By Nancy Remkus
“Each person holds so much power within themselves that needs to be let out. Sometimes they just need a little nudge, a little direction, a little support, a little coaching, and the greatest things can happen.”
— Pete Carroll
There are halls of fame with photos and memorabilia. They are buildings that open at nine, charge admission and often have a gift shop. But the true hall of fame, the treasure left behind by hours of training, coaching and dedication — lives within the heart of the athlete. There is a place there that waits to be inspired and encouraged, guided and taught. For 31 years, Coach Bob Vishno inspired the young athletes of Sag Harbor to be their best — but not just the best at their sports…to be the best human beings. “As a coach you can have such an effect on so many; you help to develop their attitudes and character, their loyalty. I was demanding, I taught self-discipline, respect and responsibility. I wanted to contribute to my students’ future success.”
Coach Vishno is an elite member of his high school’s Sports Hall of Fame in Branford, Connecticut. Inducted in 2001, it was stated, Coach Vishno, “demonstrated a zeal for life as an athlete, a teacher, an administrator, a coach and a close friend.” In high school, Coach Vishno played every sport, and he went on to receive a scholarship to Milford Prep School and the University of Colorado. He returned to Teachers College in Southern Connecticut to be near his love, Lillian, and on February 14, 1952 they were married.
Lillian, a tenured teacher in Connecticut, and Coach Vishno had a friend who knew the superintendent in Riverhead, who in turn knew Mr. Crozier, principal of Sag Harbor schools. Two positions were open, and Coach and Mrs. Vishno applied. Their plan was to take the ferries and walk to Sag Harbor for their interviews. Little did they know how many miles lay between. A kind man from Westhampton offered them a ride. “When Lillian saw all of the water from Greenport to Shelter Island to Sag Harbor she fell in love with the place.” The rest is history. The coaching position had already been filled, but Lillian was offered the third grade position, and Coach Vishno was offered the fourth grade position. “I taught elementary school for 10 years and loved every minute of it,” reminisced Coach Vishno.
“In 1970 I was up at a summer camp in Vermont when I got a call from Sag Harbor’s coach Ed Petrie, ‘I’m leaving,’ he said. I had coached JV Basketball under Ed all of those years. I called and told them I was interested in the position.”
Coach Vishno went on to coach baseball, basketball and golf. “I helped to start the golf team at Pierson with Bob Bubka. We had many good players.”
A highlight in Coach Vishno’s career was winning Pierson’s first State Championship in basketball in 1978. “The team flew up to Rochester for the big game. For many it was their first time on an airplane. The team we were playing was 22 and O, and we beat them. Peter Schaefer made the winning shot. We had a great bunch of players. We took a bus back to Sag Harbor, and the fire department met us tooting their horns and blowing their sirens. Fred Hines was there with the High School Band, and Joe Ricker came with the WLNG truck doing interviews. It was such a long night that Superintendent Dr. Dominic Annacone gave the high school the morning off. Lillian was a little upset because the elementary school still had class. I stayed in bed.”
Coach Vishno was also very active in helping students get into the colleges and universities of their choice. “I had a lot of contact with coaches, and I helped players get into schools and further their education. They probably would have gotten in on their own, but I was there to help.”
“With mixed feelings,” Coach Vishno retired in 1987 after 31 years of teaching and coaching. Since that time, he continued to teach golf at the Poxabogue golf course for 40 years and was a sports director and golf instructor for Cunard Cruise Line for 17 years. “I met a lot of interesting people and saw a lot of the world.”
Coach Vishno and Lillian raised three children: Dana, Mary Beth and the late Robert Vishno, all of whom were graduates of Pierson High School. “There are so many things about Sag Harbor that make it unique; clamming at Haven’s Beach, scallops, bass, bluefish, weakfish, blowfish. You get to know the people. I still walk down Main Street and into the Post Office, and people say, ‘Hi Coach, how are you doing? That’s why we have stayed here all of these years; it’s the relationships that you build.”
Coach Vishno has remained in the hearts and fabric of many of Sag Harbor athletes who have grown and have raised families of their own. One of his past players Jack Youngs remarked, “Coach Vishno was a master at getting us into shape to play both basketball and football. We ran a lot to say the least. He was a lot of fun to play for. He certainly had a presence and could be a very strict disciplinarian when he needed to be; yet he seldom yelled or got upset with us. Coach Vishno has a wonderful personality, always smiling and good-natured. We were all very blessed to have teachers and coaches like Bob Vishno in our lives. They made us better people”
David Pharaoh reflected on what he has learned from Coach, “you get no higher compliment than what a teammate said after he saw the picture in the paper of all of us together with Coach, ‘I wished my son played for him’. To me that is the ultimate compliment.”
Another of Coach Vishno’s former players, Paul Zaykowski remarked, “Coach Vishno did not only teach us athletics — he taught us life lessons — the important lessons having to do with all the ‘core’ values, especially character. My four children played competitive sports throughout their school years. I always prayed that they would be as fortunate as I was to have someone like Coach Vishno. Unfortunately, they were not; there is only one Coach Vishno. And he is special. He changed young men’s lives.”
Pierson graduate Jeff Peters was also one of the many whose lives were touched by Coach Vishno. “If I had to describe Coach Vishno in one word, it would be ‘gentleman.’ He taught us discipline, respect and being on time. He was tough, but we know he cared deep down. If you wanted something, he made you work for it. He brought out the best in you. We have maintained a lasting friendship. He is like family.”
State Assemblyman Fred Thiele was also one of Coach Vishno’s athletes. He felt deeply the impact that coach has had on his life. “Because Ed Petrie left Pierson after my sophomore year, Coach Vishno was my coach for everything in high school. He was my JV basketball coach, my varsity basketball coach, my baseball coach and my golf coach. I earned nine varsity letters and two junior varsity letters and he coached them all.”
“I often tell people that the most important life lessons I learned were on a basketball court, baseball field, or golf course,” said Mr. Thiele. “How to win, how to lose, the concept of team, how to treat people, how to work ethically and be responsible to others and ourselves, as well as the role of competition in our lives. I’ve always thought that except for my father, the two men with the biggest influence in my life were Coach Bob Vishno and Steve Petras.”
“One Coach Vishno story that always sticks with me was when I was a freshman, I went to shake his hand and gave him a pretty limp handshake,” he said. “He said to me ‘never give me a dead fish. When you shake someone’s hand look them in the eye and grab their hand firmly,’ which I have done everyday since. Symbolic, yes, but a part of growing up and being an adult.”
“The other was my senior year. I had gotten off track a bit and didn’t go out for basketball after three years of playing. In late November I realized I was making a big mistake and wanted to play. Coach Vishno gave me a second chance,” said Mr. Thiele. “I played the full season and had a great experience, but more importantly I got myself back on track. A second chance made a big difference in my life. I have much admiration for Coach Vishno. He changed many lives and has been an icon in the history of our school and community.”
That is the powerful and amazing thing about teaching and coaching. You leave a piece of yourself in the fiber of the student whose life you’ve touched. And that bit of respect, responsibility, and caring can light the way for generations to come. So there is a legacy in Sag Harbor of the lives that have been touched by Coach Vishno: husband, father, teacher, coach, and gentleman. We are very blessed that he calls Sag Harbor, Home!