Vito Capizzo is one of Paul "Bear" Bryant’s most prolific coaching proteges but, unless you hail from New England you are not likely to know that much about him. For the last 45 years, Capizzo has been the head coach of the Nantucket High School football team in Nantucket, Massachusetts. In that span he led the Whalers to 293 victories (the third-most in the state), three state HS Division 5 Super Bowl titles (in nine appearances) and once tallied a 23-game win streak. He retired this year.
Capizzo, a Sicilian native whose family moved to the US when he was 10, walked on for the Crimson Tide football team when he arrived at the University of Alabama in 1959. Described as a 160-pound, hard-as-nails linebacker he spent most of his career at the Capstone as a backup.
During the summer of 1962, Capizzo was taking summer classes and Coach Bryant asked him to room with an incoming freshman who needed a little bit of mentoring and a lot of keeping out of trouble. Thus Capizzo spent most of that summer keeping Joe Namath in line; a feat he later admitted wasn’t all that easy.
While he didn’t see much gametime action, from his vantage point on the practice squad he was able to absorb the lessons of Coach Bryant’s coaching style. He compared it to the dictator Mussolini in his native Italy but meant it as a compliment.
"He was successful, so you did things his way, or you took the highway," he told Sports Illustrated in 1996.
And it was that dictatorial style Capizzo brought with him to Nantucket in 1964. Upon being hired he was asked only to bring discipline to the program. That’s exactly what he did. And win.
Inheriting a team that had not won a game in four years. Only 17 players showed up for the first practice. There wasn't a single victory in his inaugural season. Two years later they went undefeated.
The feat is all the more amazing given Nantucket Island boasted only 7,000 full-time residents during that span and enrollment at the high school hovered at about 200 students. Still, Capizzo was able to take on the larger mainland schools with much larger squads and beat them on their own turf.
His toughness became as legendary as his intensity. Once he was hit and knocked out when a player inadvertently blindsided him on the sideline during the game. He woke up as they were loading him on the ambulance and demanded they let him return to the field to lead his team.
Despite his reputation as a disciplinarian, Capizzo – like Bryant – is recalled with fondness by his former players. Their success, on the football field and beyond, is the true legacy of his career, he told The Nantucket Independent,
"Show me a negative person and I'll show you a loser. Show me a positive person and I'll show you a winner," he said. "I always tried to make them feel like they were winners."