By Lenny Megliola, The Milford Daily News
MILFORD, Mass. -- Leo Fanning ‘70 has never truly gotten to appreciate fall’s cool, multi-colored goodness, its radiance, before winter takes control. For 47 of Fanning’s 70 years, he’s been a football coach. No foliage trips, no pumpkin hunting, no stops at the local farmer’s market. Just football. Until, well, now.
While Leo Fanning wonders what the fall of 2018 might feel like, wonders and perhaps worries, his daughter Kristen came up with this. “I said, ‘Dad, fall is a beautiful time of the year.’ And he said, ‘So I heard.’”
Fanning has never truly gotten to appreciate fall’s cool, multi-colored goodness, its radiance, before winter takes control.
Leo Fanning has always been too darn busy to take it all in.
For 47 of Fanning’s 70 years, he’s been a football coach. No foliage trips, no pumpkin hunting, no stops at the local farmer’s market. Just football.
Until, well, now. All of those seasons were spent in college football. His litany of campus stops is longer than the grocery list of a family with six kids. Harvard, Tufts, Holy Cross, Vermont, UMass, Norwich, Bridgewater State, AIC, Boston University.
His final stop was Bentley University, where he coached the last 4 ½ seasons. “I just thought it was time,” said Fanning, who has lived in Marlborough for 41 years. “Time to get into a new chapter of my life. I’ve got three grandchildren. I can focus on that.”
Fanning knows it’s going to be difficult being on the outside. “Football has always had a grip on me.” He’s been an assistant coach every step of the way, digging in and doing whatever job needed.
Being an assistant just felt right. He loved the teaching part. “It was the right job, the right fit for me.”
“Leo brought an unbelievable amount of knowledge and experience to our program,” said Bentley head coach Bill Kavanaugh. “He gave every ounce of energy towards making Bentley football the best he possibly could. Leo was a big part of our past success.”
Fanning’s longest stint — 1978-93 — was at Harvard where Milford resident Joe Restic was the head coach. “He was a very principled man,” said Fanning. “Very competitive but in a positive way.”
Former Natick High athlete Dick Corbin was on that Crimson staff. He and Restic were Milford neighbors. “Dick recruited very well,” said Fanning. Corbin would go on to coach Milford High, taking the Scarlet Hawks to several Super Bowls.
Fanning recalled his Harvard days when local players came through. Dan Bennett Jr. and Joel Lamb, sons of former Natick High coaches Dan Bennett and Tom Lamb; Gerry Leone Jr., son of former Franklin High coach Gerry Leone; Mark Bianchi, a speedy wide receiver from Natick. A few years ago former Framingham High star quarterback Dan Guadagnoli played at Bentley. “He took a fifth-year with us and did a great job,” said Fanning.
Fanning graduated from Bridgewater State in 1970. He played defensive back on the Bears' football team from 1966 to 1969 and was co-captain of the 1969 squad. After his active Army Reserve duty, Leo returned to the campus to help out head coach Peter Mazzaferro. That’s when Fanning caught the coaching bug. The years covered a lot of ground, all in New England. At UMass he worked for Dick MacPherson, at Tufts for Paul Pawlak.
A stop at BU, where Dan Allen was the head coach, proved to be pivotal. Allen moved on to Holy Cross. Fanning went with him, 1996-2003. Allen died in 2004. He was 48. “Dan always wanted what was right for his student-athletes, on and off the field,” said Fanning.
Fanning’s son, Matt, was on the surprised side when he heard his dad was retiring. “It’s been a part of his life for so long. But he’s accomplished a lot.” And 47 years is a long time. “Amazing,” said Matt, who played three sports at Marlborough High and was an assistant coach at Holy Cross for six years.
It was going to be nearly impossible for Matt to shy away from football. He would play and coach, just like his old man. “It was all from him,” said Matt. As a little tyke Matt would be on the sidelines at BU games. “I remember catching punts at halftime.”
The son was living the football life too. “My father always knew I was going to play football, even though I played other sports,” Matt said.
Matt, who lives in Stow with his wife Nicole and their sons Lucas, 2, and Jonathan, six months, used Linkedin to relay news of his father’s retirement. The response from his dad’s former players was heartwarming. It wasn’t just about the football years. “They told how my dad had been influential in their whole lives.” Life after the games stop.
Fanning, who was inducted into the Bridgewater State Athletics Hall of Fame in 1994, leaves Bentley with fond memories and particular regrets. He coached strong safety Nick Athy, the former Holliston High star. A senior, Athy will be a captain this season. “I was happy to be part of his growth,” said Fanning.
Fanning and his wife Patricia have been married 40 years. They attended St. Patrick’s High in Watertown. “We met at a Thanksgiving game. I wouldn’t say I was a huge football fan,” she said. “I am now.” When Kristen and Matt were young she’d take them wherever her husband’s game was that weekend. “We saw as many games as possible. We’d stay in hotels.”
Patricia knows her man better than anyone. “Leo’s very kind and caring. A great dad. He put his best foot forward in everything he did.” And life for Leo without football? “It’s going to be a struggle,” she said.
Their daughter Kristen is a teacher in New York City. She and her husband Luigi have a 4 ½ month old daughter, Giana. “It’s hard to picture a season when my dad’s not coaching,” said Kristen. “That’s all we knew, him being on the sidelines. The players and coaches became part of our family.
“I think of him as a humble man throughout his career. He didn’t want to make a big deal about his retirement. That’s just how he was.”
So, where will we find Leo Fanning when his life changes with the leaves, when autumn beckons but the Bentley sideline is no longer his calling? What then? “I’ll be thinking about the players,” he said. “The field may be out of sight, but never out of mind.”
Forty-seven years. Hard to stray far.