By Josh LaBella
Bert Siclari used the principles he learned on the football field to help students succeed.
Siclari, who was born and raised in West Haven, said he grew up playing whatever sport was in season with kids from the Savin Rock neighborhood. He added that he enjoyed being a “beach bum” in the summer.
The Westie soon found football to be his passion. A defensive end, he played in high school, culminating with an undefeated season in his senior year.
“We ended up being ranked number-one in the state of Connecticut,” said Siclari. “We ended up being ranked number one New England. We ended up being ranked number five in the nation. The thing I like to hang my hat on, is that none of the players ever bragged about it.”
After high school, Siclari went to Milford Academy – a preparatory school – where he continued to play the sport. Eventually, he went to play at Idaho State University, getting a full scholarship. He said he was “undersized” compared to other players out west.
“I was probably 245 at the time,” said Siclari. “I was small. I got pounded.”
Siclari described his time at the university as a series of beatings. He said it was a big change from what he was used to in Connecticut. In hindsight, he said he should have played for a local college or university.
He played at Idaho for two and half years and then transferred to the University of Bridgeport. Siclari said he played better at the school. He graduated with a degree in physical education, which sent him off on a career in molding the minds of students.
“From there, I started my master’s in physical education, where I specialized in physical education for the handicapped,” said Siclari. “I finished my degree in two and half years. Then I got my sixth-year degree in administration and supervision.”
Siclari said during all those years he spent any time he could helping out coaches on the football field. This was Siclari’s start in what came to be a 33-year time as a coach. He said he enjoyed working with the players.
While coaching, Siclari also worked construction and as a substitute teacher. He was then asked by the Board of Education to apply for a job as the director of an alternative education program.
“They wanted to set up a program to save kids who were smart but were failing,” said Siclari. “They didn’t give me any direction – that was it.”
The coach and teacher said he did not even have a room when they hired him – he worked out of the football room in the high school. He said the teachers sent him 27 of the toughest students in the school. Over time, he developed a screening process for student admittance as well as an education curriculum. He said the program grew over the years.
The program was on a volunteer basis; no student was forced into it. He said he was strict, involving parents if anyone stepped out of line, was late or cut class. Siclari said the role combined the jobs of a teacher and guidance counselor.
He ran this program for 18 years while also coaching football. Siclari said he is still approached by former students who tell him he impacted their lives for the better.
“As I get older, and I’m bumping into these guys, whether students or football players, it’s true,” said Siclari. “I really didn’t know the influence that I had on them. I wasn’t there to influence them. I was there to help them out. It’s heavy duty. You appreciate it later on in life, because it makes you realize how fulfilling your life is.”
Siclari said he did not know at the time, but he had found his purpose. The program was evaluated by the state as being 83% effective. He said he always enjoyed working with teenagers, adding that he always related to the students who “had a lot of problems.” He said there are a lot of kids who still hold a special place in his heart.
When the city went bankrupt, the program was closed. He ended up working as a physical education teacher at Bailey Middle School. He said it was “a lot” different than his time at the high school.
“I rolled up my sleeves and went to work,” said Siclari. “I applied football to whatever it was I was teaching in class. Hard work, perseverance, preparation and organization.”
Coach Siclari did that for six years and then got charged with running the in-school suspension program. He said he went in their and laid down the rules. He said football players would come in and watch game film and that having them their helped keep the other students in line.
Siclari retired from teaching at 60 years old. He worked in West Haven for nearly 35 years.
Regarding coaching, Siclari said he coached under Tom Hunt for 13 years and under Ed McCarthy for 20. He said one of his favorite activities was to go scout other teams. This, he said, was before schools exchanged game film.
Siclari said his wife Darcy, a former New Haven police officer, and his daughter Shannon, a sophomore in college, are the loves of his life. When he started his family, he said he began to realize it was time to retire from coaching.
“I told Eddy [McCarthy] after the Shelton game in 2002,” said Siclari. “It was the second game of the season. We beat them and I told Eddy, ‘Eddy, this is it for me – at the end of the season I’m all done.’ We ended up going undefeated. It was a great, great way to go out.”