Moving from Chicago to Westport before the start of 10th grade in 1991, Jessica Gelman was uneasy about integrating herself into an unknown environment at Staples High School and making its girls basketball team.
Head basketball coach Ed Huydic went out of his way to help make Gelman comfortable in her new community. In return, he demanded she give it her all on a daily basis.
"(Huydic) was the real student of the game. He had high expectations, and he was going to make basketball really fun," said Gelman, now an executive with The Kraft Sports Group.
"I think one of the challenges when you move in the middle of high school is finding an environment that's comfortable," she said. "Coach Huydic certainly created a community for girls basketball."
Huydic officially retired Tuesday after a 34-year career that included more than 450 victories, four FCIAC championships, one state title (1995) and 28 consecutive state tournament appearances. The latter streak ended two seasons ago.
Passion and intellect
He embodied a passion and consistency that has had long-lasting influence on hundreds of players, people who know him say, and he was a master tactician adept at adjusting the style of play to skills of his players.
Over those three-plus decades, Huydic has seen players evolve from three-sport athletes to kids concentrating on a single sport year-round. As a coach and as a Staples guidance counselor, he's seen students become flooded with activities competing for their time.
The seeds of Huydic's passion for basketball were sowed watching his older brother, Richie, star for the Bassick High School in the late 1950s and early `60s and then at the University of Bridgeport.
The younger Huydic played for Kolbe High, where he graduated in 1968 before attending Southern Connecticut State University from 1968-1972. In 1978, Huydic began coaching softball at Staples, and in 1980 he got the head basketball job.
"I love sports, it was in my family," Huydic said. "I used to go to all Bassick and Bridgeport games for years. Just loving the sport so much, when the opportunity came to coach it seemed like a natural fit."
But the program he inherited at Staples was hardly a hoops powerhouse. The Wreckers won a combined 10 games in Huydic's first two seasons before making their first of many state tournament appearances. Although Staples didn't have too many lean years, adjusting to the FCIAC's highly competitive culture took time.
"A young coach, whether it be then or now, has to learn the lay of the land," Huydic said. "Who are the coaches, what is the opposition like and what type of athletes you have, and reason out a system that works."
Staples won its four FCIAC titles in a six year span in the 1990s, and Huydic tapped into Westport's accomplished soccer programs to help build his empire.
Three All-America soccer players were in the starting lineup of his `94-'95 team, including point guard Karem Esteva, MVP of the Class LL title game. The team was led by Carolyn Center, who averaged 14 points and 11 rebounds and went on to play at Division I Richmond.
"We integrated into the fabric of basketball and the basketball family girls that really specialized in other sports, but found time to get into basketball," Huydic said. "We don't see that much across the specter of sports now; so many of the programs are full-year kind of programs."
Aggressive zone defenses are the norm now across the state's basketball landscape, but much of that development gained popularity as a result of Huydic's success. Staples implemented a variety of zones that quickly drew the attention of other coaches.
"Coach really understood his assets," Gelman said. "Westport was a soccer-oriented community (with athletes accustomed to running a lot), and he implemented this full court press, run and gun style. It fun to play in that kind of style, and in the early `90s, it was unusual."
Huydic's ability to quickly assess situations and make adjustments has been a model for younger coaches. Dave Danko, now the head coach at Fairfield Warde, said he styled his program after Staples' when he took over in 1994 at what then was Fairfield High.
"There's not anyone better to coach a game and change a game plan in a matter of minutes, Danko said. "I consider him a legendary coach as far as his passion, his desire and devotion as a fierce competitor."
Huydic says his 1994-95 team has a special place in his heart.
Staples defeated Bridgeport Central for the FCIAC championship in 1995, ending a Hilltoppers' 49-game winning streak. The Wreckers defeated Central again in the Class LL final 41-31.
"The 1995 team was always special because of its accomplishments," Huydic said. "The run in the state tournament is, probably statewide, one of the more storied legends, I guess, because though we won the FCIAC championship that year, I don't think anyone thought we could possibly win a state championship. To get matched up with Bridgeport Central for the third time was Hollywood stuff."
As a Staples guidance counselor, Huydic helped place students in positions to succeed and assisted in the challenges that come with being a high school student. These lessons apply to the basketball court as well.
"He really just taught me how to mentor," said Gelman, who played basketball at Harvard. "Honestly, there was so much I learned; playing to peoples strengths, to where they are going to be successful and give them confidence."
Over the course his career, Huydic has seen a tremendous amount of change in the responsibilities and pressures of being a high school athlete, even if the athlete itself hasn't changed.
"The athlete, I don't believe, has changed from 1980 to 2014," Huydic said. "The athlete will still do what is asked of her to do well, and it is just as intuitive now as then. What has changed is the entire environment that coaching is within now. There are things being learned about concussions, there's involvement of athletes in so many other things that compete (for their) time."
Huydic has been a guidance counselor at Staples since 1981 and coached the softball team from 1978-2000. He also was an assistant basketball coach at Wesleyan University in 1992 while on sabbatical from Staples. Huydic said he has contemplated retirement for the past few years, and realized over the past two months that it was a decision worth making.
"Coaching 34 years is quite a run," he said. "But nothing lasts forever -- just like making the state tournament 28 years in a row, there's a time for everything to end. My time has come to an end here.
"It's just a realization that has been like a slow train coming. It has arrived and that's it."