The thin line between family and football
Brandon Kuczenski dreaded the ride home after freshman football practice three years ago.
For whatever bumps and bruises he incurred on the field that day, nothing took a beating worse than his ears.
The helmet-crashing was done. Instead it was freshman coach Shawn Kuczenski, Brandon’s dad and now the varsity head coach, lecturing his son about the practice that was.
“Freshman year I rode home with him so I always heard it,” says Brandon, a senior who returned to the gridiron this season after sitting out his sophomore and junior years. “At least I have my own ride now so I don’t have to hear it.”
Ah, joys — and horrors — of the father-son, coach-player relationship upon which so many sports are built.
The Kuczenski family isn’t the only one with a member on the Naugy staff and another wearing a slate grey helmet. Mick Pernell, the Greyhounds’ star running back, and his stepdad Jeff Scanlon, the freshman coach and a varsity assistant, manage the same relationship.
The way each coach — and each player — manages all the obligations as a coach and even more as a dad has evolved over the years, they say.
Jeff, who coached Mick in youth flag and Pop Warner football, says it was tough to work things out over the first few years.
“Early on when I was coaching him in sports, it was one of those things where I had to learn to let things go,” Jeff says. “Don’t carry coach mode home to father mode, and be a supportive parent away from practices and games. You have a job to do as a coach and a job to do as a parent, and separating those is important.”
Mick and Jeff have come to the point where they know how to best prevent any strain on their relationship, especially after tough losses.
“I usually go out after and cool down a little,” Mick says. “I let him cool down a little and we’ll talk about it the next day and watch the film.”
Mick has enjoyed one of the best offensive seasons Naugatuck has ever seen. His 29 touchdowns entering Thanksgiving are already the most in Greyhounds history, breaking Wayne Edmonds’ previous record of 28, a mark that stood for nearly 50 years.
“Honestly I was just hoping to win games and do whatever we could do to get points on the board,” says Mick, who hopes to play football at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy next fall. “I knew I was going to be one of the main offensive threats but I just wanted to play my game.”
As one of the team’s senior co-captains, Shawn Kuczenski says Pernell’s leadership early in the season when the team went through the publicized resignation of former coach Rob Plasky was crucial to getting Naugy’s season off to a good start.
“Mick’s been a great senior leader,” Shawn says. “He kept the kids together when all that stuff was going on. He’s stepped up this year. He worked hard in the weight room and a lot of the other guys followed his example.”
Jeff’s been there to see it all, perched atop the press box and trying to help offensive coordinator Chico Echevarria call the right plays for the Naugy offense.
“It’s very rewarding because I get to see it is as a parent and a coach,” Jeff says of Mick’s record-breaking season. “I know that he really works hard in the offseason and what he puts his body through to make himself better.”
Mick likes how Jeff is an offensive assistant at games because their previous player-coach relationship means Jeff knows what often works best for Mick on the field.
“Jeff knows the things I like and how to get me the ball, so it’s nice having him on the staff to help out,” Mick says.
The football relationship between the Kuczenskis is a little different. While Shawn coached Brandon at the freshman level, Brandon didn’t play the last two seasons to focus on basketball.
When he decided to return to football last winter, it helped to have a coach in his own household.
“Coming into it, he told me what I had to expect,” Brandon says. “He told me I had to get stronger in the weight room and he’s been teaching me the offense since I decided to come back.”
But the decision to come back was totally Brandon’s.
“It was all on him,” Shawn says. “He came to me out of the blue. Right after the end of last season he said he wished he played. He hit the weight room really hard over the offseason.”
That effort has helped Brandon become the team’s second-leading receiver, catching six touchdown passes from Jason Bradley on the season. Brandon has also racked up four sacks.
But like the team’s other father-son relationship, Brandon says he and his dad have found a way to separate football and home life.
“We try to keep a player-coach level here and when we go home we have a father-son relationship,” says Brandon, who is going through recruiting for a college basketball career. “Usually when we get home, unless something really big happens, that stays here and family stays at home.”
The unique relationship of a father coaching a son brings with it advantages and disadvantages.
“It’s a challenge to treat him the same as you treat everyone else,” Shawn says. “But when he’s in a mood, you know right away when he’s in a mood.”
“I would say the advantages are you know him very well and the disadvantages are that you know him very well at the same time,” Jeff says. “It’s hard because you definitely have to separate parent and coach, both on and off the field.”
Echevarria, who coached his son Aaron when the ‘Hounds won their last Naugatuck Valley League title in 2010, points to one factor being more important than any other in having a successful relationship on the field.
“The key to coaching your own son is having a good staff around you,” Echevarria says. “Kids are not going to take you as seriously as they would if you weren’t their parent. Fortunately when I coached Aaron I had (line coach Chuck) Rek, and when Aaron would give me that look Coach Rek would jump in there and tell him what he needed to do.”
But when it all works out, the Naugatuck fathers say it’s an opportunity they relish.
“It’s a great feeling to coach your son,” Echevarria says. “It’s something I would tell anybody to do if they get the opportunity. You’re never going to lose that bond. It’s always there.”
“When you get to the point where you figure it out, it actually becomes very enjoyable,” Jeff says. “You get to do your job without the stress of maybe singling him out because of your relationship with him. When you both figure it out, it’s great.”