Paul F. Campagna, who led founded the wrestling program at Pulaski High in New Britain and led the Generals to five Class S state championships in a span of six years, has died at the age of 78 in Sarasota, Florida.
For more than 20 years from 1961 through 1982, New Britain had two high schools. Campagna was a football and wrestling coach at Pulaski. In 1970, he was part of a group that petitioned the New Britain Board of Education for funds for a wrestling program at Pulaski.
“Too many kids had nothing to do during the winter after football was finished,” Campagna was quoted in a December 1970 article in the Hartford Courant. “Wrestling gives these kids a chance. I think this sport offers more than all the other sports because there is a fairer chance for participation against kids of your own size and rarely is anyone cut from the team.”
Before coming to Pulaski, Campagna was introduced to wrestling at a New York State high school where he was employed. He didn’t wrestle as a youngster growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y. Campagna was hired to coach football at that school and coaching wrestling was also part of the package. And he embraced the sport.
As a physical education teacher at Pulaski, he introduced his students to the sport.
Pulaski never had a losing season under Campagna. The Generals won five Class S state championships in 1976, 1977, 1979, 1980 and 1981. In 1982, their final season, the Generals finished second in Class S.
In 1975, Pulaski won the Colonial Conference championship, an impresssive feat for a small school that competed against larger schools from Southington, Bristol (Central and Eastern) and Meriden (Platt and Maloney). The New Britain Herald said the wrestling team’s Colonial Conference title was the first for the school in any sport.
A year later, Pulaski went undefeated (16-0), won their second Colonial Conference title and their first state championship. Pulaski won by 117½ points, a margin of victory that remains a Class S record to this day. The State Open stopped keeping team scores in 1976 but unofficial tallies had Pulaski finishing third behind Ledyard and Conard.
In 1977, Southington beat Pulaski before nearly 1,000 fans to win their first Colonial Conference title and snap the Generals’ program record 36-match winning streak.
Pulaski shared the 1981 Colonial Conference championship with Bristol Central.
“Great guy but very tough,” said Dennis Siegmann, who coached at Bristol Central and led his Rams against Pulaski. “(Paul) loved his kids. He had some great teams. Always hard nosed, tough kids. That was a tough school to coach at. He had their respect and the respect of other coaches as well.”
Pulaski’s wrestling program finished with a record of 145-39-4 in 12 seasons. In terms of winning percentage (.779), Pulaski remains ranked No. 4 in state history behind Danbury, Fairfield Warde and Ledyard, according to the Connecticut High School Wrestling Record Book.
Derby High, led by their Hall of Fame coach Buster Jadach, mirrored his program after Pulaski. Derby finished second behind Pulaski in 1979 at the Class S championship meet and was third in 1981.
“We wanted to be like them,” said Jadach, who had been the head coach at Derby 1980 and led his Raiders to four Class S titles and more than 600 dual meet wins. “It was like going up against Danbury. I don’t know who else to compare it to.”
In the last 30 years, Danbury has won 21 Class LL state championships, 16 State Open titles and two New England championships.
“They (Pulaski) were tough kids and very competitive,” Jadach said. “They were great with takedowns and they were always in great shape. Once they got you down on the mat, you got so tired, they would pin you.”
Current Trinity College coach Sebby Amato wrestled three years with the Generals under Campagna, winning a Class S title in 1980 and helping Pulaski win two state championships.
“He was a competitor,” Amato said. “When you weren’t performing, he would get on you. He wasn’t an easy guy. He was tough on you.
Campagna had two experienced wrestlers on his staff – former Central Connecticut State letterman Dan Eberenz and Central graduate Paul Danielovich, who went onto coach in western Massachusetts.
“He never wrestled and had to learn it,” Amato said of Campagna. “But he was smart. He had coach Danielovich and Eberenz to help with technique.
“He was a big influence on me in my younger years. He was a mentor to me,” Amato said. “I wanted to be a coach. We loved him. I don’t know if he realized how big a deal he was to the wrestlers and (the team).”
Amato went onto compete in college at Western New England in Springfield under coach Bob Skelton. Amato has been the head coach at Trinity for 22 years. And the lessons he learned as a young man are still with him today. “These guys (Campagna, Skelton) are still in my head all of the time. I was lucky to have them in my life,” Amato said.
“He found guys. He found talent. We always had a good program,” Amato said.
When Pulaski closed in 1982, Campagna spent two years with the new program at New Britain High. He led the Hurricanes to the Capital District Conference title in 1983 before stepping away from coaching. He finished with a career record of 166-52-4 (.754).
His obituary stated, “Paul took greater pride in the men his wrestlers became rather than their performance on the mat. A holder of multiple Master’s degrees, Paul took great joy in being a mentor to his students and children. He would listen intently, ask questions, and say “I am confident you will figure it out.”
Campagna’s two sons – Glenn and Chris – were both excellent wrestlers at Farmington High, each winning individual state championships. Glenn, who used to come to Pulaski practices as a youngster, won four straight Northwest Conference titles. As a senior, Chris finished second at the State Open and third in New England.
Paul Campagna was named the Connecticut High School Coaches Association’s state coach of the year in 1977 for wrestling and was inducted into the New Britain Sports Hall of Fame in 2000.
Campagna is survived by his children, Courtney, Kimberly and Christopher along with 11 grandchildren. He was predeceased by his parents and his son, Glenn.