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Woog's World / In 41 years, Betts never a bad day at work

Published 7:05 am, Monday, June 24, 2013
  • Staples High School boys volleyball coach Bruce Betts shows his typical enthusiasm during a match in 2010. Photo: File Photo / Westport News

    Staples High School boys volleyball coach Bruce Betts shows his typical enthusiasm during a match in 2010.

    Photo: File Photo

 

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There can't be many Westporters who don't know Bruce Betts.

He's a third-generation townie. He was a state-champion track runner at Staples High School (Class of 1965). He's taught physical education for 41 years, at every level from elementary to high school.

He's coached girls soccer and baseball, but is best known for volleyball.

He started out coaching girls, then helped start boys volleyball -- in Staples but throughout the state.

His boys volleyball teams won the first-ever state championship, then seven more. His Wreckers won 11 league titles (eight consecutively), and were undefeated for 101 straight matches.

What many Westporters may not know, though, is that Betts was an accidental volleyball coach. Just as, accidentally, he wound up teaching back in his home town.

Friday was is his last day. He's retiring after more than four decades. And he still doesn't look a day over 35.

Betts' story begins at Bedford Elementary School (now Town Hall). He was there until fourth grade -- in the downstairs gym (now the Westport Community Theatre); on the sandy playground in back; walking after school to the Y for swim lessons with Matt Johnson (and, once or twice, heading downtown during school for penny candy at the Ice Cream Parlor).

In fifth grade, Betts moved to the new Burr Farms Elementary. He played football and baseball at Long Lots, when the junior highs fielded interscholastic teams. At Staples, track coach Paul Lane snagged him when he was a sophomore running a 5:10 mile in gym.

Betts' indoor and outdoor careers were memorable. He was a year behind track legends Laddie Lawrence and Paul McNulty -- both of whom now also coach at Staples -- and ran alongside other greats like Bill During, John Bolger, Brad Klein, Jack Forehand, Ramsey Merriss and Atom Dublin.

Betts ran for a year at Southern Connecticut State College, but the "team atmosphere" he loved at Staples was missing.

He thought about teaching history, but switched his major to physical education so he could remain active. "I never looked back," he said. "It was a good choice."

After graduation, he applied "everywhere." But nothing came through, and he planned a trip to Spain after his summer job at Camp Mahackeno ended.

One August afternoon, Hillspoint Elementary School Principal Irving Pike walked onto the pool deck.

He was unsure but might need a phys. ed. teacher. Was Betts interested? He was. Pike said he'd call when Betts got back from Europe.

He arrived home on Labor Day. Two days later, he started his first job: half-time at Hillspoint, half at King's Highway.

Betts loved that seven-year assignment -- and his next one, at his alma mater Long Lots. He coached girls soccer and baseball there, and admired what he called "the best teaching staff and administration ever."

After seven more years, he followed the first ninth grade class to Staples. "It doesn't get any better than what I did," he noted. "I've had a fantastic time, wherever I was."

Besides sharing an office with his former teammate Lawrence for the past 28 years, Betts has enjoyed a phenomenal volleyball career. But he knew nothing about the sport when athletic director Bob Byiteck asked him to help girls coach Cheri Kronick. She gave him a coaching book, said her junior varsity girls would help him -- and they did.

Watching Staples in the state tournament that first year year, Betts was hooked. He attended every coaching clinic possible, befriended volleyball great Tyson Krauss, and became a volleyball fanatic.

In 1987, Fairfield Warde girls coach Ed Bengermino asked Betts to meet with a few others around the state to plan a boys volleyball program.

Betts offered the Staples fieldhouse as a site for the fledgling club program. The rest, as they say, is history.

Between coaching and teaching, Betts said, "In 41 years I've never had a bad day at work. I love coming in here. I love the people I've worked with, at all three levels."

Above all, he loves his students. "They make it so rewarding," Betts said. "They keep me alive. There's never a dull moment."

He has received many accolades over the years, but he believes he has received much more in return. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd get to this level," he said.

Betts has been named State Coach of the Year. He's in the Fairfield County Coaches Hall of fame. The boys volleyball boosters established a scholarship in his name.

But -- as he and his wife Donna head to Cape Cod for golf, kayaking, bike riding and (of course) volunteer work at the local high school -- Betts looks back most on the kids.

"There's nothing more rewarding than being with young people," he said. "They made the days go by so fast. And the years."

All amazing, successful 41 of them.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.