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Falls' Bazzani retires with rich basketball memories ; Coached state champions in 2005 after guiding NCCC, UB teams

Dan Bazzani is used to being on the move.

Early in his teaching career in Niagara Falls, he had what was referred to as "the milk route," because he had to go to multiple schools during the week (sometimes in the same day) to teach physical education in the school district.

As a junior varsity basketball coach in the 1960s, the lifelong Powercat was traded from Niagara Falls High School to LaSalle for one winter because the then-junior varsity and varsity coaches at LaSalle had issues.

And even though Bazzani was named the district's athletic director in 1999, he didn't have permanent office space in the high school until 2006.

It would be an understatement to say Bazzani is well-schooled in the art of moving.

But leaving the school district where he has been employed for most of his academic and coaching career will be something different.

The 67-year-old Cataract City lifer is packing it and making a fast break into retirement. Bazzani officially relinquishes his duties as athletic director June 30. No successor has yet been named.

Already gone from Bazzani's office are photos that adorned his walls, including the one of the 2004-05 Niagara Falls High School boys basketball team he led to the Class AA Federation (overall state) championship -- the only Western New York school to win the title in the state's largest classification.

There were still a few souvenirs from his coaching career, along with family photos, in his office as of Tuesday, but chances are they are now gone, too. He has all but moved out of his office, prepared to use up some of his remaining comp days between now and the end of the month.

"It's just time [to retire]," he said. "It's been a great run. I've thought about this for a while. I've been in the state [education] system for over 40 years. I've enjoyed it. A number of changes that have been made make it easier for me to walk out."

The state fiscal crisis and its effect on school districts throughout New York, along with his friend Carmen Granto's retirement in December 2008 as district superintendent, played a role in his decision.

Bazzani, who was inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 2009, is known for his success as a basketball coach since he first picked up a whistle in 1965. He guided the Niagara County Community College Trailblazers to a national runner-up finish in 1977 and amassed a .743 winning percentage in 10 seasons at NCCC. He oversaw the University at Buffalo's transition from Division III to Division I from 1983 to 1993. He was talked into taking the Powercats job in 1994 after he returned to teach in the school district.

While Bazzani's accomplishments as an administrator don't immediately come to mind, he successfully navigated the school district through a time of uncertainty when the decision was made to merge old Niagara Falls and LaSalle high schools.

He took the AD job a year before the merger, signing up for the daunting task of hiring coaches for all but one of the district's sports teams (boys basketball).

A special panel, which did not include Bazzani, picked the Wolverines' first basketball coach. The panel's selection of Bazzani over fellow Hall of Fame coach Pat Monti, who had guided LaSalle to state public school titles and one Federation championship, created a stir. But it must be noted that Monti wasn't the only qualified coach during the merger to lose a varsity position, since the district slashed the number of athletic teams in half.

"That was a difficult time," Granto said. "They [old Niagara Falls and LaSalle] were archrivals. [Bazzani] put that [basketball] team together, and they played as one, and that spread to all the other varsity sports. There was a really smooth transition from two rival schools to one team, and that wasn't easy.

"He was an excellent representative for the district as an athletic director, and I'm sure he'll be sorely missed."

Under Bazzani's watch, the district increased athletic opportunities for students. The district added modified sports to give seventh- and eighth-graders a chance to play and develop their skills before entering high school. It also added hockey, indoor track and field, and girls lacrosse during the past three years.

"I'm proud of the progress we've made within the Athletic Department," Bazzani said. "All of our sports with the exception of a few have made significant progress [in terms of being competitive]. I think the biggest jump we'll see is in the football program."

Bazzani also is proud that the district was awarded the Niagara Frontier League's Sportsmanship Award during the league's annual banquet.

While it would seem that the merger would have been the biggest test of Bazzani's skills as an administrator, an even more challenging one came during the summer of 2005 when Miguel Respress, a key member of the the Wolverines' state championship team, collapsed and died after an AAU basketball game in Los Angeles due to an enlarged heart.

While Respress was a talented Division I prospect, he was an even better human being. He was a role model to teammates, his siblings and younger kids. He often dropped whatever he was doing to help others, whether it was his ailing grandfather or the children he helped coach in youth leagues or camps. He was a beloved figure at the high school.

"Thinking back, that had to be the low point. It couldn't get any lower," Bazzani said. "He was one of the nicest young men I've ever had the opportunity to coach. He had such a great future in front of him."

Bazzani has plenty of sunny memories during his time with the Falls -- and, of course, most of them involve coaching.

He said he will never forget the pride the community took in the 2004-05 team. The coverage it received was "incredible," from weekly status reports in USA Today to increased local media coverage. Bazzani was named USA Today's High School Coach of the Year in 2005.

Bazzani said he won't have a retirement party, preferring to ride quietly into the sunset.

So what does he plan to do in retirement?

Lots of golf, but he is open to trying his hand at coaching again, something he has missed since stepping down as the Wolverines' coach in 2006.

"I miss the relationships with the players," he said.

"He's going to be terribly missed," said Modie Cox, who played for Bazzani at UB. "He put a lot of players through college. I wish Coach well."

e-mail: mrodriguez@buffnews.com

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