champions; in the first year under Cosenza, FHS went 4-6, and then went 6-4 in 1990. Prior to the 1991 season, he quickly installed the Bigger, Faster, Stronger program into the first-floor weight room, and soon challenged the Red Raider football team to dig deeper.
″(The turnaround) didn’t happen overnight. Bigger, Faster, Stronger had to do with our kids’ confidence and our speed, and we had great athletes,” Cosenza said. “We had kids who worked hard and were great athletes.”
Not only that, he soon put the word out to the top football programs across the Commonwealth: Come at us, see what happens.
The first to answer the call was Brockton, which came up to historic Crocker Field on Oct. 7, 1991. As the saying goes, to be the best, you have to beat the best, and in 1991, they didn’t come any better than Armand Columbo’s boys.
That week, the Boston papers wrote that Fitchburg was out of its hill-town minds. No one gave the Red and Gray much of a chance to win, let alone be competitive against the Boxers, whose senior class were freshmen when they came up to Leominster and were thoroughly embarrassed three years earlier. The Boston papers said Fitchburg would get embarrassed. Six wins against Central Mass. teams were nothing compared to an Eastern Mass. schedule.
As it turned out, this was a rockfight, and FHS gave it everything it had. When it was all said and done, many eyes were opened to the young men from the Paper City, who had just punched Brockton in the mouth: The Boxers escaped with a 7-0 win, and returned to Route 123 with their tails between their legs.
It led to a secondary rivalry with North Middlesex, Fitchburg’s first win over Leominster in seven years, and its first Super Bowl title since 1972.
“Then we started a streak of our own,” Pelland said. “After that 14-0 win at Doyle, I told people, ‘You’d better get used to this. Because it’s going to happen again.’”
Under Cosenza’s leadership, there were many more championship game appearances, and two more titles -- including the perfect 12-0 season in 2000. Cosenza was inducted into the Fitchburg High School Athletic Hall of Fame in 2011, as part of its seventh Induction Class.
And while Cosenza also led the baseball team during its final years at Crocker Field -- he would step away and hand the reins over to Rich Vacarelo when the team moved behind the 2000 high school -- he found himself lifted into the athletic director’s chair after Grutchfield retired in 2002.
He has held that job ever since; he would step away from football in 2011 with a 165-93 record to concentrate on the AD’s job, but he would return to the baseball diamond and lead the Red Raider hardballers to two sectional tournament appearances, as well as last spring’s Taddeo Tournament title.