CRYSTAL FALLS—To nobody’s surprise, Bill Santilli’s successor as Forest Park varsity football coach is the assistant who has stood by his side all those years.
During a special meeting April 14, the Forest Park School Board appointed Dave Graff as the Trojans’ new coach.
It’s a promotion for Graff and two other members of the Trojan football program: Gerard Valesano and Gene Giuliani. Valesano, formerly the head junior varsity coach, is the new assistant varsity coach, and Giuliani, formerly assistant JV coach, becomes head JV coach.
The school district will post the assistant JV coach position.
Forest Park values continuity in its sports programs, and the selections insure the high-profile football program will remain in familiar hands.
“That’s a big key to our success,” Graff agreed in a phone interview over the weekend. “The other big key is the support from the community. You have good families that support not only the kids but the program itself.
“When you have that kind of support and a lot of volunteers helping you out, that just makes for a great program.”
Graff had been Santilli’s assistant throughout his varsity tenure. They and their families have known each other for years.
“He [Santilli] knew my background, coming from Michigan Tech—he knew I was a grad assistant coach my last year up there. He knew I had that background, especially on defense, and he wanted to tap into that” after Santilli became head coach.
At that time, Graff was working for MJ Electric and spending much of his time in Escanaba. That was a real challenge for a few years, he remembered. “But then in the year 2000 I ended up getting a job with the city, and that simplified things tremendously.”
Graff said he will continue being the main defensive coach, “but it’s not that cut and dried.”
Offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator—those are just tags, he explained. “When somebody sees something, they’re going to speak their mind and we’re going to talk—on offense and defense.
“We’ve always done that in the past with Bill. Moving forward, I’m very comfortable with Gerard in that same type of role.
“Gerard has been there. He’s played with Northern Michigan University and some great players and great teams up there, Division 2 playoff teams. He started, and he knows the schemes and he knows the roles of the pulling guards and offensive/defensive things. So I’m real comfortable moving forward.”
Graff said there was a feeling-out process when he first started working with Santilli. “It’s difficult, the first few years.
“But the last dozen years or so, we knew each other’s capabilities, and we just meshed real well. We had a great relationship. You’re not going to find a harder working coach than Bill.
“I’m just happy and honored to be the next coach. I look forward with the coaching staff that we have. We had a team approach, and we’ll continue to have that team approach.”
School Board President Jim Nocerini, who announced the appointments, said three people applied for the head coach position: one from the Lower Peninsula, one from Pennsylvania and Graff.
“We felt very strong that Dave has spent 17 years here, and he should have a shot at it.
“I like to train our JV coaches to become our varsity coaches. Then we know what we have. I felt very good about Dave and Gerard up there—very strong supporter of both of them and of Gene being JV coach.”
Nocerini sat in on the interview with Graff. “We felt very, very comfortable with Dave.” He said he had coached both Graff and Valesano while they were in high school, “I don’t feel we’re going to miss a beat.”
He sounded especially pleased to hire Valesano “because I worked so many years with his dad,” Rudy Valesano, who was assistant coach under Dick Mettlach during the Trojans’ grid dynasties of the 1970s and ‘80s. “To hire his son in his position in the position he held for so many years was a pleasure.”
And what about Graff’s predecessor as head coach?
“Absolutely the best choice to make and the right thing to do,” Santilli said by phone.
“And I know the guys there are going to do an outstanding job with continuing the same tradition we tried to establish when I was there.
“Dave has proven himself through time as a player, a coach, a former player. I’m really excited” with his assistant coaches all stepping up the ladder.
“The kids love those coaches, and I think they are going to continue with the same philosophies that we’ve established together.”
Santilli said that Graff has made him the same offer he earlier made to Coach Mettlach, to remain close to the football program—“any time you want to come around, you’re certainly welcome.”
“I’m excited for Dave and Gerard and Geno, and I wish them the best.”