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Former Yellowjackets’ football coach and current track coach Rusty Dunne will be inducted into the East Haven Alumni Association Hall of Fame later this year. A Madison resident, Rusty is currently a volunteer assistant coach with the University of New Haven football team. (Photo courtesy of Steve Narracci )
This November, longtime coach Rusty Dunne will be entering the East Haven Alumni Association Hall of Fame for all of his accomplishments with the Yellowjackets. Rusty, a Madison resident, has been a head coach with the East Haven outdoor track program since 1993, helped start the school’s indoor track program, and was the Yellowjackets’ football coach from 1993 to 2002. He’s also worked as a physical education teacher at East Haven High School since 1993.
While Rusty has coached in East Haven for 26 years, his coaching career started in 1979. Rusty grew up wanting to be a football coach and had the opportunity to do that for several decades.
“To go way back, I found a letter that I wrote when I was in 6th grade. In that essay, I said I’d like to be a [physical education] teacher and a coach,” says Rusty. “To be specific, I wanted to coach football.”
Rusty’s coaching history includes stints at the high school, prep, and collegiate levels. Prior to joining the Yellowjackets, he was a wide receivers’ coach at Milford Academy and then went to Seymour to coach receivers and defensive backs.
After that, Rusty entered the college coaching ranks, serving in a variety of roles at Southern Connecticut State University from 1982 to 1988 and then going to UConn, where he coached special teams and the defensive live until 1992. Rusty was also the linebackers’ coach at Yale and served as the defensive coordinator for Central Connecticut State University, before taking the job at East Haven.
“Here’s how times have changed. There was no [physical education teacher] job in 1993, but they made a job for me, because they wanted me to be the football coach. [The administration] made it happen, because it was important to them to have a good football coach and a good football team,” Rusty says. “I was probably too young—only 37 at the time—and didn’t realize how fortunate I was at that age to be a head coach. It was a wonderful opportunity.”
Prior to coaching, Rusty enjoyed a fine career as a football player. Rusty was a wide receiver and defensive back at Notre Dame-West Haven, from which he graduated in 1974. He played receiver for one year at Milford Academy and suited up at that position for four years at Southern Connecticut State University. Rusty spent a lot of time learning about the game, and that proved a huge help when he took the reins in East Haven.
“When I went to Southern in 1982 and coached for [future NFL coach] Kevin Gilbride, I found out quickly that I didn’t know much about football. I coached tight end for a year, then backs, then quarterback, then line. It takes years to learn,” says Rusty. “When I left Southern, I was the offensive coordinator, then at UConn, I was coaching defense and special teams. I coached every position along the way and, fortunately for me, I had that background when I got to East Haven, so I felt confident I could coach the team. I was a lucky guy that I had those opportunities.”
Rusty spent 10 seasons as the Yellowjackets’ head coach. In 1996, he led East Haven to a record of 8-3, marking the most victories for the team since 1965. Rusty coached eight All-State First Team players, more than 50 All-League players, and 10 national scholar-athletes. He sent 24 players to the collegiate level, including four on full scholarships, and posted a record of 6-3-1 against crosstown rival Branford.
“We had some very good players. When I first got there, there wasn’t a lot, but there were some wonderful kids,” Rusty says. “Ultimately, we went from 0-10 my first year to 8-3 when that first class of freshmen were seniors. That was a big deal.”
Rusty went on to serve as an assistant coach for the West Haven football team from 2003 to 2016. He’s currently a volunteer assistant at the University of New Haven (UNH).
“In 2016, I decided I wanted to move on from West Haven and UNH was nice enough to offer me a spot as a volunteer coach, which is perfect,” says Rusty. “I work a couple of days a week, I’m at all the games, and I help wherever I can.”
While he’s definitely a football guy, Rusty loves coaching track, too, and says that he’s always seen a correlation between the two sports. Rusty competed in the sprints and the long jump when he attended Notre Dame.
“Football has been my life since I was literally 11 years old, but track is also great and important, as well,” says Rusty. “All those guys we watch on Sunday, they’re all track athletes. It’s a match made in heaven, because both sports are all about speed and strength.”
East Haven Athletic Director Anthony Verderame was a member of the first outdoor track team that Rusty coached. Verderame says that Rusty hasn’t changed too much when it comes to the ways that he trains his athletes.
“I can still picture Coach Dunne the first time I met him for track practice in the old East Haven High School weight room, repping out 225 on the bench. He has always been big on lifting and training,” Verderame says. “Throughout his tenure here, he has taught more athletes to properly lift and train than any other coach in East Haven. To this day, he is continually advocating for fitness, training, and improving the weight and fitness room.”
With the track program, Rusty helped the boys’ team win divisional championships in 1999, 2000, and 2002, while leading the girls’ team to division titles in 2007, 2011, 2014, and 2016. He’s coached 44 All-State First Team athletes, 25 state champions, eight State Open champions, a pair of New England champions, four All-Americans, and one national champion. Rusty has also guided 38 athletes to a career in collegiate track, seven of which earned scholarships.
Seven track athletes who competed for Rusty at East Haven went on to earn All-American honors in college. Two of them, Brian Chaput and Destiney Coward, were NCAA champions. Chaput and Tamara Highsmith competed at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
“The amazing thing at East Haven is we’ve had great track athletes. If not a lot of them, always a handful every single year,” says Rusty. “We don’t have the numbers to compete for any type of title, but the beauty of track is you can enjoy a handful of kids right through the postseason. It’s a team sport, but also an individual sport on some level.”
Rusty extends plenty of credit to the assistant coaches that he’s worked with through the years. He appreciates that guys like Jim Vicario, Jeff Cretella, Joe Tamagni, and Bob Davis have made huge contributions to the East Haven track program. Rusty feels honored that all these years of hard work have landed him a spot in the East Haven Hall of Fame.
“When Steve Narracci came to the high school to tell me, I was so excited. It was overwhelming, quite honestly, because I’m being honored for something I always wanted to do,” Rusty says. “It’s really humbling and I’m greatly appreciative of the honor. East Haven has been a great place for Rusty Dunne. That’s for sure.”