Thousands of Monroe County football fans might have the wrong idea about Rich Lipani.
The Hilton coach paces and yells on the sideline during games. His face gets red and veins bulge from his neck during those demonstrative displays. It’s entirely possible opposing players, coaches and fans think Lipani is always that way.
“He’s one of the nicest guys I know, one of the funniest guys I know,” says Brandon Cutter, a senior tight end/defensive lineman for the Cadets. “He gets going during games. Refs sometimes, they start getting annoyed with him, but it’s fine. I really respect that about coach.”
Ask anyone associated with Hilton football in the Lipani Era, which started in 1989, and you’ll hear about mutual respect, being a family and feeling part of something special whether it’s after a win or a loss and whether you’re a star or a little-used backup.
Lipani, who starts his 27th season on the Cadets’ sideline at 2 p.m. Saturday at Fairport, is the first winner this school year of the Coaches Who Care Award, a joint initiative between the Democrat and Chronicle and Compeer Rochester that recognizes top area coaches.
“If there’s such a thing to being born to do what you do, Rich is a born leader,” says Billy Harmon, who has been an assistant at Hilton with Lipani for the past 26 years and three prior at Greece Arcadia, which included a Section V championship in 1988. “ Leadership is listening and adjusting and teaching and correcting.”
Leaders don’t create followers, as the saying goes, they breed more leaders. With more than a handful of former Hilton players now coaching, Lipani has done that. The 52-year-old says he was influenced as a teenager at Greece Athena by former football coach Don Hagreen and baseball and basketball coach Don Brown, who is most well-known for coaching eventual Syracuse University basketball star John Wallace.
“(Hagreen) taught us how to do things the right way, how to treat people the right way,” Lipani says.
Lipani is as old-school as you’ll find in the coaching ranks these days, and in a coaching culture when telling it like it is to teens doesn’t always mesh with how parents think their children should be treated, Lipani’s approach works. You want an amazing stat? Harmon says in 30 years of coaching he can recall only one parent who ever questioned Lipani about playing time.
Some athletic directors exceed that by that day’s lunch.
“If somebody doesn’t yell at you then you know they’re being too soft on you,” says Hilton senior running back Dillon Philmon. “(Lipani will) yell at you, but it he won’t yell at you to the point where he’s degrading you. He’ll tell you what he needs to tell you, then he’ll tell you what you need to do to fix it.”
But he won’t sugarcoat the truth or make unrealistic promises about playing time or anything else.
“We treat kids the same way now as we did in 1986,” Lipani says. “Nothing’s changed. … We try to treat the kids like we treat our own kids. We laugh. We joke every day. We have fun.”
Rich and his wife, Debbie, have two sons. Ricky, a sophomore at SUNY Brockport, played at Hilton, and Joey is a sophomore quarterback on the Cadets’ junior varsity.
Lipani can be hard on a player during one practice sequence, but then the balancing act comes a little later when he’s joking with that same player. Philmon and Cutter say that lets players know Lipani cares.
“He’s a matter-of-fact coach,” Hilton athletic director Mike Giruzzi says. “He’s open and honest with all kids in the right way.”
Lipani also listens well.
“It’s not a democracy. Everyone knows who the head coach is,” says Harmon, who added that his 14-year-old daughter Rayna, a former Hilton ball girl, looks up to Lipani. “But everyone knows they have a say and everyone knows they’re a part of something amazing.”
Lipani also coaches modified girls basketball. He guided the East Rochester girls to four straight sectional crowns from 1989-92. His Hilton football teams have played in five title games, winning championships in 1992 and 1994. Around Monroe County, opposing coaches know Hilton often might not be as skilled, fast or as deep on paper, but the Cadets will never quit.
Lipani, who has 162 career wins, and his staff seem to squeeze every ounce of talent and effort out of their players, from the best player to the last young man on the bench.
Two of Pat Callery’s three sons have played at Hilton. Joe is a junior wide receiver. Patrick, who just graduated, didn’t play a lot but was driven in practice to help the starters get better.
“He always wanted to prove to the coaches and players that he was dedicated and committed to Hilton football. This is a credit to Rich and the values he instills in the boys,” Pat Callery wrote in an e-mail. “The group is like family … and it all starts with Rich Lipani.”
About this feature
The Coaches Who Care Award recognizes individuals who’ve shown a commitment to players that goes beyond only developing a winning team. Eligible coaches must work at local high schools at the modified, junior-varsity or varsity level. E-mail nominations to JDIVERON@DemocratandChronicle.com. Please cite specific examples in your nomination. The coach of the year will be honored at the Oct. 29 Compeer Luncheon in Rochester. This year’s special guest is NFL Hall-of-Fame quarterback, Jim Kelly.
The Democrat and Chronicle will release its first high school football polls of the season.
Beginning at 10 a.m., we will release the name of one team every 15 minutes on Twitter until the complete polls are unveiled at 3 p.m.
Follow high school reporter James Johnson (@jjDandC) and go to DemocratandChronicle.com for more high school sports coverage.