By Dan Harrison
It was one of the greatest three-game stretches in Northeastern Conference history. At the same time, it marked the end of one of the greatest coaching careers on the North Shore.
The year was 1994 and a dark cloud loomed over the proud city of Salem as the teachers marched on the sidewalks in response to the school system's first-ever strike. Right smack dab in the middle of the picket line was Salem High head football coach Ken Perrone and his assistants, who had been ordered to refrain from coaching during the strike by superintendent Edward Curtin and mayor Neil Harrington. This was happening as the Witches were getting set to crash helmets with host Swampscott in a November battle of NEC unbeatens.
Knowing full well the repercussions that lay ahead and with the blessing of the Salem Teachers' Union (their contracts as coaches were not tied into their contracts as teachers), Perrone and his assistants decided to ignore the mandate and coach their players.
"For us, there was no decision. They said the game was on, so we were going to coach," said Tim Marcoulier, one of Perrone's assistants for all 22 years the latter was at Salem. "We were not going to let the kids go out there without proper coaching. If the game was on, for the health and welfare of the kids, we were going to coach."
Perrone's loyalty to the team was reciprocated by his players who, as a team, decided they would sit out the Swampscott game if Perrone and the assistants were forced off the sidelines.
Salem's quarterback at the time, Sean Stellato, can still remember the electric atmosphere at Blocksidge Field the day of the game.
"Going to the game we had a police escort. The stands were filled to the brim. It was like something out of a movie," said Stellato.
"What coach Perrone was doing for us, we channeled our energy and it made us more hungry to go out there and beat them."
Salem had been having loads of success with the ground game up to that point in the season, so Swampscott stacked the line defensively by putting nine men in the box. Perrone opted to open up the passing game and Stellato responded with a breakout day. In the end, Perrone was able to keep his Witches focused as they stunned the Big Blue 16-8.
Long before then, Perrone had cemented himself as one of the greatest and most innovative football coaches in North Shore history. Coming to the Witch City from Maine in 1973, he amassed a 151-64-7 record in 22 years, with only three losing seasons — and those losing seasons were barely that, as his clubs went 4-5-1 in its worst years.
The strike continued the following week as Salem hit the road to face two-time defending NEC champion Winthrop. The Witches got off to a slow start and trailed 21-6 heading into the final quarter, but rallied and on the final play of the game Stellato heaved a Hail Mary pass to receiver Manny DePena, who came down with a miracle catch in the end zone to make it 21-20.
Instead of an extra point to tie the game and send it to overtime, Perrone opted to give Elvin Rodriguez the ball on a sweep behind 300-pound offense tackle Willie Jones with Stellato lead blocking. When the 'E-Train' dove into the end zone for the 22-21 win, pandemonium ensued on the Salem sideline.
The strike ended four days later on Nov. 16 as the team prepared for its yearly Thanksgiving Day battle against 7-2 Beverly. Salem led 10-7 the entire second half until late in the fourth quarter when, on a 4th-and-1 from their own 28-yard line, Panther running back Jimmy Fultz fell into the pile of linemen and appeared to be down. However, his knees hovered inches above the grass at Hurd Stadium and he emerged from the pile to beat the stunned Salem players in a foot-race 72 yards to paydirt. A botched extra point left the Witches trailing, 13-10, with under a minute left in the game.
While the Beverly sidelines "erupted as if they had won the Super Bowl" as Stellato recalls it, Perrone remained calm and, on a fourth down of their own from midfield, dialed up a skinny post for DePena who caught a great pass from Stellato down to the Beverly 3-yard line with just seconds remaining. The E-Train then plunged his way into the end zone, securing the win.
That holiday triumph would be Perrone's final victory as a high school football coach. Having qualified for the state playoffs, Salem fell to Whitman-Hanson the following Saturday, 13-0, in the Division 3A Super Bowl.
After the loss, Perrone and all of his assistants were fired from their coaching positions. To this day, Perrone has not coached a down of football since.
From one Witch to another
Perrone was born on June 21, 1935, in Hamden Conn., but got his career started in Maine at Dixfield High (5-3) and John Bapst (47-6-0) after graduating from the University of Maine at Orono. Bapst is where Perrone first met Marcoulier, who was a player there from 1963-65.
In the last game of the team's undefeated '65, campaign Marcoulier remembers his team trailing at halftime until Perrone made his players strip off their home white uniforms and change into green jerseys in honor of the school's old nickname, the Fighting Irish.
"It was a motivational thing; we were all psyched up. If (the jerseys) were good enough for the old guys, then they were good enough for us," said Marcoulier. "We came back and held on to win by a point, 13-12. it was something Ken just pulled out of his hat."
It was one of five undefeated seasons Perrone enjoyed in his 37 seasons coaching football (he has added two in baseball).
After Marcoulier graduated, Perrone brought him on his coaching staff and the two moved over to Brewer, where Perrone led the 1970 team to an undefeated season in which they were ranked No. 1 in Maine and New England and No. 5 nationally — a feat no other coach in Massachusetts or Maine has achieved since.
Coincidentally, Brewer and Salem High are the only two high schools in the country that use the nickname 'Witches'. So when Ron Plante came to interview Perrone for the Salem High football position, Perrone already had a ceramic witch riding a broom hanging on his wall. It was a match made in heaven — and the historic Salem program thrived from Day 1 under Perrone.
When Perrone took over, the Witches were fresh off a disastrous 1-8-2 season. In his first year as skipper the Red-and-Black were a vastly improved 5-4-1 and more importantly won the Thanksgiving Day game against Beverly.
Salem had one of its best-ever seasons in Perrone's second year, going a perfect 10-0 all the way to the Division 2 Super Bowl, where a late fumble cost the Witches in a 21-20 heartbreaker vs. Andover.
In what long-time Perrone assistant and Salem High Hall of Famer Al Giardi calls "the greatest high school football game I've has ever been a part of", the 8-0 Witches traveled to Gloucester that season to do battle with touchdown throwing machine Jay Palazola (who played at Notre Dame and Boston College) and the 8-0 Fishermen. Trailing by six late in the fourth quarter, Billy Pinto faked a pass to older brother Steve at tight end and laid a perfect swing pass over to half ack Allen Larrabee who took it in for the score. Peter Harrington booted the extra point to give the Witches a thrilling 13-12 victory.
"I remember we pulled into Newell Stadium at 10:30 a.m. for a 1 p.m. I have never seen a crowd like that that early, not even in all the Thanksgiving games I have seen — and I've seen them all (for Salem) since 1954," said Giardi. "There had to be 7-8,000 people there when we pulled in."
That is how it was for Salem football in those days; when the Witches played, the city came out in full support. Bertram Field was the place to be on Saturday afternoons in Salem during the Perrone Era.
"When he came to Salem they had been down for a long time, but had a storied football past," said Perrone assistant — and now Beverly High head baseball coach — Dave Wilbur. "Ken was great with the community and bringing everything and everyone together. He brought pride to that program and it hasn't been matched since."
Perrone understood the importance of community relations, and those who lived in Salem in those days remember seeing his high school players marching along side all of the youth players at the annual Heritage Day Parade or the various youth clinics put on by the coach, his assistants and players. Perrone was even a huge fan of the school band and got them involved as much as possible to be a part of the football program.
Every player wearing a Witches helmet, whether they were eight years old or 18, was important to Perrone. He linked the youth program with the high school program so that all the teams in Salem ran the same system. When you were growing up in Salem, from the time you saw your first Witches game you dreamed of playing for coach Perrone — and he dreamed of having you.
When the high school team started summer practices, the first hour would be a cycle of stations with all the youth players so Perrone and his assistants could critique everyone and give the younger kids a taste of what laid ahead. There was no need to tape your name to you helmet freshman year, because Perrone and his assistants knew every incoming player by name.
Salem didn't rebuild, they reloaded — often times with stronger bullets.
It was ex-Colby College coach and athletic director Dick Magee who turned Perrone onto football and gave him his first job coaching the freshman team at Lawrence High in Fairfield while he was still a senior at UMaine.
Perrone put his creative mind to work, designing plays and various offensive formations that he would later become famous for at Salem. He was meticulously organized, a master of preparation and a firm believer in the philosophy that practice makes perfect. "Run it again" was his favorite phrase during practice, according to Marcoulier.
"He could do what he wanted in terms of offense because he didn't really grow up with football (due to a childhood injury), so he kept what worked and scrapped what didn't," said Marcoulier. "Besides our base offense (Stack-I), we had 12 or 14 other formations (at Salem). Some weeks we would run five or six formations, then the next week it would be something completely different."
He was innovative, whether it was two-platooning his lineman, short counts, motions or the unbalanced line, Perrone's offense had more misdirection than a David Blaine show and made him one of the craftiest play-callers in North Shore football history.
"He definitely cast some spells on some defenses," said Stellato. "He had the whole Witch thing going; he had that swagger. The Salem history is unbelievable and he embraced it to the fullest."
One of Perrone's biggest strengths was allowing his assistants the space and freedom to work within the system. In fact, Perrone's core of assistant coaches were at Salem almost the entire time he was. Giardi was on the staff every year except Perrone's last (a season he missed due to health issues) and Wilbur came aboard in '75 and coached through '94. To this day Wilbur still gets a birthday card from the man he calls his mentor.
Inside the numbers
As far as wins and losses go, Perrone was as consistent and competitive as they come. He had the utmost confidence in himself, his coaching staff and his players and for good reason.
If you include his unfathomable 58 seasons as a baseball coach, Perrone has a total of 1,366 wins with only 569 losses in the two sports. His teams have won a total of 49 championships, six state titles and Perrone himself has been received coach of the year honors 16 times. He is a member of the Maine Sports Hall of Fame, the Massachusetts Football Coaches Hall of Fame and will be inducted into the Southern Connecticut Diamond Hall of Fame at the end of November.
Perrone is entering his 59th season as a coach and plans on coaching at least another year after that for the Salem State baseball team, where he has been the head coach since 1983.
There is no denying that when Perrone left, Salem's winning tradition in football went with him. In the 15 seasons since his departure, Salem has enjoyed just two winning seasons and is a combined 60-98 (although the program did win its only Super Bowl under Sean Gallagher, one of Perrone's former captains, in 1999).
Perrone's true legacy shouldn't be measured merely by wins and losses, but what the players he coached have gone on to do with their lives. Currently, over 30 former Perrone players are coaching either football or baseball
"That's the real satisfaction for me as a coach," noted Perrone. "When you're young you look for wins, but as you get older it's the family aspect that really matters. The kids keep coming back. They are my family."
One member of the Perrone family who has really done his coach proud is current State Representative John Keenan, who remembers the values bestowed upon him and the teammates when he played linebacker and some fullback for the Witches from 1980-82.
"At the time I thought he was just teaching us how to win football games. Now when I look back I am quite confident everything I learned on the football field was equally important as what we learned in the classroom," said Keenan.
"In all the seasons over the years, he was creating productive citizens. And that's what being a coach and teacher at heart is all about."
KEN PERRONE — BY THE NUMBERS
5 — Northeastern Conference titles won or shared by his Witches (1974, '75, '86, '89, '94)
151 — Wins at Salem High, tied for most in program history
.696 — Winning percentage at Salem High