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George Bisacca: Family life and successes on, and in, court

|   By Don Harrison
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“Compartmentalize” was the word George Bisacca employed most often when explaining how he was able to balance a dual career as an attorney and a college basketball coach with family life.

The principal celebrant at his May 21st memorial service, the Father Charles Allen, SJ, spoke of Bisacca’s ability to “multi-task,” a term not yet in vogue during the 10-year period (1958-68) in which he successfully maintained a law practice and coached at Fairfield University.

George R. Bisacca, affectionately known as the “Father of Fairfield Basketball” and for whom the court in Alumni Hall was dedicated in 2015, died just one month shy of his 90th birthday on May 8, following a brief illness. His beloved wife of more than 67 years, Mildred, passed away on December 14, 2016.

The mourners at his memorial service, conducted in the Egan Chapel on the Fairfield campus, ranged from the six Bisacca children and their spouses, 12 grandchildren and their significant others, and 10 great-grandchildren, to 11 of his former players. The man he personally selected to succeed him as the Stags’ athletic director, Don Cook, flew in from Fort Myers, Fla., for the occasion.

Long-time Fairfield basketball aficionados will recognize many of the names who were there to pay their respects: Charlie Phillips and Bill Pritz, co-captains of his 1966-67 squad; Art Kenney, Frank Magaletta, Bill Boyd, Jim Hessel, Joe D’Agostin, Pete Gillen, Bill Hegarty, Tom Crowley and Pete Odlum.

Pritz, a sparkplug guard who was an important contributor to the Stags’ 1965-66 team—which won 19 of 24 games, but, because of political reasons, was denied a bid to the then-prestigious National Invitation Tournament (NIT)—made the trek from Chicago to honor his coach’s memory.

“Coach Bisacca was a devoted coach despite his full-time law practice and a young family at home,” Pritz said. “Most of us kept in touch with him. I moved out of the area initially to Boston and then to Chicago, but was drawn back periodically to attend a basketball event or to catch up with Coach B. He became more of a mentor, because he never lost an opportunity to dispense some advice or wisdom. He seemed to cherish those times together with his players.”

Bisacca’s links to basketball and the Jesuits began during his childhood. He played three years of varsity ball at Fairfield Prep and was a member of its first graduating class in 1946. Then he enrolled at Georgetown University, another Jesuit institution, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in three years.

There was a brief pause on his education track, for good reason: On July 9, 1949, George and Millie Bisacca exchanged wedding vows at St. Patrick’s Church in Bridgeport. Only then did he return to Georgetown to earn his law degree.

Bisacca had already established his law practice in Fairfield when Fairfield Prep beckoned: Would you return to coach your alma mater’s basketball team? He agreed—for a per-season stipend of $500.

After six successful seasons (86-32) at Prep, highlighted by a semi-final loss to eventual state champion Weaver in the 1956 CIAC Class A Tournament, the head coaching position opened at Fairfield University. Calling it a “no-brainer,” he accepted the offer of $1,750 per season.

He transformed the Stags into champions almost immediately, capturing three straight Tri-State League titles and, in 1961-62, earning the designation as the top College Division team in the East with a 20-5 record. Seeking a new challenge, now-Athletic Director Bisacca convinced the school administration to elevate the basketball program to NCAA Division I—despite a shoestring budget.

Few first-year D-I programs are capable of carving out a winning record, but Bisacca’s 1964-65 squad prevailed in 14 of 21 games, highlighted by road victories over Fordham and Canisius, as well as an 88-84 triumph over Georgetown in the small campus gym.

Year Two was bittersweet. The 1965-66 Stags set a school record with 13 consecutive victories en route to a 19-5 record, rather remarkable in itself. Virtually all of that team’s front-line personnel—co-captains Mike Branch and Pat Burke, Billy Jones, Jim Brown, Phillips and the 6-foot-8 Kenney—as well as its coach would be inducted into Fairfield University’s Alumni Athletic Hall of Fame.

But Burke’s death, in an off-campus accident in mid-February, and the NIT’s failure to select Fairfield to its 16-team field sullied an otherwise memorable winter.

After two more winning seasons at the game’s highest level (12-9 and 16-10), a weary Bisacca announced his retirement from coaching his retirement from coaching (151 wins, 87 losses, few regrets). Three years later, he relinquished his position as athletic director. A growing family and his law practice required his attention.

Later, though, he was able to satisfy his basketball passion by coaching two professional top-division teams in Italy.

In retirement, George Bisacca mentored and coached inner-city youngsters at Bridgeport’s Cardinal Shehan Center and took on pro-bono legal work. Starting at age 80, he led a group of “Concerned Citizens” in a five-year fight against the illegal removal of the town of Fairfield’s conservation director from overseeing the construction of a third railroad station and mixed-use development in an environmentally sensitive area.

The case was finally settled in the Connecticut Supreme Court, which ruled the town’s actions ‘illegal, null and void.”

Call it another court victory for Coach B.

By Don Harrison