, Salem, MA

August 31, 2010

You Gotta Believe

For 23 years, Nizwantowski convinced players to buy into his system, resulting in enormous success

By Matt Jenkins
Staff writer

Steve Lomasney remembers the feeling.

He was just a boy at the time, but while acting as the Peabody High football team's water boy and watching his big brother Eddie and his teammates win the 1990 Super Bowl, something sunk into Lomasney's young brain.

"I wanted to be those guys as a 13-year-old kid. I wanted to go 11-0 and say that we were the best team when we stepped on the field," Lomasney, the Peabody High quarterback from 1992-94, said.

"That was instilled in those guys in 1985 and '86 and those great teams that played Brockton. I'm 33 years old and still talking about those teams and the tradition of Peabody football. The greatness they achieved, winning season after winning season, you thought, 'I have to carry this tradition on.' That's what made it so special."

What made it so special was head coach Ed Nizwantowski, who guided the Tanners from 1982-2004. He made Peabody High football the best show in town and created a tradition that made young men want to play — and win — for him and his program.

During Nizwantowski's tenure the Tanners accumulated a 174-59-4 record (.743 winning percentage). He has the most wins in program history, surpassing another legend: his former coach, Arthur Adamopoulos, in 1999.

He led the Tanners to 19 winning seasons, including 13 straight at the end of his career, and led the area in winning percentage in the 1990s.

Nizwantowski also patrolled the Tanners to five Super Bowls (1983, '86, '90, '93, '94), winning titles in 1990 over Tewksbury (20-14) and 1993 over St. John's Prep (36-0).

"As they became successful, it was kind of like a mystique. You always felt confident on the field with him," said Scott Wlasuk, the current Peabody High head coach and former Nizwantowski assistant. "If it was hostile on the sideline, you felt confident standing next to him. He'd find a way to win."

Wlasuk used to have a hard time stomaching the big games. He recalled gnawing on his fingernails and tearing through a couple packs of gum, yet Nizwantowski always remained calm.

He used to say to Wlasuk, "What are you so nervous about? It's just a football game."

"Niz made you a better coach and player," Lee Miller, a standout running back who played for Nizwantowski in the 1980s and coached with him from 1993-96 and 2000-01, said. "I've thanked him before in private and I'm proud to be able to thank Coach Niz again in public."

Starting to blossom

Replacing a coaching legend is a difficult thing to do. Replacing a coaching legend just four days before the season starts is a recipe for disaster.

Certainly, there were people at the time who thought Nizwantowski was in over his head when he took over for the great Adamopoulos just four days before the start of practice in 1982.

That notion gained momentum when the Tanners lost their first four games that season, three by shutout. But once Nizwantowski started winning, he never seemed to stop.

"I remember the first game we won; it was a screwball game against Everett. An Everett player made a mistake. He thought he was in the end zone because there were some field hockey lines painted on the field or something, but he screwed up because he was five yards short," longtime Nizwantowski assistant Terry Lee recalled of Peabody's 7-6 win over Everett that first season.

"The second year, we played in the Super Bowl against Natick. Wherever we've gone, we start winning in the second year. It's like a trend. The first year you get acclimated to the do's and don'ts, and then the second year seems to blossom for us."

Peabody went 9-2 in Nizwantowski's second year, losing 28-14 to Natick in the Super Bowl.

Nizwantowski's first year as a head coach was difficult because he had to put a makeshift staff together on the fly. He didn't have the luxury of a full offseason to assemble the perfect staff.

"He asked me to help him for a week; that's the God's honest truth. It ended up being a long week ... but I think it was worth it all," said Lee, who ended up coaching with Nizwantowski throughout his career. "I worked mostly with the linemen and psychological warfare.

"He's a brilliant man with X's and O's. I knew what my guys were doing, but I was honestly lost on the things he had his guys doing."

Nizwantowksi actually took it slow. Having coached with Adamopoulos for six years prior to taking over, he simply carried the old coach's system over until he could work in his own.

"I think 90 percent of the offense and defense was what the kids were used to (under Adamopoulos) and 10 percent was mine," said Nizwantowski, a Peabody High standout in football, hockey and baseball in the 1960s. "It gradually changed every year after that until it was 100 percent mine — or 95 percent mine and 5 percent Arthur's."

Nizwantowski wasn't one to believe he could get everything done on his own, either. He had a solid core group of assistants throughout his career at Peabody.

It takes a great coach to build a strong coaching staff, then allow them to handle some of the workload.

"Without a doubt. Once we got into a solid situation, we had assistants for 20 years," said Nizwantowski, who went on to play quarterback at the University of Tampa after Peabody High. "It made it so we didn't have to have coaches meetings; everyone was on the same page. We had a really, really good thing going here."

'Like a magic trick'

The list of great wins on Nizwantowski's resume is too long to mention.

The Tanners won some memorable battles against Greater Boston League rival Everett, including back-to-back wins in 1999 (21-12) and 2000 (6-0, on Ray Lamonica's 97-yard interception return). Nizwantowski's first Super Bowl win in 1990, a 20-14 victory over Tewksbury, also ranks high on the list.

In many ways, Peabody's 13-7 overtime win over Brockton in 1983 put the Tanners on the map in the Nizwantowski Era.

"I think that catapulted us into the Super Bowl. They were a rock 'em, sock 'em football team," Lee remembered. "It was a great play in overtime. Everybody thought Mike Ryan was going to get the ball ...and Peter Smyrnios ran a naked bootleg and scored the touchdown. The goal posts went down (after that victory)."

As impressive as all those wins were, however, Peabody's Super Bowl victory over St. John's Prep in 1993 may have been Nizwantowski's signature win.

"They were supposed to be 18-to-24 point favorites and we beat them 36-0," Nizwantowski said.

It was a matchup people had clamored for locally for years. Peabody and St. John's Prep were the North Shore's big-time football programs, neighboring Division 1 powers who roamed the same turf like a pair of schoolyard bullies. Yet their paths hardly ever crossed.

The two programs met on the field for a meaningful game only three times during Nizwantowski's tenure. The Eagles defeated the Tanners 21-6 in 1984 and 14-13 in 1985, but Peabody got revenge in a game very few people were giving it a chance to win.

St. John's was big, fast and had its usual crew of college-bound football players in 1993. The Eagles were led by senior fullback Rob Konrad, who went on to have a successful college career at Syracuse University and with the Miami Dolphins in the National Football League.

Peabody was talented but younger, mostly made up of juniors. The Tanners were really just coming into their own. They lost their season opener against Salem and tied Arlington in their fourth game. Their six straight wins to conclude the regular season were enough to get them to the Division 1B Super Bowl at Boston University's Nickerson Field.

It was a matchup the players dreamed about — and Nizwantowski helped them make victory a reality.

"When we found out we were playing St. John's Prep, there was never any doubt in my mind as a team, or myself as a quarterback, that we were not the better team," said Lomasney, a junior at the time. "I can't put my thumb on how he did it, but talent-wise they had us head over heels. Peabody had some great football teams and some great Super Bowl teams, but for ours to go in and beat St. John's Prep the way we did was like a magic trick."

Even those on Nizwantowski's staff had a hard time understanding how he prepared them to not just beat the Eagles, but completely dismantle them.

Peabody was hitting so hard that day that Konrad couldn't shake off the sting from a first-half tackle. He didn't play a down in the second half.

"We dominated in every phase of the game and our kids were running around like missiles," said Wlasuk. "For me, it came down to that motivation and him making each player believe in themselves and believe in the team."

Peabody brought the fight from the opening kickoff, never backing down from St. John's and had complete control by halftime.

"I told Niz at halftime, 'Look at this, it's like a hot knife through butter,'" Lee said. "A lot of people said it to us: it was like a working man beating an executive."

Peabody returned many players from that championship team the next fall and the Tanners made it back to Nickerson Field, where they lost to New Bedford 21-12 to finish 10-1 in 1994.

In some ways, Nizwantowski felt the accomplishment of returning to the Super Bowl was nearly as impressive as winning it the year before.

"They were under a lot of pressure because they were expected to go to the Super Bowl," Nizwantowski said. "It's okay to get there when nobody expects you to, but when you're supposed to and you win everything and go, that's a feat in itself."

Controversial ending

Nizwantowski's legendary run as the Tanners head coach ended in a cloud of controversy.

In the winter of 2005, Peabody High opened its spring coaching positions and Nizwantowski was not retained as the school's varsity baseball coach after 17 seasons on the job.

Later that year, all the fall coaching positions were opened and Nizwantowski was not rehired after 22 years on the football sidelines.

Patrick Larkin, the high school principal at the time, and Nadine Binkley, the superintendent of schools in Peabody, openied up the coaching jobs and both Larkin and Binkley have since moved on to new jobs.

"The saddest thing is the way they booted him. No one has ever been told why. It was all based on stories that had no foundation whatsoever," Lee said. "You don't just say 8-2 is not good enough all of a sudden."

Nizwantowski coached right-handed fireballer Jeff Allison on the baseball team. Allison became a first-round Major League Baseball draft pick of the Florida Marlins at the end of his senior year (2003), but missed a lot of time in the Marlins organization over the next couple years and found himself in legal trouble due to an addiction to drugs.

Nizwantowski was also featured in a Sports Illustrated article about Allison's struggle with drugs that ran in December of 2004.

Allison has been clean for more than three-and-a-half years now and is currently pitching for the Double-A Jacksonville Suns in the Marlins' farm system.

Nizwantowski sued the city of Peabody in 2005, claiming age discrimination was the reason for his dismissal from the football and baseball jobs. The case finally went to court earlier this month and, after a three-and-a-half day trial, the jury's verdict came back against him.

"I look back at it as a growing experience," Nizwantowski said prior to the verdict in his age discrimination lawsuit earlier this month. "You never stop learning — and I learned quite a bit about the people in this community when this happened."

Nizwantowski was replaced as Peabody High football coach in 2005 by Paul Uva, who lasted only two years and went 4-6 and 1-9, respectively. Dick Woodbury then took over for one season and went 1-10 before Wlasuk came on board in 2008.

In total, the Tanners have won only 13 games in five seasons since Nizwantowski was let go.

"What do they say, you never miss the water until the well runs dry? There's a good case of it," said legendary former Salem High coach Ken Perrone, who engaged in many on-field battles with Nizwantowski and the Tanners.

"People take success for granted. You can have good players, but you have to have a good coach to organize and run the ship. He did a great job — and I think people are just starting to realize what a great job he did.

"I was always a Niz fan. He always told it like it was."

Even through all the turmoil at the tail end of his career, Nizwantowski can still look back at the adventure as a positive experience.

"I truly had a tremendous experience," Nizwantowski said. "Not everybody gets to come home and coach and teach in the same town they were brought up in. To me, it was the dream job. I'm just thankful for the opportunity. I got 22 great years coaching football and baseball."

Niz may no longer be patrolling the sidelines, but his record will always remain among the best in Peabody High football history. And he will be immortalized with his induction into the Peabody High Athletic Hall of Fame later this year.

"I'm going to tell you how he'll be remembered; he's the best football coach ever," Lee said. "I've been there for six coaches and I think I can make that statement. I was a player, I was a coach and I was a parent of a (1990) Super Bowl winner. I think I've covered all the bases. He's the best ever."