Only 17 boys showed up to the first football practice Vito Capizzo held at Nantucket High School in 1964, and after enduring a winless season, the coach wasn’t sure he’d stay much longer.
“I told the School Committee, ‘Give me three years. If I’m not successful, I’ll resign. You won’t have to fire me,’ ” Mr. Capizzo recalled in a 2009 Globe interview. He also told his wife, Barbara, to be in no hurry to unpack.
His third season, however, turned everything around. Nantucket was 8-0 and Mr. Capizzo was there to stay — a total of 45 seasons in which he recorded 293 victories and nine Division 5 Super Bowl appearances, including three championships.
“You play Nantucket and you’re not just playing 11 guys on the field,” Joe Dawe, a former Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical High football coach, told Sports Illustrated for a 1996 feature on Mr. Capizzo. “You’re up against mystique and a tradition. You’re battling a town, a community, a whole island.”
Mr. Capizzo, who also had been a physical education teacher and athletic director at Nantucket High, died Friday in Massachusetts General Hospital, after choking while dining out on Nantucket. He was 78 and spent winters in Siesta Key, Fla.
Inducted into the Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 1996, Mr. Capizzo retired as Nantucket’s football coach in 2008. He ranks sixth in career wins in the state and was 17-13 in the Island Bowl game against archrival Martha’s Vineyard.
Prior to the 2009 season, the high school football stadium was renamed in his honor, and Mr. Capizzo and his wife were given a trip to Italy and Mr. Capizzo’s native Sicily.
Beau Almodobar, a star tailback and captain on Mr. Capizzo’s 1980 team that won the program’s first Super Bowl, was later an assistant coach on his staff.
“My dad was away most of the year with the Merchant Marine and my mom worked two jobs, so when I was applying for college, coach Capizzo drove me to four or five colleges,” said Almodobar, an All-American player at Norwich University and now a middle school physical education teacher in Nantucket.
“I still cherish our conversations in the car,” Almodobar said. “He told me, ‘Always be yourself and do your best because you can’t control what other people are like.’ ”
A founder of the Mayflower League, Mr. Capizzo was named the 1985 Massachusetts Athletic Director of the Year, and he faced numerous logistical issues when Nantucket teams played off-island opponents.
When return ferry trips were canceled, the team slept over at Massachusetts Maritime Academy, and even on the floor of a synagogue in Hyannis.
And when the Blue Hills Regional football team couldn’t return to the mainland because of foul weather, Mr. Capizzo got out the pots and pans and made garlic bread and spaghetti sauce for 70 students — and breakfast the next morning.
Mr. Capizzo’s son, Scott, played on his Mayflower League championship team in 1986 and still provides music at home games as DJ.
‘I knew [Vito Capizzo] for over 20 years and have so much respect for him as a man and as a coach.’— Bill Belichick, Patriots coach
“He had an instinctive, competitive fire, but always told us to win with class and lose with class, respect our opponent and never quit,” said Scott, who honored his father by running in this year’s Boston Marathon for Team End Alzheimer’s and raising $10,000. He named his son Vito. The boy was born two days before Mr. Capizzo died.
Scott wasn’t immune to his father’s rule that if you missed practice you’d be held accountable. “He never played favorites,” Scott recalled, “and when I skipped practice to paint someone’s house, he benched me and I had to earn my position back.”
Perhaps even more important than Super Bowl victories was who won the Island Cup. Despite the rivalry, “Vito and I were close friends,” said former Martha’s Vineyard head coach Don Herman.
“I admired his honesty and transparency,” Herman said, noting he and Mr. Capizzo spent “a lifetime planning how to beat one another, which made us better coaches.”
Mr. Capizzo was the son of Vincenzo Capizzo and the former Josephine Romano. With his mother, Mr. Capizzo emigrated to the United States in 1950 from Salemi, Sicily, and settled in Natick. The following year, his father and brothers, Gus and Frank, joined them. The siblings were all sports stars at Natick High.
Gus, a former hockey goaltender for Northeastern University, is an insurance executive who lives in Mattapoisett. Frank, a retired cardiologist, was a high-scoring forward on the University of Connecticut hockey team and resides in Barrington, R.I.
“Vito was our pathfinder,” said Gus. “He showed us the way through his example.”
A 160-pound linebacker, Mr. Capizzo walked on to the football team at the University of Alabama and made the scout (practice squad) team.
While there, according to the website rollbamaroll.com, Mr. Capizzo was asked by Alabama head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant to room with an incoming freshman who “needed a little bit of mentoring.” The freshman was future New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath.
Mr. Capizzo was a high school teacher-coach in Green Cove Springs, Fla., when he met Barbara Hendrickson, who also taught there. They married in 1964, the year he heard about a coaching opportunity that he believed was in Nantasket, but turned out to be Nantucket.
He held a variety of jobs, especially in the summertime, and with his wife ran the Capizzo rental cottages. Barbara was a classroom teacher and taught art in the Nantucket Public Schools, ran her own art gallery, and conducts workshops for the local art association.
Mr. Capizzo shared a mutual respect with New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, who has a home on Nantucket. In a 2005 Cape Cod Times interview, Belichick said that “as I’ve told Vito, I’d love to have his record.”
In an e-mail, Belichick said the job Mr. Capizzo “did coaching at Nantucket High School was incredible. I knew him for over 20 years and have so much respect for him as a man and as a coach.”
Sandy Beach, radio announcer for Nantucket High football, admired Mr. Capizzo’s selflessness. “He always said the same thing — that he never won a game. The kids won them,” Beach said.
A service will be announced for Mr. Capizzo, who in addition to his wife, son, and brothers leaves two grandchildren.
Nantucket High athletic director Chris Maury, a longtime friend who was coached by Mr. Capizzo, said that “Vito was intense and had a work-hard attitude that he instilled in us as players, but the flip side was his compassion and great heart.”
Barbara Capizzo said that during their 2009 trip to Sicily, Mr. Capizzo “ran into some friends of his aunt and they conversed in Italian-Sicilian. The language came back to Vito as if he never left. It was like magic.”Marvin Pave can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.