Minium: At 68, Tony Guzzo hasn’t lost his passion for baseball or for ODU – Virginian-Pilot






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Tony Guzzo

Longtime baseball coach Tony Guzzo has returned to ODU, and his hometown of Norfolk, as an assistant coach. On Friday, he receives the Bud Metheny award. 


NORFOLK

I first saw Tony Guzzo’s passion for coaching baseball four decades ago when he burst out of a dugout at Norfolk Catholic High School and began jawing with an umpire.

My younger brother, Tim, a pitcher for Lake Taylor, had made a sensational running catch as he fell into the Catholic dugout.

Tim was still face down when Guzzo sprinted onto the infield, red-faced and screaming. His prominent nose was inches from the ump as he yelled, “He was in foul territory!”

It was a measure of the great respect Guzzo already commanded that the ump didn’t toss him. I sure would have.

A Norfolk native and graduate of Norfolk Catholic, Guzzo’s passion for the game has taken him many places over the past 45 years. He coached at six colleges and four high schools or middle schools before retiring a year ago to care for his father.

Shortly after his father died last summer, Guzzo got a call from Old Dominion coach Chris Finwood, who told him: It’s time to come home. Come help me build a championship program at ODU.

Guzzo said yes, and at age 68, is ODU’s newest and yet oldest assistant coach. Technically, he’s a special assistant to Finwood and, under NCAA rules, can’t coach players. Instead, he’s coaching the coaches.

“He knows so much about the game,” Finwood said.

On Friday, he will receive what he calls the most humbling honor of his career – the Bud Metheny Award – at the ODU baseball banquet at the Norfolk Sheraton Waterside. It is given annually to a Hampton Roads resident who has made a prominent contribution to baseball.

“It means everything in the world to me to be at Old Dominion,” he said. “And I can’t begin to put into words what the Bud Metheny Award means.”

That he still thinks so much of ODU speaks to Guzzo’s love for his hometown. He was named the Monarchs’ head coach with much fanfare in 1995. It was a triumphant return less than a year after graduating from East Carolina. He had won four Tidewater Conference titles in four seasons at Norfolk Catholic before going back to ECU as a graduate assistant.

He then took North Carolina Wesleyan to the Division III World Series twice and rebuilt a downtrodden VCU program into one that won Sun Belt and Metro conference titles.

Guzzo had similar success early on at ODU, where he won two Colonial Athletic Association titles and went to three NCAA regionals in his first six seasons. He recruited Justin Verlander, who went on to win the AL MVP and a pair of Cy Young Awards with the Detroit Tigers.

But he had just one winning record over the next four years and was fired in 2004.

“That really hurt,” he said. ”It was devastating.”

At the time, he declined media requests for interviews. “I didn’t say a word,” he said. “I just packed up my stuff and left. That’s how you’re supposed to handle something like that, isn’t it?

“That’s why I was able to come back. There were no hard feelings.”

Guzzo bounced around eastern North Carolina for a decade, working as an assistant at North Carolina State, Louisburg College and even Nash Central Middle School in Rocky Mount. ODU, meanwhile, was trying to woo him back.

Athletic director Wood Selig was the ticket manager at VCU when Guzzo was named baseball coach there.

“At VCU, when everyone was going home for dinner, he was just getting started,” said Selig, who became ODU’s athletic director in 2010. “He’d be in the office working until midnight. He was relentless.

“From the minute I got here, I felt like Tony belonged back at Old Dominion. He deserved to finish up his career where it all started in Norfolk.”

His baseball career began at age 3 when he was a mascot for his father’s Norfolk City League adult baseball team. His father, a World War II Navy veteran, coached him at St. Pius Catholic.

Guzzo played catcher and was a four-year starter at Norfolk Catholic; he also starred for the Crusaders’ football team as an offensive guard and placekicker.

He tried to play both sports at ECU and ended up, curiously, playing only football as a senior. His proudest moment at ECU came on Nov. 14, 1970, when he kicked the game-winning, 24-yard field goal in the fourth quarter of a 17-14 victory over Marshall.

It was a night of exultation for Guzzo and his teammates, who had won only one game to that point that season. As the players were celebrating at a raucous party, though, school officials burst in and ordered them to report to the auditorium.

There, they learned that the flight taking Marshall back to Huntington, W.Va., had crashed, killing all aboard. Guzzo was crushed and for decades didn’t talk to anyone about the crash. He teared up earlier this week when recounting his feelings.

“We were numb when they told us,” Guzzo said. “We had played against those guys just hours earlier. And they were dead. It was so surreal. To this day, I still see the faces of those young guys in their helmets.”

Guzzo didn’t talk about the crash to his children, Anthony and Gina, until his daughter was preparing for a softball recruiting trip to Marshall. He told her the night before she flew into the same Huntington airport where the football team had crashed.

“I wanted her to know in case someone asked her about it,” he said.

Gina, a star at Kempsville High, signed with Marshall, where she went to medical school and served her residency, and often fielded questions about her dad. Guzzo flew to Marshall in 2015 to observe the annual memorial ceremony held for the 1970 Marshall team with his daughter.

“It was a moving thing to see,” Guzzo said. “When I saw the people who’d lost their kids, I knew what they were thinking about. They were wondering what their kids would be doing now.”

Once, while attending a basketball game at Marshall with his daughter, a fan recognized him. Her brother had died in the plane crash.

“She wanted to hear everything I remembered about that day, and kept touching me,” he said. “It was as if she felt like she was connecting to her brother when she touched me.”

Guzzo is in a mourning period of his own. His father, Ralph, was 93 when he passed away in July. He lived with Guzzo the last eight years of his life.

Guzzo says he recalls his decade as ODU’s coach with nothing but joy because his parents were able to watch him in action. “It was the greatest time of my life in coaching because I shared it with my parents.”

ODU, he said, will be the last place he coaches, and it seems like a fitting place to end his career.

“Not many people get a call at my age asking you to coach,” he said. “I feel so blessed that somebody still wanted me.”



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